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Perfect Storm

Forrest Hylton

The holiday season hit Brazil like a tsunami: on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, after five years of record drought, two dams burst, as record rains and flooding put at least 116 communities underwater, killed 21 people, displaced at least 50,000, affected more than 417,000, and destroyed infrastructure (and vaccines) throughout southern Bahia; a flu epidemic broke out nationwide at the moment that Omicron arrived. The unseasonal rains led to an increase in mosquitos: though Zika and dengue fever numbers are still down, Chikungunya is way up.

None of this stopped Bahians and visitors (mostly Brazilian) from celebrating New Year’s Eve on the beach in Salvador. For the second consecutive year, however, carnival will not happen here or in Rio. Omicron case numbers have not yet translated into higher demand for ICU beds among adults, but emergency rooms are being overrun and medical personnel are getting infected. Both hospitalisation and death rates are the highest they have been since July 2021. A leading virologist predicts that hospitals will collapse within a week. The mayor of Salvador, Bruno Reis, has said he may close the beaches again, although beaches are far less of a problem than indoor spaces like shopping malls, bars and restaurants. If current trends continue, the governor of Bahia, Rui Costa, says he’ll prohibit all public events in February.

Thanks to a relatively robust public health system, testing, like flu shots and Covid vaccination, is free and widespread, although there are not enough tests, and more than ten million vaccines expired before they had been used. National case numbers have surpassed previous records, and within ten days Brazil is forecast to have well over a million new cases per day. Parties and crowds proliferate nonetheless. Masks, especially on men, cover only the chin, and many men and women are unmasked. Given the federal government’s obstruction and inaction, it may prove difficult for the mayor and governor to get the genie back in the bottle. Bahians were given to thinking the pandemic had more or less ended.

President Bolsonaro’s response to the flooding – there have been heavy rains up and down the littoral as well as in the backlands, and 138 communities in Minas Gerais, where several dams threaten to break, have been affected – was to carry on jet skiing in Santa Catarina, in the far south, where he was on holiday. As Omicron took hold, Bolsonaro said he welcomed it as a blessing, since it would mean the end of the pandemic, and launched an attack on the head of the health regulatory agency (Anvisa) to try to prevent children from being vaccinated. (The attempt backfired.) Ninety per cent of ICU beds for children are occupied in Bahia, and since 2020, more than 330 children between the ages of five and eleven have died from Covid nationwide. Vaccination of children begins today in Salvador, but there are not yet enough doses; the scene is repeated across the country.

As if on cue, Bolsonaro was hospitalised at the beginning of January for an intestinal obstruction (yet again). According to polls, close to 60 per cent of the population considers his government either ‘very bad’ or ‘terrible’. He has lost traction across social media, and his core following has dropped below 20 per cent. He keeps intimating that something big is coming; that he will follow a version of Trump’s playbook for the 2022 elections. But to some extent he already tried that on 7 September last year, when he instructed his followers to shut down Congress and the Supreme Court in Brasília. Neither the army nor the military police has shown an appetite for fascist misadventures, and it is hard to see that changing this year.

Ultimately, it may not matter what cards, if any, Bolsonaro has left up his sleeve, since Lula is on the cusp of consummating an alliance with his onetime opponent Gerardo Alckmin, a centre-right former governor of São Paulo. Several polls continue to predict a first-round victory for Lula – he would take 48 per cent of the vote if elections were held tomorrow – and even though the PT cannot hope for a parliamentary majority, it is once again Brazil’s most popular party by far in an incredibly fragmented system (28 per cent, compared to 2 per cent for competitors).

If his alliance with Alckmin becomes official, Lula will broaden his appeal far beyond his traditional base in trade unions, social movements and the progressive middle class. The PT’s left wing would like to see one of its own on the slate alongside Lula, or even Dilma Rousseff, but Lula is aiming to build a broad front for national reconstruction that would include all but the far right.

Lula insists that defeating Bolsonaro must be the first priority of all democratic forces. Given that 44 per cent of respondents to a recent poll associate Lula with communism, establishing a broad front seems wise. Social movements and trade unions have proved incapable of confronting Bolsonaro through mass collective action; so has the PT. Left parties, unions, and movements have been characterised by paralysis and fragmentation since before the parliamentary coup that removed Dilma from the presidency in 2016. Now they need to unite to bring aid to the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, whose lives have been turned upside down by climate change in two electorally decisive states (Bahia and Minas).

The current panorama contrasts sharply with the period leading up to Lula’s election in 2002. So does the broader hemispheric and world context, even if recent leftwing victories in Bolivia, Peru, Honduras and Chile suggest the electoral winds in Latin America may be blowing back (however lightly) towards social democracy. Lula knows that, should he win, his hands will be tied as he tries to halt the destruction unleashed since Dilma’s overthrow. But on education, healthcare, credit, housing, jobs, nutrition and public goods generally (Petrobras and the ports of Santos and Vitória, in particular) – as well as the unprecedentedly high cost of fuel, food and medicines – there is room for improvement. For now, the PT is calling for the abolition of the ceiling on social spending established after the coup against Dilma, and reform of regressive labour laws.

Security may prove more divisive, and more intractable: it is the far right’s bread and butter, and far more Brazilian citizens are now armed, following the US model of paranoid conspiracy, than was the case as recently as 2018. On Tuesday, there were 11 murders in Salvador – tying a recent record – and in 2021, homicide was up 11 per cent over 2020. This state of affairs favours ACM Neto, a former mayor of Salvador and regional power broker, in his bid to be governor of Bahia. Like many of Bolsonaro’s former allies at the state level, Neto has distanced himself from the president in order to be a viable candidate.

Yesterday was the day of cleansing of Senhor do Bomfim: an important day in the regional ritual calendar since the 18th century, in part because of its relation to the orisha Oxalá in Candomblé. Established by a Portuguese naval captain, it is associated with surviving tempests at sea. Last year it was cancelled. This year, the ceremony was modified to commemorate the more than 650,000 people who have died of Covid in Brazil.


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