As the Covid-19 pandemic started to become a matter of great concern in Brazil, video declarations and WhatsApp audio leaks revealed wealthy personalities and businessmen’s shared lack of concern for human lives. These viral clips have acted as a backdrop for an apparently organized movement of entrepreneurs and members of Brazil’s economic and political elite to reduce economic losses wherever possible. The cost is being measured in thousands of lives.
‘We can’t [stop] because 5 or 7,000 people are going to die,’ said Junior Durski in his widely shared 23 March Instagram video. The Madero restaurant chain owner has been a vocal critic of measures to restrict movement and close businesses across the country. His video echoes the arguments of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who not only joked about the epidemic before it hit the country, but has also persistently sabotaged initiatives by governors to contain it.
Durski continued: ‘Brazil cannot stop like this. Brazil can’t stand it. There has to be work, people have to produce, they have to work. Brazil doesn’t have to stand still like this. The consequences that we will have economically in the future will be much greater than [the number of] people who will die now with the coronavirus.’
Like Durski, Bolsonaro is more concerned about saving businesses and companies than saving the workers likely to fall victim to the disease in the Latin American country hardest hit by coronavirus. For sociologist Celso Rocha de Barros, Bolsonaro ‘prefers a high body count to a weak economy that would jeopardize his re-election. The economy will collapse anyway. The body count could still go up a lot.’
Fantasy and danger
Bolsonaro initially declared that coronavirus was a ‘fantasy’, later that it was just a ‘little flu’, and finally started encouraging demonstrations in his support (while also asking for the closure of the Congress and Supreme Court). In addition, he repeatedly disrespected the social isolation rules in place in order to greet protestors.
Among the economic measures first announced by Bolsonaro was a 50 per cent cut in workers’ wages, alongside a cut in working hours. This measure came after much criticism of the Provisional Measure (MP), published on 24 March, which would have allowed entrepreneurs to suspend work contracts for up to 4 months – the workers unpaid during the period. No information was given on how they would survive.
Heavily criticised even by some allies, Bolsonaro revoked the MP – with his Minister of Economy, Paulo Guedes, saying that everything was just a mistake in the wording of the controversial article.
Today, there are 18.6 million informal workers in Brazil, in addition to 19.3 million unregistered self-employed people. The retail trade – which almost entirely stopped running, with the exception of supermarkets and essential businesses – employs another 5.6 million workers. Before the crisis, 11.9 million workers were unemployed.
Despite Bolsonaro’s best efforts, Congress finally approved the payment of 600 reais (approximately £90) as an emergency basic income that would be paid to those in need – not without a long delay and several allegations of fraud, such as payment of the amount for people who are not part of the target group and errors of registration. The amount is almost five times less than the minimum wage of 998 reais (£198), but more than the government’s initial offer of a mere 200 reais (£30) to informal workers who had lost income due to the pandemic.
Bolsonaro’s measures have not been aimed at protecting vulnerable workers, but at supporting entrepreneurs – many of whom have advocated for further rulings against social isolation and pressured the government to open non-essential businesses. Already, cases of Covid-19 are increasing in areas where shopping centres were allowed to reopen.
Among those most affected by the pandemic are the poor, predominantly black populations living in favelas – one of the biggest concerns in the country, given their poor sanitary infrastructure. Many, as in the US, have taken to the streets to protest against state violence, exclusion, and the lack of decent public policies in the midst of a health crisis. The momentum of #BlackLivesMatter is growing in Brazil: #VidasNegrasImportam.
For Pablo Ortellado, professor of public policy at the University of São Paulo (USP), ‘Bolsonaro’s plan is psychotic, we don’t know whether it is motivated by ideological blindness or brutal social insensitivity. Even if compared to Donald Trump’s plan, Bolsonaro’s measures are cruel.’
Like Durski, businessman and TV presenter Roberto Justus complained in March, via a WhatsApp audio message, that the coronavirus would be just a ‘mild flu’ and that he was not concerned about the virus reaching favelas. One might ask what Justus thinks now that the country’s death toll has surpassed 50,000.
Justus, like Bolsonaro, called measures taken to protect against the pandemic a ‘hysteria’ that ‘will cost a lot’. In the recording, he continued, ‘Are you worried about the poor? You’ll see the devastated life of humanity at the time of the economic collapse, the world recession, the poor having nothing to eat, companies closing, mass unemployment. You can’t compare [that] with a little virus, which is a mild flu for 90 per cent of people’.
Justus was responding to a video recorded by the TV presenter Marcos Mion, in which Mion warned of the dangers of the disease and the need for isolation. Ironically, in that video, Mion said he had seen a graphic attributed to JP Morgan that ‘makes perfect sense’, even though he admitted he was not sure if it was real or fake. In an era where fake news is almost the rule, using information without verification – even if passing on correct information – dangerously discourages fact checking.
Bolsonaro’s measures have not been aimed at protecting vulnerable workers, but at supporting entrepreneurs – many of whom have advocated against social isolation rules
No entrepreneur close to Bolsonaro understands fake news better than Luciano Hang, owner of the Havan chain of stores. In May, Hang was the target of a federal police search and seizure warrant in a Supreme Court inquiry into fake news. In a separate case, he was ordered to pay a fine to the dean of the State University of Campinas for moral damages caused by false news posted by the businessman on Twitter. Hang is also under investigation for tax evasion. The businessman usually wears a suit in the colours of the Brazilian flag and often poses smiling next to the president, being one of the main proponents of the government among businessmen.
Another critic of containment measures is Alexandre Guerra, a partner in the fast food chain Giraffas, who stated in his own video: ‘you employees, who may be in peace at home, in the quiet, enjoying this home office, this forced rest, have you realized that instead of being afraid to catch this virus, you should also be afraid to lose your job?’ Guerra was later removed from the company’s board of directors by his father and owner of the company, Carlos Guerra, who later stated: ‘a lot has been said lately and most of it does not correspond to what we do and believe.’
Alexandre is known for his political aspirations. He stood as a candidate in the 2018 Federal District government elections for Partido Novo (New Party), a liberal party that does not hide its sympathy for Bolsonaro.
Several more businessmen, like Edgard Corona, who owns a network of fitness centres, pressed Bolsonaro to include their businesses in the list of essential services that was issued by presidential decree in mid-May. The list, however, didn’t prevent governors from deciding for themselves what can and cannot open in their states. Corona, meanwhile, is being investigated by the Federal Police in a Supreme Court inquiry into the spread of fake news.
In short, the Brazilian elite, as well as part of the county’s political class, are organizing themselves to save the business community – but to kill the worker. Promoting the discourse that the pandemic has been exaggerated, or that the number of possible deaths is irrelevant, rich businessmen – and the president – are not only contributing to the spread of the virus, but are enacting political measures that are already costing thousands of lives.