15 April 2020. On February 24 – the same day as in Switzerland – the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Brazil. It was a 61-year-old man who lived in São Paulo, the largest South American metropolis. Since then, the spread of the virus has slowly increased in the country and reached other South American neighbors. In Brazil up to the present day (14 April 2020) there were 25'262 reported cases and 1532 confirmed deaths caused by the new coronavirus. Despite the comparatively low number of cases, it is expected that the dark figure be much higher given the sub-notification levels and lack of basic supplies needed for reliable testing. The projection of the COVID-19 curve in Brazil shows that the peak of cases will only be reported between the end of April and beginning of May.
On March 16, state and municipal-level governments started implementing restrictive measures to contain the spread of the virus. Notably São Paulo has imposed social isolation, ordering non-essential commercial activities and services to close down, including creches, schools and universities. The activities of our Institute were either suspended (visiting professorships, Swiss government delegation visits) or moved online. Due to the imposition of home-office, our own courses and those of partner universities are largely making use of IT tools such as Zoom, Canvas and Teams.
São Paulo, a state with 46 million inhabitants (22 million in the great metropolitan area) and an estimated 100 thousand public and private hospital beds (from which 7'200 are ICUs), has spearheaded initiatives in order to flatten the curve, buy time, and give the health system a fighting chance. So far, two football stadiums have been transformed into field hospitals. By the end of April, 2'000 additional infirmary beds and 1'400 ICU will have been created exclusively for coronavirus patients.
The opportunistic politization of inequalities and an isolated president
When trying to foresee the future, what worries public administrators and health specialists the most are the conditions of informal settlements (favelas) once the virus enters places with little to no reach of essential public goods. The speed of the spread can be critical and lead to the collapse of the Universal Public Health System (SUS, in Brazil) which already operated at 90-95% of its capacity prior to the start of the pandemic. Local governments urge for a unified federal response to the impending crisis but are met by deaf ears.
Going against WHO recommendations, the head of the Federal Government, President Jair Bolsonaro, has consistently referred to the COVID situation as “nothing but a minor flu” and downplayed public responsibility despite the recommendations of his own Health Minister. The president has been looking for a scapegoat for the already declining economic performance of his first year of government (the GDP grew 1.1%, lower than the 3.5% promised by his economic advisors); COVID-19 became a suitable excuse. Bolsonaro has orchestrated the campaign “Brazil cannot stop” much in line with what was advertised in Milan (Italy): a simplistic zero-sum line of argument that puts economic against public health interests as mutually exclusive.
These public appearances and campaigns have engendered political and legal battles between constitutional powers and let to the Supreme Court deciding to take down the “Brazil cannot stop campaign” and allowing local governments to keep the restrictive measures. As a result, it is the president who has been isolated (political, not socially because he continues to go out to greet people on the streets, making social media posts about it). Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have started deleting presidential posts which were considered against the general interest of public health.
Even organized crime and milicias operating in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas seem know better and have implemented curfews to keep the population from gathering on the streets. They have understood that the sooner the health emergency goes away, the faster they can go back to business.
Meanwhile, strong-arming the president and following similar emergency aid initiatives implemented in Europe and the U.S., the Brazilian congress has approved a special package for the most economically vulnerable in support for keeping their social isolation efforts. The package includes direct cash transfers to informal workers for a period of three consecutive months. It is an absolute priority that real money reaches the pockets of the poorest families, as the only alternative would be going back to work in crowded transportation systems where the virus has fertile ground to pry on.
Social convulsion and the long-term costs of a surveillance state
World-wide, balancing economic challenges with the management of a public health crisis is requiring more robust state responses and direct interventions than our globalized beings and our liberal states got accustomed to. Beyond that, we are witnessing the deployment (and social acceptance) of Police - or Surveillance State apparatuses to different degrees in several places – from the prohibition of street manifestations to the monitoring of cellphone geo-localization data.
In solid democracies one expects those measures to be scaled down once the crisis is past. In Hungary, a like-minded peer of Bolsonaro, president Victor Orban, has severely curtailed civil liberties in the name of public security and fighting a sanitary crisis. This precedent and the not-so-distant past of Latin American fragile democracies makes us wonder what is about to come around this corner of the world? If the curve is not swiftly flattened, prolonging the health and economic challenges ahead, I am afraid we will have to deal with social unrest and the bitter remedies deployed to contain it in the long run.
Silver-lining (or a message of hope)
Amidst so many uncertainties, the crisis has called for social solidarity and innovative ways of living and working that strengthened the local community. The lively start-up and academic scenes of São Paulo as well as state-sponsored science foundations have already come up with research calls, ways to produce low cost respirators, rapid test screenings, and converted IT screen plants into IPE masks production centers to protect the lives of healthcare personnel in the frontlines, apps are being used for self-help initiatives and to keep the local economies alive during times of social distancing. More innovation is yet to come out of need. In the coming weeks, our team will connect and share those initiatives with the HSG community via GIMLA’s social media channel.
Prof. Dr. Vanessa Boanada Fuchs is Managing Director of the St.Gallen Institute of Management in Latin America (GIMLA).
Image: Adobe Stock / kay fochtmann