Marta Castilho

Coronacrises in Brazil

COVID-19 appeared in Brazil during Carnival, causing a new sanitary problem and deepening other economic, political, and moral problems already existing in our society.

The way COVID-19 arrived in Brazil is very illustrative of our social inequalities. The first cases were registered in rich neighborhoods when some of their residents returned from holidays in Europe, but it quickly spread to the poorest and most vulnerable population. The first death in Rio de Janeiro was of a maid who worked for a rich couple that got infected in Europe. The pandemic spread from the rich zones and the big cities to their peripheries and smaller cities, affecting zones with deficient medical services.

Brazil’s size and diversity require a central coordination to organize the sub-national efforts and to manage the distribution of the scarce medical resources among different regions. The central government’s response, besides denying the importance and the extent of the pandemic, was rather insufficient: the federal government often boycotted sub-national governments’ initiatives by discrediting local governments and adopting contradictory policies. Consequently, there wasn’t a unified strategy that would have benefited all regions of the country in both sanitary and economic terms.

What’s more, misinformation has been a central element of the central government’s diversionist strategy. The confusion of directives, diagnostics, and even official numbers have reduced public trust in and compliance with the measures adopted by local governments and encouraged the premature adoption of deconfinement measures. This purposely “confusing” strategy is present also in the external policy, creating unnecessary hostility toward important trade partners (notably, China) and institutions (WHO). This misinformation flows through official channels, but also by the diffusion of fake news and the adoption by the president and his relatives of polarizing and authoritarian hate speech.

Still, on the sanitary front, it’s worth saying that the central government spent around 10% of the amount it initially announced to combat COVID-19 and it didn’t play a coordination role in a possible industrial reconversion, which could have increased the national supply of medical inputs and equipment. A good illustration of the federal government’s lack of commitment to strategies designed to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic adequately is that the after two health ministers resigned in disagreement with the president´s policies, the position has been filled by an army general—as an acting minister—since mid-May.

In economic terms, the sanitary crisis struck an already weak economy that has seen three years of low economic growth and which is facing a high unemployment rate and a growing (and high) informality in the labor market. The federal government’s adoption of economic measures to mitigate the impacts of the crisis was slow and insufficient. Neither the measures concerning enterprises nor workers successfully avoided the growth of the unemployment rate to 12.6% in April.[1] The negative effects of unemployment on income and poverty can be worsened by the fact that informal jobs, which are usually an alternative for formal employment retraction in Brazil, are currently limited due to the confinement and economic recession. An important measure adopted by the government was the concession of a three-month compensation for informal and self-employed workers corresponding to 2/3 of the minimum wage. Again, the protracted negotiation in Congress, as well as the slow pace and operational problems in implementing such income transfers, showed the government’s inefficiency and lack of commitment in adopting adequate measures to mitigate the Corona-crisis. From my point of view, the federal government’s action (or lack thereof) is a consequence of a myopic vision of the pandemic and its impact on the economy, reflecting its fiscal obsession, revealed in an official discourse emphasizing the (wrong) opposition between health and economics.

The perspectives for the Brazilian economy are very pessimistic, with a long and strong recession in view.[2] Inequalities tend to deepen as job losses are expected mainly in the low-wage sectors and additional compensation measures are not foreseen.

To worsen this scenario, the president has been betting on the strategy of radicalization, adopting an authoritarian discourse and stimulating the political polarization in order to maintain the approval of his supporters. This strategy is a response to his loss of popularity and inability to negotiate with the justice system, part of Congress, and governors. His popularity has been diminishing since mid-2019, a trend that is reinforced he handling of the Coronavirus crisis.

At the university, this dual (economic and medical) crisis has been felt very strongly. On one hand, public universities have been working hard in the daily combat against coronavirus by developing and producing medicines, virus tests, medical equipment and inputs, and by giving medical and psychological assistance to the general population. On the other hand, budget constraints—the inheritance of a draconian budget law voted two years ago and worsened by the current government’s fiscal obsession—makes this complex effort more difficult. Concerning our main activity in university—teaching and related activities—it’s partially paralyzed because of material limitations faced by a considerable part of the students. Once again, at the time of writing, there is no initiative from the Ministry of Education that would allow disadvantaged students to overcome their accessibility problems. The only positive point we can see from this terrible scenario is that, despite demoralizing campaigns against science, public universities, and research centers since Bolsonaro became president, the fight against the pandemic has given our institutions more visibility, reinforcing their position as allies to the population during the health crisis. The same recognition seems to benefit the Brazilian public health system, whose image has been negatively affected by years of low investment.

In brief, the short- and medium-term prospects for Brazil are awful in sanitary, socio-economic, and political terms. In fact, the country is seriously ill, as inequalities and poverty are deepening and its democracy is under attack.

Marta Castilho (Instituto de Economia, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro), 7 June 2020


[1] In fact, the employment survey for Brazil (PNAD, IBGE) shows a huge reduction of both occupation (-5.2%), total wages (-3.3%), and economic active population (-3.8%) in the last trimester (Feb, Mar, Apr) relative to the preceding trimester (Nov, Dec, Jan). Moreover, until April, 8 million formal workers were admitted into the wage reduction program.

[2] Brazilian GDP may fall 11% and 14 million occupations may disappear in 2020, according to the most pessimistic (but quite realistic) estimation of the impact of COVID-19 on the Brazilian economy (see Dweck (coord) Impactos macroeconômicos e setoriais da Covid-19 no Brasil, Nota Técnica, GIC-IE-UFRJ: