Brazil’s Gravedigger-in-Chief

Forrest Hylton

Last week a journalist asked Jair Bolsonaro how many people in Brazil would die from Covid-19. The president replied that he had no idea: ‘I’m not a gravedigger,’ he said. A few days earlier he had fired his health minister, Luiz Enrique Mandetta. Speaking scientifically in his daily press conferences and acting consequentially between them, Mandetta had eclipsed Bolsonaro. Working with state governors (the president’s chief political opponents), Mandetta had achieved an approval rating nearly double Bolsonaro’s and, more important, saved hundreds if not thousands of lives.

As of 27 April, the official number of Covid-19 cases in Brazil is 63,328 (20,715 in São Paulo) and there have been 4298 deaths (1700 in São Paulo). The real figures are likely to be many times higher, and the daily death rate will not peak before May.

Mandetta’s successor, Nelson Teich, comes from the private healthcare sector. His first move was to appoint a general to work under him. Even before the crisis began, Teich had expressed neo-eugenicist ideas about the value of life, based on calculations of profit and loss.

As he declares in his TV appearances, Bolsonaro’s main concern is the economy; that, and the alleged conspiracy against him by the courts, congress and the media. Never mind that all of them are dominated by the right, and supported the parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff in 2016.

Bolsonaro has yet to present the results of his Covid-19 tests, and continues to sniffle and cough in public, in one instance wiping his nose on his arm before shaking hands with an elderly woman. He goes out often and never wears a mask or gloves. It is widely assumed that he has the virus and is spreading it to his evangelical followers, who do not believe in it, though it believes in them. Some surely understand this: when they take to the streets to protest in favour of opening up businesses, they do so not on foot but isolated in their luxury cars. Others apparently prefer the kiss of death at mass rallies. On 19 April, Bolsonaro’s supporters gathered to demand a repeat of the 1968 coup that closed Congress, the courts and the media. One of the publicists for a rally in March has since died of Covid-19.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro has tried to hijack shipments of medical equipment destined for the opposition governors of states in need, Maranhão in particular, where the Communist governor, Flávio Dino, had bought ventilators from Santa Catarina. The courts ruled in Dino’s favour. Bolsonaro has ordered the army and the pharmaceutical industry to scale up production of hydroxycholoroquine, and, like Trump, has promoted it as a potential miracle cure. After meeting with Bolsonaro on 24 April, Brazil’s Federal Council of Medicine approved its use despite the lack of scientific evidence.

In the Amazonian city of Manaus, people researching the effectiveness of the drug received death threats. One possible source was the digital militia run by Bolsonaro’s sons, which, according to federal police, may be behind fake news campaigns denying the seriousness of the virus. Manaus will soon have 100 Covid-19 deaths per day, as hospitals are at capacity, with 75 per cent of ICU beds already occupied, and personal protective equipment has run out along with ventilators and doctors. The doctors’ union of the state of Amazonas is demanding the governor and vice-governor resign over negligence in the use of public funds before the pandemic.

In the violent, poverty-stricken state of Ceará in the north-east, where Bolsonaro recently promoted illegal police strikes and riots, a daily death toll of 250 is predicted in May. No thanks to the federal government, on 26 April the state received 90 tons of medical supplies, PPE and masks in co-operation with the north-eastern governors’ consortium.

On 24 April, the justice minister, Sergio Moro, resigned, claiming to have evidence that Bolsonaro had broken the law by firing the head of the federal police, lying to the Diário Oficial about it, and trying to appoint someone else in order to halt the ongoing investigation into his sons and, instead, initiate new ones against the governors of Rio and São Paulo, as well as the head of Congress, Rodrigo Maia (all three are former allies of the president). Bolsonaro called Moro a liar; his sons called him a traitor. One candidate to be the new head of the federal police, Alexandre Ramagem, is a friend of Bolsonaro’s sons. When asked about it, Bolsonaro replied, ‘So what?’

In his resignation speech, Moro reluctantly praised the PT governments of Lula and Dilma for respecting judicial independence. This confirmed the suspicions of Bolsonaro’s followers that Moro is ‘communist garbage’. As a judge, Moro had led the anti-corruption campaign that put Lula in jail. Last year, Glenn Greenwald got hold of a series of private Telegram messages that seemed to show Moro collaborating with the prosecution and breaking the law while knowingly providing cover to the most corrupt politicians in Brazil. More than Bolsonaro himself, Moro was the United States’ man in the struggle to break Lula and the PT. Without him, Bolsonaro could not have been elected.

The military has expressed concern about Moro’s charges against Bolsonaro. The attorney general wants to investigate them. Some of the president’s former supporters in Congress are considering impeachment proceedings. He is even more isolated, desperate and vulnerable than before. The army is likely be the ultimate arbiter of his fate, but at this point, the question for a growing number of its leading figures, along with their right-wing political allies, is whether impeachment or resignation offers a way forward. It is hard to imagine impeachment advancing, and harder to imagine Bolsonaro resigning. Should he fall, however, no one will be able to blame Lula, Dilma and the PT for his demise: it will be the fault of Bolsonaro (and his sons) alone.

Regardless, as the machinations grind on, Brazilians, especially the black and brown poor in the cities, will continue to die at a higher rate than anywhere else in Latin America.


  • 28 April 2020 at 10:13am
    Phil Edwards says:
    Wandering tilde - Maranhão, not Marañhao.

  • 30 April 2020 at 10:19pm
    Tony Gross says:
    The Diário Oficial is the government gazette, the record of official acts. Moro's allegation is that Bolsonaro arranged for the act dismissing the head of the federal police to be published over Moro's signature. While the head of the federal police is subordinate to the minister of justice, who is thus responsible for appointment and dismissal, in this case not only did Moro not sack him, he claims he was unaware of the sacking until he too read it in the Diário Oficial. It is not that Bolsonaro 'lied' to the DO, rather that he ordered an untrue record to be issued.