On May 9, Brazil’s death toll from the coronavirus topped 10,000. Instead of marking the grim milestone with an address or a sign of respect for the victims, President Jair Bolsonarotook a spin on a jet ski. Video footagewidely circulated on social media shows Brazil’s far-right leader grinning as he pulls up to a boat on Brasília’s Paranoá Lake where supporters are having a cookout. As he grips onto their boat, Bolsonaro jokes about the “neurosis” of Brazilians worried about the virus. “There’s nothing to be done [about it],” he shrugs. “It’s madness.”
Even by the standards of other right-wing populists who have sought to downplay the COVID-19 pandemic, Bolsonaro’s defiance of reality was shocking. From the favelas of densely packed cities like Rio de Janeiro to the remote indigenous communities of the Amazon rain forest, Brazil has emerged as the new global epicenter of the pandemic, with the world’s highest rate of transmission and a health system now teetering on the brink of collapse.
Unlike the previous global hot spots – Italy, Spain and the U.S. – Brazil is an emerging economy, with a weaker social safety net that makes it harder for local authorities to persuade people to stay home, and an underfunded health care system. When a particularly severe outbreak struck the city of Manaus, in the Amazon, in late April, hospitals were quickly overrun, leading to a shortage of coffins. On May 17, the mayor of São Paulo, Latin America’s largest city, warned that hospitals there would collapse within two weeks if the infection rate continued to rise. The country has confirmed almost 18,000 deaths as of May 19, with a record 1,179 people dying in the preceding 24 hours–the world’s second highest daily fatality rate. Epidemiologists say the peak is still weeks away.