Brazil currently tops Latin America and is second in the world in terms of confirmed COVID-19 cases, rivaled only by the United States. Even though the country is in crisis, the population is still extremely divided between some who think the economy is more important than quarantine and others who believe the government has disregarded people’s safety. A recent conversation with two São Paulo residents exposes this stark divide.
João Lucas Garcia, 57, owner of a gas station in downtown São Paulo, said the quarantine hurts the economy and cases will keep appearing anyway.
“I think the quarantine wasn’t effective at all,” he said. “In the end we had half the population in the streets, and half at home, and cases just kept rising anyway. Now that we really need to open up the economy, people think it’s a good idea to quarantine again when we know it won’t work just like the first time. The country can’t afford to be on the fence anymore. We need to take a stand… with the best interest of the working people in mind,” he said.
President Jair Bolsonaro, who since the beginning of March has dismissed the threat of the pandemic, calling it a “little flu,” was confirmed positive with COVID-19 this past July 7. “This just shows I am only human,” said the President. “Like everyone else.”
Currently, governors from each state of Brazil are managing the coronavirus pandemic situation on their own, determining which restrictions fit better depending on how their state is doing.
After announcing the results of his test, Bolsonaro criticized the governors. “These measures against the virus are only promoting panic in the society. Everyone knew that sooner or later it would hit a considerable part of the population.”
President Bolsonaro also stated he is being treated with hydroxychloroquine, which his administration has promoted as a cure since March. Its benefits against COVID-19 have not been proven, and several countries such as France, Italy, and Belgium have abandoned its use. “I am perfectly fine,” stated the President.
At the end of the same interview, Bolsonaro removed his own mask, putting at risk every journalist who was around him. “This is so you can see my face,” he said. “I am calm, I am fine, everything is at peace.” The President finished with his usual statement, “It is time to go back to work.”
Brazil closed down in the spring but has been gradually opening up since June. About 2.7 million people have tested positive and 95,000 have died. Numbers have plateaued in cities recently, but are still extremely high, the New York Times reported this week.
Even though Garcia, the gas station owner, was negatively affected by the pandemic and recognizes its severity, he thinks the country needs to continue opening up as a matter of economic survival.
“As a business owner myself, I can say that this has affected me a great deal, and my business is considered an essential one. I can’t even imagine the people who weren’t essential workers and had to close up their shops. The effects are irreparable. We can’t let them suffer more than this,” he said.
Marcelo Pedroso, on the other hand, owner of a clothing store at Galeria do Rock in São Paulo, thinks regulations should be more rigorous.
“The measure is just not effective when you don’t get everyone to collaborate,” he said. “Now things are officially opening up, and the people who were staying at home are just going to be forced to go out. Bolsonaro said we are open, so now either we open or we go out of business for real. Even though I understand how dangerous it is, I do not have a choice anymore.”
Pedroso has been with his family at home social distancing for months. His store’s business has suffered a great deal.
“I have my own business and God knows how much we have suffered through all of this,” he says. “Health-wise I know that opening is not the right call, the numbers are rising, how can it be? But my business suffered too and I have to think about the aftermath, how will I provide for my family once this is all done? If only people had stayed at home the first time… Maybe it wouldn’t be so hard right now, maybe we wouldn’t have to make these difficult decisions.”
São Paulo was the first state in Brazil to register the first death due to COVID-19 on March 16. It is also the state with the highest number of cases and deaths, amounting over 450,000 cases and over 997 deaths.
João Garcia thinks that the issue has become more than just the coronavirus. “Peoples’ opinions on how to deal with the virus have become political, and they don’t side with what they truly believe is correct but with what the majority of their party thinks is right.”
Pedroso on the other hand insisted that it is not just about politics. “I’m not against Bolsonaro’s measures because I’m not in favor of his party, I’m against them because the numbers show he is mistaken. It saddens me to be a Brazilian at times like this. The whole world is watching and it is so obvious that we are wrong,”
“We need to be attentive to directions from the Ministry of Health, but there unfortunately are none because we don’t even have a doctor responsible for the ministry today,” said Dr. Victor Horacio, a pediatrician from Hospital Pequeno Príncipe in Curitiba, Paraná.
Eduardo Pazuello, new interim minister for the Ministry of Health, is an army general who has no background in the health area. He is the ninth minister with a military background hired by president Bolsonaro.
Horacio supervises the cases of coronavirus in the children’s hospital Pequeno Príncipe, which attends patients from zero to 18 years-old. So far, the hospital has 14 confirmed cases and two deaths. The patients confirmed with coronavirus were between three to seven years old, according to the doctor.
“We need more testing, more orientation for quarantine, and most importantly to depoliticize the pandemic,” said Horacio.
Maria Lago contributed to this report