Brazil’s Bolsonaro Meets His Fauci
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Although nearly every headline now stokes dread, Brazilians can take comfort in some salutary news: The earth is not flat. Even as President Jair Bolsonaro scoffs at social distancing and other effective measures to keep the coronavirus pandemic at bay — and is booed and pot-banged as a result — Brazil’s Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta has won plaudits for his steady nerves and calming mantra of “science, discipline, planning and focus.” One of the rare pluses of the coronavirus pandemic is that health professionals suddenly have become some of Latin America’s most credible public figures.
This wasn’t always the case. As recently as 2018, the region’s scientists had relatively little cachet. According to the Wellcome Global Monitor, based on a Gallup poll surveying more than 140 countries, a quarter of South Americans said they had little or no trust in doctors and nurses, making them almost as skeptical as respondents from Central Africa, the least trusting region. Fewer than 7 in 10 said they would look to health professionals for medical advice, outdone only by Middle Easterners (65%). No region had less confidence in hospitals and clinics: 37% of those surveyed compared with the world average of 19%.
Fortunately, as the coronavirus sweeps the region, the skepticism appears to be losing traction. To judge by the two-kilometer line of cars stretching before my neighborhood health clinic late last month, even the storied anti-vaccine movement is on the retreat: 8.7.million elderly Brazilians took seasonal flu shots during the opening week of the vaccination drive, double the number of the 20-day 2019 campaign. While a few hardcore science deniers still howl, Rio de Janeiro state authorities and bishops held an Easter light show projecting the city’s postcard Christ the Redeemer monument dressed in a lab coat and stethoscope.
Mandetta, a pediatric orthopedist, has seen his approval ratings soar to 76% as he leads Brazil’s fight against the outbreak; another survey found that 87% of Brazilians approved of the country’s health professionals. Mandetta’s daily press briefings alongside the health ministry’s top officials have become obligatory national viewing. Not so the public performances by President Jair Bolsonaro, who has seethed as his minister consistently outshone him. (Hence his 42% disapproval rating, compared with 29% in February.) Only a counteroffensive by Bolsonaro’s inner circle of military men and level-headed legislators reportedly dissuaded him from sacking Mandetta mid-crisis. For now, at least: A leader who takes his management cues from Donald Trump is unlikely to let some tropical Anthony Fauci keep taking the bows.
The stakes are especially dire for Brazil, where illness is accelerating — officially, more than 23,700 stricken and 1,355 dead from Covid-19. (Independent studies say the real case load may be 12 times greater.) Although scientists have clawed back credibility from the corona-denialists, those gains will be threatened unless national leaders put more money into public hospitals, scale up mass clinical testing and increase the supply of ventilators and emergency health equipment. Getting Brazil’s quack-in-chief to follow that prescription is another matter.
Moreover, Bolsonaro is not the only leader in a bubble. His Mexican counterpart, left-wing populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, blithely ignored the country’s epidemiologists until the outbreak started to take off. Now the health minister has taken center stage — an encouraging if unstated nod to the growing regional consensus that only hard science and proper health protocols can beat the outbreak.
Colombia’s Ivan Duque, Ecuador’s Lenin Moreno and Nayib Bukele of El Salvador have named new ministers in mid-pandemic, trusting the national response to physicians and public health specialists. Peru’s President Martin Vizcarra went further: Declaring that the moment calls for “someone with more expertise,” he swapped out his health minister in late March and created a Covid-19 Command, led by a noted surgeon and former health minister Pilar Mazzetti. After following their health establishment’s advice to cocoon the economy and enforce lock-downs and social distancing, Uruguayan President Luiz Alberto Lacalle Pou, Vizcarra and Duque lead the list of Latin American leaders whose approval ratings have surged.
While Costa Rica has been sluggish in announcing fiscal measures to respond to the economic crisis, the country quickly launched widespread testing and monitoring of suspected infections, Economist Intelligence Unit Latin America analyst Giancarlo Morelli told me. Morelli should know: A Costa Rican native, he recently tested positive for Covid-19; every day someone from the health ministry checks in on him and his family, either by phone or house call. With one of the region’s lowest per capita rates of hospital beds (half the world average and one fourth that of the advanced OECD nations), Costa Rica’s diligent epidemic monitoring and patient control are vital. “The virus will not go away,” health minister Daniel Salas said last month, warning his compatriots against complacency. “We need to react.”
In authoritarian Latin America, health professionals have a tougher assignment. The Nicaraguan government under President Daniel Ortega has defied its health professionals and drawn a red flag from the Pan American Health Organization for dismissing social distancing safeguards, keeping open schools and shops and even allowing football matches. Tellingly, perhaps, the ruling autocrat himself, long rumored to be ailing, hasn’t been seen in public since late March.
In Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has been flogging elixirs and wonder drugs, and ordered anyone testing positive to be hospitalized. No matter that the hospitals are bereft of running water, basic medication and ventilators. On April 4, Venezuelan security forces arrested a 30-year-old biomedical researcher who texted colleagues a medical directive on testing for Covid-19 as it spread in Trujillo, a western state. She was fired from her hospital post and charged with “treason to the fatherland.”
The earth may not be flat, but declaring that truth can still prove hazardous for some of those on the front lines of Latin America’s biggest health emergency.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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