Epidemiologist Slams Brazil’s COVID Policy as Bolsonaro Tests Positive

As Brazil faces the world’s second-worst COVID-19 outbreak after the United States, Trump ally and far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has tested positive, after months of downplaying the severity of the pandemic. Brazil has gone almost two months with no health minister. “Bad political leadership is a major risk factor for the spread of the pandemic,” says leading Brazilian epidemiologist Cesar Victora, who coordinates the International Center for Equity in Health at the Federal University of Pelotas.

TRANSCRIPT

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AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Brazil, where coronavirus cases are soaring. More than 1.7 million people have tested positive. Nearly 70,000 have died. Brazil is the second-hardest-hit nation in the world after the United States. On Tuesday, the far-right President Jair Bolsonaro announced he had tested positive for COVID-19, after months of downplaying the severity of the pandemic. He recently developed a high fever and a cough, and said he’s taking hydroxychloroquine, even though it’s been proven ineffective against COVID-19, in some cases deadly.

PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: [translated] Here, I’m taking the third doses of hydroxychloroquine. I feel very well. There are other things that can help battle coronavirus, and we know none has been scientifically proven. But it’s working for me.

AMY GOODMAN: As President Bolsonaro announced he had tested positive, he took off his mask. Some of the reporters who were present have now been put in quarantine, and the Brazilian Press Association has filed a criminal complaint to the Brazilian Supreme Court. They allege Bolsonaro committed at least two crimes, by putting someone’s life or health at imminent risk and failing to prevent the spread of an infectious disease.

All of this comes as Brazil has gone 55 days with no health minister. The last two were fired or resigned within 30 days of each other for endorsing science. The grandmother of Brazil’s first lady Michelle Bolsonaro is also suffering from COVID-19. She was recently transferred to an ICU unit and is reportedly intubated.

For more, we go to Brazil, where we’re joined by Cesar Victora, a Brazilian epidemiologist who led the first study to assess the prevalence of coronavirus in Brazil. He coordinates the International Center for Equity in Health at the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil, where he’s emeritus professor of epidemiology. He also has honorary appointments at Oxford, Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities.

Professor Victora, thanks so much for joining us. Can you talk about your president testing positive as he has downplayed the pandemic, calling it a “little flu,” taking off his mask at his press briefing, exposing journalists, and then the bigger story of what’s happening in Brazil, directly connected, I believe, to his attitude?

CESAR VICTORA: Good morning, Amy. Thanks for the invitation. It’s a real pleasure to be here today.

Bad political leadership is a major risk factor for the spread of the pandemic, not only in Brazil, but also in your own country. Bolsonaro has repeatedly denied the importance of the pandemic. As you just mentioned, he dismissed two health ministers who were against the use of hydroxychloroquine and were in favor of social distancing. He has repeatedly joined crowds in front of his presidential palace, usually on Sunday mornings, where he hugs people and people take selfies with him. And there’s been very few times he has worn a mask. Even now as he gave the news that he was infected, then he took a couple steps back, and he removed his mask in front of a whole team of journalists, who — the Press Association now suing him.

So, the bad leadership means that the federal government is saying this is not — you know, this is a “small flu,” as Bolsonaro said early on, and nobody will — you know, it will only affect a few people, it’s not severe, and that means that social distancing is not important. He’s been in sharp contrast with many state governors and city mayors, who have been acting in a much more responsible way. But the contradictory advice that the population is getting from a president who says, “This is not a big problem, and you should not worry about it. Let’s reopen the economy right away,” and the good advice provided by medical associations, by scientists, by many state governors and city mayors — so, it’s a very complicated situation.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask about his approach to those in rainforest area, Indigenous people throughout Brazil, as he vetoed legislation to help them, also talked about the possibility of sending the military in to bring them hydroxychloroquine. Of course, this is the drug that President Trump touted, that turns out, in a number of studies, not only to be ineffective, but could possibly be deadly with coronary implications.

CESAR VICTORA: Oh, absolutely. Let me tell you what’s happening to the rainforest now, because everybody’s concerned about the pandemic. And so, deforestation is now at a record pace, because the first thing that Bolsonaro did, well before the pandemic, he and his minister of environment, who is a very controversial person, they have relaxed all the system that took account of deforestation, including the satellite photos and so on. And he fired the top — one of the top Brazilian scientists, who was in charge of that surveillance system, which would show record levels of deforestation.

At the same time, he has always — you know, since he was — he’s been for 28 years a member of parliament, in the House in Brazil. And he was always saying Indigenous people should not be protected, they have to be brought into civilization, he would reduce the size of Indigenous reservations and so on. And he’s actually — you know, you can’t blame him for doing what he said he would do. You know, those people who voted for him knew who he was. It was amazing that he actually got about 55% of the vote in Brazil. Many of those people have repented and now regretting having ever voted for him.

But I just wanted to give you a little bit of data on the Indigenous population. We have completed now three rounds of surveys, each one in the largest 133 cities throughout the country. Thirty-three thousand is our sample size in each round. The most hardly affected groups are Indigenous people. They’re five times as likely to have antibodies against COVID, which means that they have been exposed to the virus, than whites. So it’s a fivefold difference between Indigenous population and whites. And the government is playing down these numbers, completely trying to avoid disseminating these results, because they think it will look bad for Brazil, which obviously it does, and also because they don’t really care about the Indigenous population.

AMY GOODMAN: We interviewed Sebastião Salgado, the — well, as you know, famous —

CESAR VICTORA: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — world-famous Brazilian photojournalist, who charges Bolsonaro with genocide against the Indigenous people, with how he is dealing with the virus, particularly in relation to the Indigenous population.

CESAR VICTORA: Absolutely. And this issue of, you know, his proposal of distributing chloroquine to the Indigenous population through the Army is complete nonsense. It’s completely — you know, he has completely ignored the scientific community in Brazil, the Medical Association, the specialist groups.

And he actually is — you know, what may well happen — he is taking hydroxychloroquine for his COVID. We know that COVID has a case fatality rate which is pretty low, so most people survive. So, the next step, if he survives, which he’s very likely to do, is that he will take credit for it and say, “That’s because I took hydroxychloroquine.”

I mean, he doesn’t respect clinical trials. His argument is that, since there’s nothing else to do, why not take chloroquine? But, as you just said, Amy, it has very serious cardiovascular side effects that could actually kill the person, rather than being killed by COVID.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Cesar Victora, you led the first study that assessed the prevalence of coronavirus in Brazil, and you said, in fact, there are several epidemics. Explain.

CESAR VICTORA: Exactly. You know, very unexpectedly, the first wave of the epidemic came through the Amazon River, which was not where we expected. We thought it would be arriving in Rio, in São Paulo, in the touristy cities in the northeast where lots of Italians, for example, come in for holidays.

And actually, our hypothesis right now is that there’s a lot of — there are several Chinese industries in the city of Manaus, which is the largest city in the Amazon. And Manaus is a tax-free industrial hub, where foreign companies can put on their own factories and sell to Brazil without paying importation tax. So, there’s a strong exchange between Manaus, which is the first city in the Amazon where COVID was detected, as early as February. And from Manaus, people travel in boats to the rest of the Amazon region. These boats are always overcrowded. And the boat trips take several hours, and even, for some cities, it takes two or three days by boat. So, being in a crowded boat with someone who has COVID may well explain why the Amazon was hit so hard.

Now, the epidemic in the Amazon is already going down. In some cities, we tested 25% of the population had antibodies, which is a very, very high level. Now it’s going down in the northeast and moving — in the north and moving to the northeast, which is also a very poor area. The north and northeast are the two poorest areas in the country. We, here in the south, where I live, are relatively — we have relatively low prevalence, but it’s also increasing rapidly in the last couple weeks. So, it’s several epidemics.

And the striking thing is, it did start with the white, educated, rich people, who traveled abroad and who came from Italy, for example, or Spain. But now it’s disseminating through the population. And the poor Brazilians — the poorest 20% of the population is twice more likely to have antibodies than the richest 20%. The Blacks are more likely to have antibodies than whites. Indigenous are particularly high-risk, too.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about why this is, Dr. Victora, the extreme inequality in Brazil, both class and racial. Brazil’s six richest men in the country hold the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the population. Explain why there are these disparities.

CESAR VICTORA: Well, this is part of our historical pattern, our colonization, which is, the Portuguese, when they colonized Brazil, they usually came in, they gave large pieces of land — and I mean, you know, seriously, millions of acres to people, to Portuguese people, to settle. Most of the settlement of Brazil was done by people — unlike the United States, they were not moving to a new country to make that their homeland. They were not escaping from conditions of poverty or religious persecution in Europe. They were just people who came here to make money and go back. So, the land structure in Brazil is very unfair, and it led to this issue that we now have a small proportion of rich people — and not only farmers, it’s industry and everything, but it led to this hugely segregated society.

Also, Brazil had the largest number of African slaves brought, relative to any other country in America — in the Americas. So, the Black population, the African Brazilians, have always been kept in very poor conditions of living and so on. And what explains their higher rate of COVID antibodies is that they usually live in favelas or in cramped situations, lots of people in the same home, very hard to practice social isolation. They live on — they earn their money to buy their food on a daily basis doing informal work, which means that they have to go out; otherwise, they won’t have food to eat. And so, it’s a combination of several conditions. One more thing is that they often do not have proper water and sanitation facilities, and therefore things like washing hands is not trivial, because they have to bring water from other places.

AMY GOODMAN: And you have Bolsonaro, who said, when talking about masks — he said — he taunted staffers wearing face masks to protect against COVID by claiming they were, quote, “for fairies.” Here you have what many call “the tropical Trump,” very close to President Trump, actually visited with Trump in Mar-a-Lago, and already there, there were infections of his press secretary and questions of if —

CESAR VICTORA: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — you know, President Trump and his team had been infected. Can you talk about President Trump’s effect and his same approach as your president, Bolsonaro, in basically downplaying this pandemic, President Trump saying 99% of the COVID-19 cases are harmless?

CESAR VICTORA: Yes. Well, Trump appears to be Bolsonaro’s idol. You know, whatever Trump does, such as leaving the WHO, which is a — it’s unbelievable. I’ve worked with the WHO for 40 years in many places of the world, and I still can’t believe that Trump has actually pulled out of the WHO. But Bolsonaro is now saying he’s going to do the same thing. So, Trump is in favor of hydroxychloroquine; Bolsonaro is in favor. Now, FDA doesn’t allow hydroxychloroquine in the U.S., and Trump is giving huge stocks of hydroxychloroquine to Brazil. And Bolsonaro says he’s very happy to receive those. So, you know, it’s a really bad combination of leaders in the two largest countries in this region of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: And number one and number two — President Trump proudly often talking about the United States as being number one — but number one and number two in COVID infections. I want to thank you so much, Dr. Cesar Victora —

CESAR VICTORA: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: — Brazilian epidemiologist, who led the first study to assess the prevalence of coronavirus in Brazil, coordinates the International Center for Equity in Health at the Federal University of Pelotas in Brazil, where he’s emeritus professor of epidemiology.

Next, the president is not above the law. So says the Supreme Court, including President Trump’s two appointees. We’ll speak with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston. Stay with us.