There’s a Global Pandemic, but Everything Seems Normal in Brazil
Despite the South Korean example, Brazil might be following in Italy’s footsteps in handling the coronavirus.
In the beginning, coronavirus seemed like just another weird thing happening in the far off land of China. We heard they were building emergency hospitals and quarantining entire cities. We felt the reverberating effects in the stock market, but we figured it was just a scare. We figured it wouldn’t affect us much, after all, SARS didn’t really hit us hard back in 2002, and this looked like another SARS but with milder symptoms.
We figured it wouldn’t get here. Not really.
In early March, Brazil started seeing the first cases of coronavirus transmission within its borders. The very first case in the country was reported in late February as a 61 year old man who had recently been to Italy.
By March 6th, Brazil had 9 confirmed cases in 4 states, and 636 suspected cases, according to Brazilian newspaper Estadão.
By March 16th, the figures had risen to 234 confirmed cases and over 2,000 suspected cases. This morning, the first death due to the virus was registered in São Paulo, the most populous state in the country, as well as the state with the largest number of confirmed cases so far.
The virus we thought wouldn’t really get here is spreading fast, and the country is slow in moving to contain it.
Brazilian politicians are not helping. Our own president had to be tested for coronavirus after his press secretary tested positive for the disease. Both President Bolsonaro and his press secretary had recently met with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago, which prompted the American president to get tested as well.
As of now, 11 members of the Brazilian president’s team who travelled to the meeting with President Trump have tested positive for coronavirus. Bolsonaro himself tested negative, but is scheduled to take a second test early this week.
Despite recommendations to self-isolate, the Brazilian president attended a rally on Sunday, March 15th, where he shook hands with dozens of his ardent supporters in an act that violated not only health guidelines, but common sense.
Other prominent Brazilian personalities in positions of power are not helping. Edir Macedo, evangelical bishop and founder of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, whose members are estimated to be somewhere between 1.8 and 7 million people, has recorded a video claiming the pandemic is the work of the devil — fabricated to advance political and economic interests.
While Brazilian Federal Government is still getting its bearings on the situation, state and local governments are acting. All over the country, universities and schools are sending students home. Local authorities are mandating events be cancelled, gyms and restaurants be closed, and asking people to stay inside, but in a country that already has 2,000 suspected cases, one wonders if it might be too little, too late.
Brazilian health system will definitely collapse if we don’t slow the spread of the virus.
Brazil has universal health care, SUS (Sitema Único de Saúde), but despite its promise to promote free healthcare for all, the system is precarious, to say the least.
The public health system averages 1 ICU bed for every 10 thousand people nationally, but most states operate below that threshold. When we add the private healthcare sector, the country has 2.1 ICU beds for every 10 thousand people. There are two problems with this scenario, one is that countries heavily affected by the coronavirus pandemic have recorded needing 2.4 ICU beds for every 10 thousand people, well above Brazil’s 2.1 average; and the fact that about 75% of the population relies on the public system, with only about 25% having access to private healthcare. (Source)
All available evidence supports the notion our healthcare systems, both private and public, simply won’t be able to cope with a surge of the disease. Our only hope is to slow its spread, but it’s unclear how well we’ll be able to do this as a nation.
The South Korean example, and how Brazil might be following Italy’s footsteps.
While differences in demographics may largely explain why the coronavirus mortality rate is so different between South Korea and Italy, the different measures the two countries adopted to fight the spread of the disease can’t be ignored.
South Korea’s success is largely attributed to widespread testing, contact tracing, and case isolation. By most accounts, South Koreans took recommendations to self-quarantine and social distancing very seriously. It worked.
Meanwhile, in Italy, first-hand accounts describe how people didn’t take the recommendation to keep a safe distance from one another seriously. While companies sent their employees home, churches suspended mass, and schools suspended classes, much of life continued as usual, such as with bars and restaurants remaining open, and people enjoying “that social aspect that they couldn’t let go of.”
According to The Guardian, confused political messaging in Italy may also have contributed to the spread of the disease. While some political figures recommended isolation and caution, others defended a “business as usual” attitude. This confusion in messaging is not much different than what Brazil’s been seeing so far.
It’s hard to blame Italians for not having been more careful. The country was hit before enough information about the virus had become available. It’s understandable how most Italians didn’t expect the disease to spread so widely and so quickly. Other countries, however, have a duty to look at what happened in Italy and take it as a lesson on how to be cautious. It’s not the time to panic, but it’s time to act responsibly.
It’s time for Brazilians, as individuals, to act responsibly.
Most of my friends are talking of self-isolating, but we’re privileged. We work for companies that allow us to do home office, if we don’t already work from home. Some of us own our own businesses, and we’re the ones sending our employees home.
We use twitter. We speak English. We can read first-hand accounts from places like Italy and the US the average Brazilian doesn’t have access to. We get to make our personal decisions based on better information than most.
We’re taking measures of our own. We’re going out as little as possible, avoiding the gym even though it’s still open, washing our hands as much as possible, and working from home. We’re cancelling birthday parties and postponing plans with friends, but we’re still a minority.
All it takes is a brief look out the window to realize how Brazilian life is mostly going on as usual. Buses are still crowded with those who don’t have the luxury of working from home. We talk about social distancing, but we still expect restaurants, grocery stores, and other places of business remain open as usual.
While the Brazilian upper class talks about self-quarantining, they still expect their maids, their nannies, and their gardeners to show up for work. They still expect other people to leave their homes to come clean theirs. It might be time for the Brazilian upper class to pay the help for two weeks worth of work and send them home.
More than that, we need to work on getting proper information out to the public, which is tough to do considering our own president has been calling concern over the pandemic “hysteria.” While the president has plenty of vocal critics, he also has a slew of ardent supporters who say amen to everything he says.
Whatsapp is also a potential problem. The messaging app is a great source of misinformation in the country. Heavily used by Brazilians, Whatsapp is famous for its group chats, where people share not only personal information, but a lot of misinformation — a lot of fake news.
A few days ago, a friend of mine tweeted a meme circulating online, which claimed if you did a lot of gargling with warm water, salt, and vinegar, you could kill the coronavirus in your throat before you spread it. My friend denounced it as fake news, and plead with people to stop sharing this kind of misinformation. The same picture has now made its way to Brazil, the text has been translated to Portuguese, and it’s being shared around as if it were good advice, mostly through whatsapp.
Much like the virus, misinformation and fake news are a global phenomenon.
It’s time for our politicians to be real leaders, but it’s also time for civil society to act. It’s not time to wait on public policy, it’s time for personal responsibility. While universities are closed, some students are enjoying their time off by hanging out at bars. Last weekend in Rio, the beaches were as crowded as ever.
Concern about coronavirus is slowly making its way into our daily life conversation, but while I’ve already seen people walking around wearing masks, I’ve also seen groups of people walking around together, getting out of the office to have a group lunch like any other Tuesday.
This morning when I went outside, I saw an elderly man taking a walk next to a younger woman. She had “personal trainer” written on her T-shirt. It made me wonder how many clients she has, and how many of those clients are over 60. It makes one wonder how the elderly who rely on the assistance of younger people will fare in the weeks to come.
As the coronavirus is spreading in Brazil, many questions remain unanswered. How are Brazilians expected to act responsibly and protect one another from contagion when our own president acts so recklessly? At this point, we’re expected to be better than the man who we should be counting on to lead us.
Can we, as a civil society, organize ourselves well enough not to depend on our government’s response to slow the spread of the disease? Can we minimize the devastating effects this will have on our precarious health system? Can we work together to “flatten the curve”?
The number of cases in Brazil is already high enough to spark concern, but there’s still time to act. There’s still time to look at China, South Korea, and Italy and learn valuable lessons from those countries’ experiences. We know more about the disease now than those countries did. Time is still in our favor, I hope we use it wisely.