From leading anti-lockdown protests to describing COVID-19 as “a little flu,” Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has defied the global consensus on how to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
“Are people dying? Oh, yeah. And I feel for them. I feel for them. But there will be more people dying, many many more, if the economy is destroyed by these lockdown measures imposed by governors,” Bolsonaro said this month.
The president has made it clear that the economy must come first and has fiercely fought the lockdowns imposed by state governors. He has already lost two health ministers during the crisis: one was fired, the other resigned.
Opponents are now calling for his impeachment, while paramilitary supporters pledge their personal fealty. This is the political chaos playing out at the height of Brazil’s COVID-19 crisis.
Watch this week’s episode of Culture Clash: Bolsonaro’s deadly gamble with Brazil
Brazil’s hospitals are at breaking point, and the rate of new infections continues to spiral upwards.
“Our average occupancy rate in the last few weeks has been over 95 per cent, we have reached 100 per cent occupancy for a few days in the ICU unit,” Dr Jackson Menezes told Culture Clash.
He works in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, where both private and state-funded hospitals are in crisis.
“The public health system, public hospitals… are overwhelmed,” he said.
Brazil has fast overtaken the countries of Europe to become one of the worst affected globally – with more than 20,000 deaths from COVID-19 and over 310,000 confirmed infections as of May 22, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
In a country of more than 200 million people, many fear the situation could be even worse than the official figures suggest.
So why has the president fought the lockdowns that state governors are clinging to as the last line of defence?
“I think his strategy is to try to play the blame game, like what Donald Trump is doing in the United States, playing the governors off against the rest of the population,” says Anthony Pereira, a professor at the Brazil Institute at King’s College London.
“[It’s] so that he can say, if he gets to 2022, and he has the chance for re-election, “I know the economy is bad, but that’s because of the governors.”
So what do Brazilians make of the president’s radical stance?
“[His strategy is] the best thing for Brazil. He’s supporting the survival and livelihood of so many families, and he is investing in life, not death,” said Bolsonaro supporter Fernando Mello.
But for others, the president is placing his political agenda above the immediate crisis.
Maria Betânia Alves is a house cleaner, living in Sao Paulo. She has had her income completely cut by the lockdowns but still thinks the health advice should be followed.
“[Bolsonaro] He is totally wrong because first, he has to look after the health of the nation of the people and then find a solution to the other things like unemployment and hunger,” she said.
While the politics of handling the crisis might divide Brazilians, people across the country are united in shock at the spiralling number of cases and the rising death toll.
With the peak yet to come, there are fears that the virus could devastate the country in the weeks ahead.