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In Brazil, ‘the virus has struck pretty ferociously’

Brazil is on track to become the newest hotspot in the coronavirus pandemic with more than 300,000 confirmed cases and at least 20,000 deaths from COVID-19. A lack of social distancing mandates and warnings are contributing to the rise. Hari Sreenivasan spoke with New York Times reporter Ernesto Londoño from Rio de Janeiro to learn more.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As of Friday, Brazil is on track to become the newest hotspot in the coronavirus pandemic with more than 300,000 confirmed cases and at least 20,000 deaths from COVID-19.

    A lack of social distancing mandates and warnings are contributing to the rise. I recently spoke with New York Times reporter Ernesto Londono from Rio de Janeiro.

    Ernesto, we've been hearing quite a bit about Latin America and how COVID-19 is working its way through South America as well.

    Where is Brazil at right now in terms of infections, deaths, how people are affected?

  • Ernesto Londono:

    Brazil is now clearly the epicenter in Latin America. We're seeing upwards of 800 new deaths each day and contagion is growing. So health officials here and local officials are warning that the next few months are going to be very, very hard. They're looking at a breakdown of health care systems in areas where the virus has struck pretty ferociously. And unfortunately, the approach has been rather erratic.

    On the one hand, you have the president telling people, get back to work, you know, with these shut downs and these lockdowns don't make good sense. Let the virus burn out while local officials and doctors are pleading with people to stay indoors if they can.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And this disagreement has gone all the way up as high as the health minister.

  • Ernesto Londono:

    That is correct.

    Brazil has seen two health ministers leave pretty abruptly over the past two over the past month. The first one, Minister Mandetta, had a very acrimonious relationship with the president. You had a really surreal situation where the health ministry was telling people these lockdowns measures, these quarantines make sense if you adhere to them. It will allow us to keep the system from being overloaded and it will prevent deaths.

    And at the same time, his boss, the president, was encouraging people to take to the streets. He himself was walking around, you know, spurring people to gather around him, shaking hands and essentially saying that this virus was not a big deal if people wanted to make it out to be. And that these lockdowns would be ruinous for the economy.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Where is the health care infrastructure of Brazil, especially considering some of the incredibly dense urban areas? What's the likelihood that someone that's living in one of these favelas that has access to a hospital? How expensive is it to get treated if they do come down with symptoms?

  • Ernesto Londono:

    Brazil has a fairly robust primary health care system, and in the past it has risen to health care challenges. And in a way that has won it praise abroad. However, there have been cuts in funding over the past couple of years as the economy has been struggling and we're really feeling the effects of that. So it really varies on where in the country you are.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Also, put this in the context of what else is happening in Brazil right now. I mean, how severe of an impact is this to the Brazilian economy?

  • Ernesto Londono:

    It has been a huge blow to the Brazilian economy, but I think it also has to be looked through the lens of what's happening politically. You have a president who has become a pariah abroad on the global stage as a result of other policies such as his approach to the environment.

    And now there are growing calls for his impeachment. And there are criminal investigations into his conduct and those of people around him, including his children. So President Bolsonaro is very much a politician in survival mode who has not been able to mount a coherent and robust response to the coronavirus crisis as we've seen other world leaders do in recent weeks.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Has that shaken his base of support. Do the people who love President Bolsonaro agree with his views on, well, public health in this case?

  • Ernesto Londono:

    It does seem to be changing. The nature of his support and his popularity numbers appear to be dropping, although not dramatically. You know, I think there's a lot of people in the population who are very worried about their job prospects, their ability to put food on the table. So I think it's early to know just how the president's stance on this is going to play out politically.

    Some analysts say that at the end of the day, when the economy takes a huge hit some months from now and the unemployment numbers go through the roof and you really start feeling the pain that is building, building up slowly right now.

    The governors who have been calling for quarantines and lockdowns may pay a bigger price than the president, who could be able to sort of bill himself as the one who was looking after the working class and the poor.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Ernesto Londono of The New York Times joining us from Rio, thanks so much.

  • Ernesto Londono:

    My pleasure.

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