Brazil’s soaring cases of coronavirus, and growing splits in Jair Bolsonaro’s government, are shaking the foundations of the far right president’s rule.
It now has more than 330,000 recorded cases—though the true figure is probably higher—and more than 21,000 deaths.
Brazil’s healthcare system is already near breaking point. By the end of April, authorities in the city of Manaus were burying bodies in mass graves. Intensive care units around the country were dangerously close to full capacity.
It’s a catastrophic consequence of Bolsonaro’s fervent opposition to any attempt to stop the spread of the virus whatsoever. And it could exacerbate an already growing crisis at the top of his government.
As regional governments of Brazilian states imposed lockdown measures, Bolsonaro worked to undermine them—declaring gyms and barbers “essential” businesses for instance. Not only that, he encouraged and even joined protests against the lockdowns.
He repeatedly insisted that keeping Brazil’s economy running as normal was more important than controlling the pandemic.
It’s in keeping with his goal of heading up a government that frees up capitalists to do whatever they like.
After his election victory in 2018 Bolsonaro rapidly strengthened the authoritarian powers of the state against poor people and activists.
At the same time he tried to scrap various democratic bodies and he passed legislation that allowed businesses to exploit and destroy the Amazon rainforest.
But this was already starting to unravel as the coronavirus crisis hit.
Brazil’s economy wasn’t growing the way bosses had hoped. Then, at the end of April, Bolsonaro’s justice minister Sergio Moro resigned.
Moro was the right wing judge who jailed Brazil’s former social democratic prime minister Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. His appointment as justice minister was part of Bolsonaro’s promise to supporters to “tackle corruption”.
But when Moro resigned he accused Bolsonaro of trying to gain access to secret intelligence reports for reasons that aren’t clear.
He also said Bolsonaro had tried to get rid of Rio De Janiero’s police chief to protect family members under investigation—something apparently proved by leaked video from a cabinet meeting.
In the footage made public on Saturday, Bolsonaro rants, “I've tried to change our security people in Rio de Janeiro officially, and I wasn't able to. That's over. I won't wait for my family or my friends to get screwed.
“If one cannot change the law enforcement official, one changes the boss. If not his boss, then the minister.”
To make matters worse, Bolsonaro sacked one health minister at the end of April for disagreeing with his coronavirus response—only for the replacement to resign less than a month later.
As the scale of the coronavirus crisis in Brazil grows, it seems a growing number of people at the top in Brazil want Bolsonaro gone.
It hardly seems a coincidence that the leaked footage was made public just hours after Brazil became the country with the second highest number of cases.
But those at the top aren’t worried about the lives of ordinary people—just that the scale of the outbreak is bad for Brazil’s economy.
Under pressure, Bolsonaro promised aid worth £9 billion to help Brazilian states manage the outbreak. In return the governments of those states must agree to austerity measures such as cuts to public sector pay and pensions.
Yet amid all this there are signs of the sort of resistance that could move Bolsonaro’s crisis out of the hands of those at the top.
There have been reports of some demonstrations by health workers, and marches from the favelas—slums—by poor people who feel abandoned to the virus.
Bolsonaro’s election in 2018 was met with mass protests, and he’s always worried about resistance.
Back in March in warned that lockdown measures would spark “social chaos” like mass demonstrations in Chile last year, and said “the left” would benefit.
But it could be his refusal to protect ordinary people—and the coming wave of austerity measures—that triggers that instead