June 9, 2020

States of emergency are golden opportunities for the powerful. The suspension of the status quo is at once a supreme demonstration of a government’s sovereignty and a pretext to pursue new agendas with relative impunity. That’s why political theorists like Hannah Arendt, Giorgio Agamben and Carl Schmitt predicted that states would grow addicted to the state of emergency as a tool, expecting their use to become more frequent and expansive.

That’s also why the current shitshow taking place in Brazil is so captivating — and tragic. It’s an example of the state of emergency doctrine on crack. Suspension of normal order because of the coronavirus was forced upon Jair Bolsonaro’s populist Government from below; that Government responded with a scattershot of attempts to sometimes exploit, sometimes undermine protective measures. Meanwhile there have been conspiratorial murmurings, a scepticism of expertise rare even among anti-establishment populists, and a skyrocketing Covid-19 death toll, making Brazil one of the hardest hit countries worldwide. Rather than a display of power, the crisis is exposing a Government gripped by paranoia.

Granted, Bolsonaro had reason to fear even before the arrival of Covid in late February. Brazil appeared then to be heading into economic recession. In addition, on 14 March, Brazil’s Supreme Court initiated criminal investigations into networks allegedly promoting “fake news” and which were credited with assisting Bolsonaro’s election. Court-ordered police raids and inquiries targeted the President’s high-level supporters, including family members.

The President and his ministers responded by suggesting that police disregard orders from the judiciary, setting the stage for a constitutional showdown. Bolsonaro’s efforts to instal loyal police chiefs amid the turmoil led to the resignation of his popular minister of justice and the creation of a new investigation into his possible judicial obstruction and interference.

But this whirlwind of political woes is only part of the reason for the President’s erratic response to the pandemic. First came a short-lived alarmist response channelling his law-and-order instincts; then, an attempt to downplay the need for lockdowns while prioritising economic concerns; then yet another stance, born of his penchant for conspiracy and rejection of scientific expertise.

His opening moves came in early February, when he showed reluctance — citing logistical and health-related concerns — to repatriate Brazilians located in the epicentre of the outbreak in Hubei province, China. Any notion that this signalled a cautious approach disappeared in early March, when he described the threat posed by the virus a media “fantasy”. Days later, on 15 March, striking a more measured tone while questioning lockdown measures, he said that “the virus could turn into a fairly serious issue, but the economy has to function”. Then, following the first deaths, on 19 March, his Government strengthened all land borders and instituted restrictions for foreigners entering on international flights. Around this time, and against the wishes of his Health Minister, Bolsonaro began promoting the unproven drug hydroxychloroquine in public statements as a treatment for Covid-19.

In the absence of a national lockdown, state governors and mayors began instituting social distancing measures, notably in São Paulo on 24 March. A patchwork of lockdowns came to Brazil — driven from the bottom up. Bolsonaro condemned them as inflicting needless economic suffering on the country, even urging citizens to defy local decrees. On 16 April, with cases approaching 100,000, the economy contracting, and foreign investors fleeing, Bolsonaro fired his Minister of Health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta. By the end of the month, Brazil would have more confirmed cases than China.

Was there a strategy behind all this? A video of a 22 April cabinet meeting, released by a court order, suggests that a growing fear of outside influence had infected the administration. In the meeting, Bolsonaro dwelt on the local leaders who were getting the better of the crisis and using it to subvert his agenda of a free-market liberty-loving society:

“These guys just want to take us from behind. It’s our freedom. This is the reality. This is what they’re doing with the virus. That piece of shit governor in São Paulo. That asshole governor of Rio, and the others, exactly this.”

Damares Alves, the socially conservative Minister of Women, Family, and Human Rights, fretted about other healthcare administrators and how they might exploit the situation: “Would they allow women who had coronavirus to abort in Brazil? It will be a free-for-all.” She also suggested political opponents were infecting indigenous people with coronavirus to hurt Bolsonaro.

In the midst of the exchanges, the Foreign Minister, Ernesto Araújo, referred to the outbreak of the “communavirus”. The day before he had published a statement describing the pandemic as having been appropriated by communist interests in an effort to erase national borders and institute a global reign of “sanitary correctness” where dissenting behaviour was punished. He argued that its goal was not only to vanquish capitalism but to “enslave the being human and transform it into an automaton devoid of a spiritual dimension”.

The apocalyptic language echoes that of Bolsonaro’s unofficial guru, the former astrologer and leader of a Sufi Muslim tariqa turned Catholic zealot Olavo de Carvalho, who looms over the nationalist, anti-China and pro-Trump wing of the Bolsonaro cabinet from his home in exile in Virginia. It was de Carvalho who recommended Araújo for the post.

The Minister of Education Abraham Weintraub, part of the same wing, made few comments at the late April meeting beside a call to jail Supreme Court justices. A few weeks earlier, however, he tweeted — in language mocking a Chinese accent — that the outbreak was part of the Chinese government’s plan for “world domination”. This strain of conspiracy theory buoys the cabinet’s rejection of international scientific expertise (one member at the meeting was recorded saying: “I already told my wife, if I have anything, I’ll take a litre of hydroxychloroquine”).

The Bolsonaro Government seemed consumed with waging ideological battles against imaginary enemies. Only the Minister of the Environment, Ricardo Salles, realised that they could in fact take advantage of the situation. “While we have this moment of calm in terms of press coverage — because it’s only talking about Covid — let’s pass these bills soon, and change all the rules. Ease up the regulations,” he said to the Cabinet. Deforestation in the Amazon, indeed, has continued its acceleration throughout the pandemic.

In the weeks following the meeting, the virus ravaged the rural northern Amazonian states and pushed intensive care units to capacity in major cities. The situation was more in line with that of Italy than Brazil’s Latin American neighbours.

Meanwhile, the President continued to erode the governors’ and mayors’ protective measures by expanding the list of essential businesses in the country; continued pushing hydroxychloroquine while upping its domestic production and securing a major delivery of the drug from the United States; witnessed the resignation of his new Health Minister after just four weeks and replaced him with a military general lacking any medical training; initiated retaliatory, though not baseless, investigations of corruption among his political rivals; and participated in mass anti-lockdown protests where he shook demonstrators’ hands.

It seemed almost like the actions of someone who had stopped caring (“We are all going to die some day,” the President once responded to reporters’ questions about the pandemic). But as domestic commentators such as Oliver Stuenkel have pointed out, the aimlessness of the President’s response allows him to benefit politically from a range of outcomes. The economic crisis looming since before the outbreak? Bolsonaro can now blame it on lockdowns. If the death rate turns out to be catastrophically high? The lockdowns didn’t work — he told you so!

Bolsonaro’s future depends on his ability to position himself in relation to the wave of pain — of one form or another — that Brazilians seem destined to face.