More than 100 protests against president of Jair Bolsonaro were held over the weekend, including this demonstration in Brasilia. (Photo by Gustavo Minas/Getty Images)

Why half a million Covid-19 deaths in Brazil matter for New Zealand

There could hardly be a more profound and painful contrast than the response between the two nations, writes Taciano L Milfont.

Tens of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets across the country over the weekend to protest President Jair Bolsonaro’s appalling handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. I was with them in spirit. The distance between the land I grew up in and my new home, New Zealand, has never seemed greater. 

I felt that distance, too, last week, when I gave a public talk at Café Scientifique in Tauranga summarising our research on the psychological impacts of Covid-19 in New Zealand and 48 nations.

I concluded the talk emphasising how fortunate we were to have a 100-plus gathering while my family and friends in Brazil have been unable to enjoy similar gatherings safely since the beginning of 2020. Audience members were horrified when I described the current Covid-19 situation there, with more than 16 million cases and a death toll close to surpassing half a million people. The loss of life is staggering, equivalent to 2,488 Airbus A320 filled with passengers.

One of the first questions asked from the audience was why Brazilians are not mobilising to change the situation, given the very high number of Covid-19 cases and related deaths, which amount to what has been described as the worst crisis in the history of the country’s health service. The protests offer some answer: clearly Brazilians are mobilising. One protest slogan read: “If people go to streets to protest during a pandemic, it is because the government is more dangerous than the virus.”

But I found myself struggling to provide a totally satisfactory answer. Not because I couldn’t explain what had led to such a dreadful situation in my home country, but because the audience was unaware just how close the danger had been to arriving here in New Zealand. Let me explain. 

Before the 2018 Brazilian presidential election that saw the far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro assume power, I was vocal about the risks he posed to Brazilian democracy and why this should worry New Zealanders. Despite his outrageous rhetoric and actions, many believed he would temper his excesses as president and work for the benefit of all. The current health crisis unequivocally proves such a view to be naive and wrong.

His denial and dismissal of the pandemic have been extensively documented, and I briefly summarised it to my audience. This included claiming Covid-19 was just a “little flu” and telling Brazilians to “stop whining”. One study has confirmed that his dismissal of the risks of the virus influenced weak social distancing measures in pro-government areas. Another study revealed areas where support for him is high have been more negatively impacted in case numbers and deaths.

Something that many New Zealanders are unaware of is that Bolsonaro won the offshore vote in this country. I find it astonishing that despite the unprecedented health crisis affecting their families and friends, many Brazilians who live here continue to support him. In my experience, those who still back him rarely let it slip in English, knowing how astonished their New Zealand friends and colleagues are likely to be.

Let’s be clear about whom we are talking: a leader who publicly and emphatically denies the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic. Who has failed in his responsibility to prevent the deaths of citizens, and who even refused, last year, to buy vaccines that were offered. Who has failed to visited hospitals and medical professionals dealing with the crisis to offer support and assess their needs, and has barely expressed a word of proper condolence to thousands of families who have lost loved ones. Who just last week dismissed as “stupid” those taking social distancing measures. Who refuses to wear a face mask and continues to lead massive gatherings. (Not to mention his lack of action to stop increasing deforestation levels of the Amazon forest, crimes against Indigenous populations, and corruption scandals encircling him and his family.)

When presented with this account of what has been happening in Brazil my audience was shocked. I would say to my fellow Brazilians in New Zealand who cling still to Bolsonaro this: here you enjoy the ability to gather and be safe, you are reaping the general benefits of competence and New Zealand’s life. How can you in good conscience do so, while the evidence from home is so overwhelming, and measured in blood?

Taciano L Milfont is a reader in psychology at the University of Waikato – Tauranga. He completed his PhD at the University of Auckland, and has been living in New Zealand permanently since 2003. Views expressed in this article are those of the author.

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