The illness reached the country through rich tourists returning from Italian holidays but, significantly, the first person to die was one of their domestic workers. COVID-19 has spread from the rich downwards, within households and across them, starting in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and eventually reaching the poor in the north and north-eastern regions – where its impact has, unsurprisingly, been devastating, given the precarious housing, health, nutrition and other circumstances of the poor.
It did not have to be this way. Brazil’s 1988 constitution designed a Scandinavian-style welfare state in the tropics, including a universal health system (SUS) free at the point of use. Nevertheless, the SUS remains incomplete and, during the pandemic, there have been insufficient resources in the public health sector, from actual hospitals to staff, ventilators and other equipment.
This is despite Brazil’s large and diversified manufacturing base and impressive GDP. Arguably it had the resources to address the pandemic effectively, but the political will was lacking. For example, Vietnam’s GDP per capita is less than one-third of Brazil’s, yet it has managed to avoid any COVID-19 deaths by acting decisively to combat the virus.
Institutional confusion and perverse leadership
Brazil’s response to COVID-19 has been limited by institutional paralysis driven by its president, Jair Bolsonaro. It would be easy to imagine a smart and ambitious politician demonstrating empathy with the people, blessing deprived communities with love and resources, commanding the government to do more and reporting progress to the nation daily. Since every pandemic wave must pass, this would be a one-way ticket to glory.