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Sensemaker: Crisis in Brazil

Thursday 1 April 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Fewer than a quarter of people in the UK request a Covid test if they have symptoms, only half know the main symptoms, and adherence to self-isolation rules is low, a study in the British Medical Journal found.
  • Seven leaders of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement were found guilty of involvement in an authorised protest rally.
  • Joe Biden wants to raise corporation tax in the US from 21 to 28 per cent, the largest increase since 1968.

Crisis in Brazil

Right now, a quarter of all people dying from Covid each day are dying in Brazil. Infections are surging as a deadly new variant of the virus sweeps across the country: yesterday alone 90,000 new cases were confirmed. Overwhelmed by the numbers, Brazil’s health service is on its knees.

Brazilians are blaming one person: President Jair Bolsonaro. His government’s Covid response has been a toxic mix of conspiracy and misinformation. This time last year, the virus had already taken hold in Brazil and yet he trivialised it as just “a little flu”. He continually resisted measures to contain the virus and lent support to ineffective Covid treatments such as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine. Bolsonaro spreads falsehoods, but the statistics don’t lie – 66,570 Brazilians died of Covid in March – and people are angry. Bolsonaro’s approval ratings have plummeted to 31 per cent. 

In the middle of this catastrophe, Bolsonaro has created a political crisis too. 

Here’s what happened: 

  • On 29 March Bolsonaro launched an aggressive cabinet reshuffle. One of the people for the chop was defense minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva. He’s stood up to Bolsonaro in the past when the president has threatened the distance between the military and politics. 
  • Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985, so the separation between the armed forces and the elected government is a touchy subject. But Bolsonaro, an ex-army man who has previously said that “we want a Brazil that is similar to the one we had 40, 50 years ago”, has stuffed his administration with current and former members of the armed forces and tried to claim the army’s unwavering support for him, claims that Azevedo has rejected.
  • Three chiefs of staff in the military resigned in protest against Azevedo’s sacking. There are two ways of looking at this: either they are genuinely concerned about the increasing  entanglement of the government and the military (a state of affairs they have likely benefited from) or, with an election looming in 2022, they want to back a different horse. 
  • Whatever the reasons for their departure, an exit en masse is highly unusual, and  Bolsonaro’s extensive militarisation of politics is concerning. Opposition politicians claim he’s attempting to “arrange a coup” by getting rid of military chiefs who might stand in his way. Calls for him to be impeached are growing. 

Could this be the end of the road for Bolsonaro?

Next year is an election year in Brazil, and that’s bad news for Bolsonaro. The pandemic looks like it will tear on unabated there. Deaths in the country could surpass the 4,000-a-day mark soon and Brazil hasn’t secured anywhere near enough doses of the vaccine to stem the tide, so Bolsonaro’s approval ratings will remain low. 

Challengers to Bolsonaro are getting stronger too. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is back on the scene. He’d fallen from grace after being convicted of corruption, but that ruling was overturned earlier this month. Lula can now run in the 2022 elections. He’s polarising, but potentially more popular than Bolsonaro. A recent poll found that 50 per cent of people “certainly would” or “could” vote for Lula, while 56 per cent of people said they would “never” vote for Bolsonaro.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Top earner
Denise Coates, who runs her family’s online betting company Bet365 in Stoke-on-Trent, paid herself £421 million last year. Her total pay over the past four years now amounts to more than £1.2 billion. Although a private person, Coates gives much of her fortune to charities like Alzheimer’s Research UK. She was also Britain’s highest taxpayer last year. But, as this Tortoise long read makes clear, Coates’s wealth is also a measure of a huge social cost – the “addiction and tragedy” of online gambling.


New things technology, science, engineering

Chips are down
There’s a global shortage of microchips. It’s delaying car deliveries, stalling production of fridges, microwaves, and smartphones, and increasing the costs of any products that do make it to market. The main reason for the shortage is straightforward: during the coronavirus pandemic, people bought more laptops, gaming consoles and other electronics than chipmakers expected. The secondary reason is political: sanctions against Chinese tech companies, which produce almost a third of the equipment required by chipmakers. The US president, Joe Biden, is seeking $37 billion to beef up his own country’s production of microchips.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Trump’s toxic legacy
When the US Environmental Protection Agency found that ethylene oxide, a colourless and odourless gas used to make consumer goods, was 30 times more carcinogenic than previously thought, the Trump administration left it to state and local officials to decide what to do. Some demanded aggressive action, but many other communities – mostly poor, African-American and Latino ones near chemical plants – received no action or notice of the elevated cancer risks in their areas. Almost three years on, the Intercept has now uncovered evidence that the Trump administration “invited companies to retroactively amend emissions records” of the gas and that “270,000 pounds of the chemical ethylene oxide vanished from the public record right after the EPA determined that it was more toxic than previously known”.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Covid in India
Coronavirus infections are rising rapidly in India. Today’s count: 72,000 new cases, the country’s highest spike in six months. The real count may be higher. Experts have warned that official testing, at around one million per day, vastly undercounts actual cases. India is expanding its vaccination campaign, but is being hindered by Covax, the UN initiative devised to give countries vaccines regardless of their wealth. Home to the world’s largest vaccine maker and a key global supplier, Serum Institute, India has exported more vaccines than it’s administered on its own population. Bhramar Mukherjee, a biostatistician at the University of Michigan, said vaccines should go to “places where you’re seeing an upward trajectory” in infections regardless of where they’re being made.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Net migration
European immigration into the UK is now, after two decades of net inflows, going into reverse. The Brexit vote, which made migrants feel unwelcome and created uncertainty about their legal status, started the change. Right before the referendum, EU net migration into the UK was around 200,000. By the time the UK left the EU, the number dropped to around 50,000. The coronavirus pandemic, which decimated employment in sectors that depended on migrants, drove it even lower. Oxford University’s Migration Observatory estimates the number is now at negative 130,000. Many will return to the UK when the economy recovers, but many will not. “It’s an absolutely massive deal,” Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory, said.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Ella Hill
@_EllaHill

Paul Caruana Galizia
@pcaruanagalizia

Photographs Getty Images

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