January marks the beginning of an election year that could see Jair Bolsonaro re-elected as president of Brazil. Polls show he won’t have it easy.
Former President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva is leading Bolsonaro by over 15 percent, with a clear possibility for victory in the first round on October 2. But it is still too early for predictions. Trailing them are Bolsonaro’s former justice minister, Sérgio Moro, and center-left former Ceará Gov. Ciro Gomes.
The effects of the pandemic on the economy are still strongly felt, with inflation continuing to rise. Bolsonaro will have difficult decisions to make, such as readjustments in the public sector—particularly among police officers, one of his most important bases of support.
A Thousand Cuts
The year’s budget was approved on January 24, with heavy cuts in education and the Ministry of Labor, which in theory is responsible for the economic recovery.
Even federal hospitals suffered a cut of 100 million reais in the middle of the pandemic, and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a group that has produced and developed vaccines, also suffered a heavy cut.
The Centrão (Big Center), a powerful group of conservative parties and politicians in the National Congress, was the winner, receiving a huge portion of the budget. Three parties of the Centrão control almost 150 billion of the budget.
Funds for Indigenous populations, fighting forest fires, and for quilombo communities — where the Afrodescendants of escaped slaves live— were also drastically reduced, as well as the budget for policies centered on women.
The year 2020 in Brazil began with a wave of COVID-infected airline passengers traveling for the holidays. And as with the end of last year, the country also faced flooding. If Bahia had been the main victim in December, in January it was the state of Minas Gerais, where heavy rains have increased the fear of tragedies like those in Mariana and Brumadinho, where mineral dams collapsed, causing deaths and destruction. The state of Tocantins was also affected by the heavy rains.
And as the saying goes, one piece of bad news brings more bad news. Carnival, the country’s main annual festival, has been canceled—or nearly so. Street parties will not take place in Brazil’s state capitals. Samba will not be heard in Rio de Janeiro. Frevo will not be played in Recife.
The samba school parades will proceed in April, however, thanks vaccine passports and much effort to avoid contagion. The number of COVID cases have not stopped growing since the Omicron variant arrived in the country.
Government Resistance to Vaccinations
Vaccination in Brazil, at least, has advanced. Now it is children being vaccinated, despite resistance from the government, whose Ministry of Health once again defended the use of hydroxychloroquine as treatment while stating that the vaccine does not work.
As in the past, the vaccination of children began in São Paulo at the insistence of Gov. João Dória and despite protests from the federal government. The first child vaccinated was Davi Seremramiwe Xavante, 8, of the Indigenous Xavante community, who is undergoing medical treatment for a rare disease in São Paulo.
In several Brazilian states, the number of children hospitalized has increased along with the number of deaths. In the Federal District, where the capital city of Brasilia is located, children have been intubated in emergency rooms due to a lack of space in intensive care units. COVID is already the second leading cause of death of children in the country.
Still on the subject of health, the Ministry of Health system that was attacked by hackers last year was still offline for part of the month – raising suspicions that it was an inside job, that is, an action by the government itself to prevent the introduction of the vaccine passport and also to minimise the number of cases and deaths.
Despite the government’s best efforts to harm the vaccination campaign, even institutions historically recognised as corrupt and problematic, such as the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) seem to have noticed the seriousness of the pandemic. The CBF has decided that only vaccinated players will be allowed to participate in the state championships (many started in January) all over the country.
Gone But Not Forgotten
And the month ended with two deaths that shook the country.
On January 20, singer Elza Soares died of natural causes at the age of 91. Initially a samba singer, Elza Soares mixed jazz and bossa nova elements and even sang rock. The singer had a powerful voice and was a recognized activist for the rights of Black Brazilians. She continued working and recording songs, making partnerships with other artists and appearing in TV programs.
Her death was mourned not only for the loss of a great singer and political activist, but also because people like her are increasingly needed in Brazil in this moment.
Then there’s former astrologer and far-right guru Olavo de Carvalho, who passed away on January 25 at the age of 74. Carvalho was an influential supporter of President Bolsonaro, who appointed some of Carvalho’s followers to ministries and relevant positions in the government.
The cause of death was not initially reported, but his daughter, Heloisa de Carvalho, who did not have good relations with her father, said the cause of death was COVID.
O medo de um suposto vírus mortífero não passa de historinha de terror para acovardar a população e fazê-la aceitar a escravidão como um presente de Papai Noel.
— Olavo de Carvalho (@opropriolavo) May 12, 2020
Ironically, Olavo de Carvalho denied that COVID would be capable of killing anyone. In May 2020, he tweeted that “the fear of a supposed deadly virus is nothing but a horror story to cow the population and make them accept slavery as a gift from Santa Claus.”
Carvalho was for many years treated as a joke on social media as he raised a generation of far-right activists through a philosophy course in which he preached conservative and even far-right values.
Carvalho “took advantage of his great persuasive capacity to disseminate distorted readings of canons of philosophy and the most bizarre conspiracy theories possible,” wrote historian Murilo Cleto. “Today, there is no one who does not know about his thesis involving the sugar in Pepsi soft drink. Olavo, who saw the communist specter in absolutely everything, also suggested that the Beatles’ songs were actually composed by the philosopher Theodor Adorno.
“Fifteen years ago, these ideas were a laughingstock in the corridors of history courses. Today, they help guide public policies.”
It is not known who will take his place as guru of the Bolsonaro government and the Brazilian far-right, or what influence his death or a possible successor will have on the eve of the upcoming presidential election.