Bolsonaro’s policies helped coronavirus spread and develop variants, new study reports

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro carried out an “institutional strategy” to disseminate Covid-19, according to an analysis of the government’s policies carried out during the pandemic.

The country has had over 266,000 deaths and 11 million positive cases since the pandemic started and has been affected by one of the most concerning coronavirus variants — and that’s no coincidence.

Image credit: Flickr / Jeso Carneiro.

The Center for Research and Studies on Health Law (CEPEDISA) of the University of São Paulo (USP) and Conectas Human Rights, a regional justice organization, collected and scrutinized national and state norms related to the pandemic. They argued many people would still be alive today in Brazil if it hadn’t been for Bolsonaro’s policies and actions. Simply put, more sensible action would have saved lives.

The researchers analyzed the timeline going from March 2020 to the first 16 days of January 2021. They looked at rules and norms imposed by the national government, acts of obstruction to the responses of state governments to the pandemic, and propaganda against public health — defined as “political discourse that mobilizes economic, moral and ideological arguments.”

As soon as Brazil started feeling the effects of the pandemic, Bolsonaro said it “wasn’t such a big deal” and recommended that people use chloroquine — a drug that hasn’t been proven to be effective. The Brazilian President even canceled the purchase of 46 million doses of the Coronavac Chinese vaccine, claiming “the Brazilian people won’t be a guinea pig for anyone.” He also wasn’t big on purchasing other vaccines.

The government ignored a proposal from Pfizer that guaranteed the delivery of vaccines as early as December 2020. Meanwhile, he vetoed the mandatory use of masks in commercial and industrial establishments, as well as a fine for establishments that didn’t offer disinfectant close to their entrances. As much as he could oppose any measure to address the pandemic, he did.

Indigenous communities, which have been severely affected by the pandemic, were offered little to no support by the government. In fact, Bolsonaro vetoed legislation that granted them further protection, including access to drinking water, cleaning materials, hospitals, and informative material about Covid-19. He also said no to distributing food baskets to the communities.

Bolsonaro also dismissed Luiz Henrique Mandetta as Brazil’s Health Minister in the middle of the pandemic. A politician but also a doctor, Mandetta had disagreements with Bolsonaro over the use of chloroquine — which he believed shouldn’t be used — as well as on following the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO), which Bolsonaro didn’t want.

A factory of variants

Brazil’s policies regarding the coronavirus — or lack of them — aren’t just affecting the country but could have implications for the world at large. Researchers from Imperial College London and the University of Leicester report that Brazil is becoming a “factory” for super-potent Covid-19 variants. The lack of action is allowing the virus to evolve and mutate freely, they argued.

The world’s most concerning coronavirus variant so far, P1, was born in Brazil. It’s feared to be more transmissible than earlier forms of the coronavirus and it may also be partially resistant to immunity generated by prior infections or vaccination. It is believed to have originated in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state in Brazil, and it’s already present in 25 countries.

Manaus itself is a microcosm of Bolsonaro’s pandemic ideals. On April 20, Manaus began to open mass graves in the city’s largest cemetery, as the virus spread rampantly throughout the city. After the virus swept through the entire population at a level that should have granted some level of herd immunity, a new variant (P1) emerged and the city’s hospitals filled up again — the final nail in the coffin of Bolsonaro’s “herd immunity” approach.

The pandemic is currently at its worst level in Brazil, and not just in Manaus. A part of that is the Manaus variant, which is a cautionary tale for the entire world: while the virus is allowed to run loose anywhere in the world, something like this can always happen. But another part of the story is the lack of a lockdown or any serious prevention measures. Without this, how could infection rates go down?

The slow pace of the vaccination campaign in Brazil, the country’s high rate of infections, and the P1 variant represent an explosive combination for the entire world, the researchers caution. While state governors have decreed lockdown or measures of social distance, Bolsonaro continues to reject implementing any sort of restriction on a national level.

“We are providing the opportunities for this to happen,” Brazilian virologist Mauricio Nogueira told Istoé Magazine. “The variant has taken over the city. If we had followed safety precautions, such as social distancing and the use of masks, this wouldn’t have happened. The fact is that we’ve given the virus every opportunity to generate the largest quantity of mutations in all of the world.”

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