Despatch from Sao Paulo | International

Brazil bangs pots and pans to protest

A man banging a pot at the window of his house as a mark of protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in Rio de Janeiro earlier this month.   | Photo Credit: RICARDO MORAES

At 8.30 p.m. on Wednesday, the city erupted in protest: cars honked on avenues, women banged pots and pans on their balconies, boys beat drums, and thousands shouted “Fora Bolsonaro!” (Bolsonaro out) from the windows. With people blinking the lights of their homes, the banging of utensils — a South American way of protesting against the government — rippled through posh condominiums and middle-class towers for 30 minutes.

Jair Bolsonaro, the President who has behaved erratically since the outbreak of COVID-19, has angered many Brazilians. Even after 23 government officials, who travelled with him to Florida recently, tested positive, Mr. Bolsonaro said on Friday he was not worried about a “little cold”. Earlier, he had said he would do another test to see if he was infected (he has already been tested thrice). Then, he launched a tirade against State Governors for “creating a hysteria” about the virus.

With more than 900 confirmed cases, 11 deaths and many suspected fatalities, Brazil is shivering with fear but Mr. Bolsonaro continues to send out confusing signals, upsetting the vast majority of middle class, which voted for him in 2018. A survey released on Thursday showed that 64% of Brazilians rejected the way Mr. Bolsonaro has handled the COVID-19 crisis, and 45% of people want him impeached. “People are feeling abandoned by the President. He has been talking about his birthday plans and calling out his supporters to the streets. There is no leadership,” says a top-level official in the Ministry of Health, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We are not prepared to handle this pandemic.” Brazilian healthcare workers are in panic: top private hospitals have run out of beds, doctors do not have enough tests kits, and public hospitals are reporting a shortage of sanitisers, masks and gloves. According to the Unified Healthcare System (SUS) data, the country has 61,219 respirators, but most of the equipment is concentrated in the southern States.

As horror stories of deaths because of the lack of ventilators in Italy come in, the people dependent on SUS, which is free and spread across the country, are worried sick. Outside a metro station just off Clinicas, a cluster of massive hospitals, Rodrigo Filho, 27, eagerly waits for his mother, who has gone inside to get a test. “We live far away and spent two hours in crowded trains and buses to get here. I am not sure if my mother will get tested. She is in a bad shape,” says Mr. Filho, who works as a carpenter. “As there are no testing centres near our house, I have to skip work to bring my mother here. If I lose my job, we are sunk.”

With many offices shut, many middle-class Brazilians are in self-isolation. But as pubs, restaurants, malls and factories are still open, the working class have to choose between working or sitting at home. For 40% of the people who are in the informal sector, falling sick is not an option. As the virus is now transmitting locally in all 29 States, SUS is under a great stress.

Awaiting disaster

In a shocking statement on Friday, federal Health Minister Luiz Mandetta spelled out the disaster that awaits the country. “The virus here is following the growth graph in European countries. The COVID-19 cases will peak here in mid-April and our healthcare system will collapse,” said Mr. Mandetta. “The graph will start falling quickly only in September.”

Till a few years ago, Brazil had one of the best healthcare systems in the developing world. During the Workers Party government between 2003 and 2016, the country spent 8% of GDP on health, created a network of emergency units and invited thousands of Cuban doctors to work in remote areas. “The last time there was a global pandemic, AIDS, Brazil contained the transmission much effectively than the U.S. and many European countries,” said Brian Mier, the co-editor of Brasil Wire news portal.

The system suffered a setback in 2017 when the Michel Temer government put a spending cap on healthcare for 20 years and cut the minimum health budget guaranteed by the Constitution by $210 million. In 2019, Mr. Bolsonaro asked the Cuban doctors to leave Brazil, and cut the health budget by $250 million.

But in this difficult time, ordinary Brazilians have not lost faith in their doctors and nurses. On Friday evening, people across the country — from the slums of Rio de Janeiro to shiny buildings in Sao Paulo’s leafy neighbourhoods — stood on their balconies to applaud the healthcare professionals fighting the virus. After several rounds of clapping, many began to beat their pans and pots amid loud shouts of “Bolsonaro out!”

(Shobhan Saxena is a journalist based in Sao Paulo)

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2021 1:14:47 AM |

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