Michael Orsini is a professor at the Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies and the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. Francisco Ortega is a professor at the Institute for Social Medicine at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. They recently published an article on COVID-19 in Global Public Health.
Few leaders have failed as miserably in their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. It is almost as if he is jockeying for the dubious title of the world’s most dysfunctional leader during a global pandemic with U.S. President Donald Trump. Spoiler alert: They are tied closely for first place.
Just like Mr. Trump, Mr. Bolsonaro is deeply insecure, toxically masculine, spews racist, misogynist and ableist views with frightening regularity, and purports to be a divine leader. His government has cycled through a rotating cast of characters, with firings and resignations a frequent occurrence. Anyone who dares to disagree with him is shown the door, and trashed on the way out.
Mr. Bolsonaro stands out, however, for his calculated attempts to use this public health crisis to further immiserate the country’s more than 900,000 Indigenous people. Despite worldwide condemnation and criticism for failing to provide support to Indigenous people who have been hard hit by the pandemic, he responded by ordering the military to ship hydroxychloroquine tablets to them. After testing positive for the virus, Mr. Bolsonaro appeared in the media touting the benefits of this scientifically debunked medication.
Around the same time, the President blocked part of a government bill that would have provided Indigenous people with access to clean drinking water, hygiene products and hospital beds.
This attack on Brazil’s Indigenous people is hardly new, however. The COVID-19 pandemic is just another chapter in this cruel history.
Mr. Bolsonaro has boasted publicly that he would never turn even one centimetre of land over to Indigenous people. He has mused about the need for them to become civilized, in his own warped sense of the word. He thinks this is possible if they welcome massive encroachment on their lands to make way for mining projects and deforestation. Since his election in 2018, Mr. Bolsonaro has wasted no time in clawing back the constitutional rights Indigenous people enjoy in Brazil.
What would drive Mr. Bolsonaro to stake out such a racist posture vis-à-vis the country’s Indigenous people?
First, Mr. Bolsonaro views any support for Indigenous people as interfering with his agenda of capitalist development. Indigenous ways of life disrupt the President’s plan to exploit the Amazon to his benefit, and to solidify his support among agribusiness and mining interests. His environment minister, Ricardo Salles, reportedly said in a cabinet meeting on environmental deregulation: “We need to make an effort while we are in this calm moment in terms of press coverage, because they are only talking about COVID, and push through and change all the rules.”
Second, the President has strategically ignored the gravity of COVID-19, which has killed more than 90,000 Brazilians, the second-highest death toll in the world after the U.S. Mr. Bolsonaro has burned through at least two health ministers in the last year who challenged his anti-science denialism. He replaced his health minister with a military general with no experience in the health portfolio. The head of his government’s Indigenous Affairs agency was sacked last year and replaced with a former federal police officer with ties to agribusiness.
Third, his anti-Indigenous views play well with his evangelical base of support. Mr. Bolsonaro’s god-like aspirations and religiosity have also cemented his belief that this virus will disappear, vanish in the blink of an eye. This type of thinking is literally magical – but the trick is that it is not working. When asked about the mounting death toll, the leader, whose middle name is Messias, the Portuguese word for Messiah, responded: “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do? ... My name is Messiah, but I can’t work miracles.” Mr. Bolsonaro has also been a vocal supporter of helicopter missions by evangelicals to convert members of remote Indigenous communities to Christianity, even though this type of contact is strictly forbidden.
While there is much to decry in this government’s non-response, Indigenous communities also have a history of fighting back. Recently, communities in the state of Pernambuco in the northeastern part of the country took matters in their own hands, building sanitary barriers, imposing lockdowns, and setting up spaces to isolate and support people who contracted COVID-19.
Nothing less than the very existence of Indigenous people is at stake. The Yanomami people in the Amazon, for instance, who number about 26,000, cannot afford to lose members to the pandemic. The “brink of destruction” is an apt term to describe what is unfolding.
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