Brazil is emerging as an epicenter of COVID-19. How does the country rebound?

The City of Rio de Janeiro started a test of five thousand taxi drivers in the city on June 15, 2020. The intention is to verify that drivers are not infected with the coronavirus. PHOTO: WILTON JUNIOR/ESTADAO CONTEUDO (Agencia Estado via AP Images)

With nearly 1 million cases and 45,000 deaths, Brazil is quickly emerging as the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, second only to the U.S. in fatalities. And as with the U.S., South America’s largest country is contending with a tense political climate that has left the country vulnerable to social unrest.

From the deforestation of the Amazon to rampant political corruption, misinformation, and now a public health crisis, the challenges facing the nation are fueled by political and social polarization.

Will Brazil survive? 

It was the question on the minds of panelists who took part in an event hosted by Northeastern on June 9 titled “COVID-19 and The New World Order.”

If anything, said an optimistic Ligia Maura Costa, who is a professor of law, and executive director of the research center FGVethics at Escola de Administração de Empresas de São Paulo – Fundação Getulio Vargas, the pandemic has united the country, at least against President Jair Bolsonaro. Citizens—and international companies that operate in Brazil— are worried, she said, about the country becoming the next Venezuela.

“Of course Brazil will survive,” Costa said. “We have passed through so many crises and we have survived. Now, if we change regarding corruption, it’s going to take a while. But I think that the new generation is much more concerned about doing the right thing than previous generations.”

Costa’s presentation addressed the Brazilian government’s failure to publish a  running total of coronavirus deaths and infections until the country’s Supreme Court ordered Bolsonaro to resume doing so. Critics have accused Bolsonaro’s administration of attempting to hide the seriousness of the pandemic.

While Bosonaro has stalled in acting with urgency to the situation, said Costa, state governors, primarily in the most populous states, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, have taken measures to control the spread of the disease, such as enacting physical distancing policies. 

“The majority of the cases are in the southwest region of Brazil, represented by the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro,” Costa said. “[But] the big issue I would say is that it’s in the poorest regions of Brazil. The health system of the poorest states in Brazil suffer from systemic weaknesses that are making an effective response to COVID-19 impossible.”

Adding to Brazil’s challenges, said Costa, is that Bolsonaro appears to be taking the same approach in responding to the outbreak as President Donald Trump has.

“Brazil’s president blames COVID-19 for compromising the Brazilian economy and his future chances of re-election,” she said. “Some politicians have been talking about the impeachment of the president. But most political analysts, they believe that this is really not going to happen, especially during a current health crisis as we are facing today.”

That’s because Bolsanaro still holds a loyal base of support, Costa said, although many of his followers have deserted him in response to the way he has handled the COVID-19 crisis. Still, a sizable number of Brazilians consider Bolsonaro’s management of the crisis to be the biggest threat facing Brazil, she said.

Moderated by Nikos Passas, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern, the discussion also featured Jorge Pontes, a former federal police chief who gave an overview of criminal justice and what he described as “institutionalized crime” in Brazil. Unlike organized crime, this type of crime is “a platform of corruption connected through the three branches of the republic and the three levels of public administration—city level, state and federal level,” Pontes said.

Passas ended the program by recounting one of his own visits to Brazil wherein he was informed that the way corruption and governance work in Brazil is that those in power create problems in order to create opportunities. That needs to change, said Passas.

“I think that we have to turn this on its head if we want to go forward to a more positive future—and that is to create solutions to problems in order to create opportunities” he said. “Let’s create incentives for integrity and accountability.” 

“And perhaps,” Passad added, “this is a collective task not only of Brazilians, but also from people from outside, because it is a common problem that we face.”

Hosted by Northeastern’s Alumni Relations Office, the June 9 program was held as part of a series of online events that will focus on the impact of COVID-19 on a specific country. Each event will feature speakers from the respective country representing government, private sector and/or civil society organizations. 

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