Brazil’s Unpreparedness for Coronavirus Outbreak Paints a Grim Picture of How it Will React to Climate Change

Brazil’s Unpreparedness for Coronavirus Outbreak Paints a Grim Picture of How it Will React to Climate Change

Like most countries in recent months, Brazil has been severely hit by the recent coronavirus outbreak. In some regions, the governments’ rapid decision-taking and strong health institutions provide hope that nations can quickly overcome global crises and are ready to sacrifice short term economic profit for the health of the planet. However, in Brazil the coronavirus pandemic brings yet grimmer news when it comes to climate change: An utter and complete lack of preparation, and no consistent outline of an economic plan of recovery.

First, it is important to explain how the spread of the virus can be seen as an important lesson on the Brazilian government’s plans to tackle climate change once it comes to it. Of course, COVID-19 and climate change are different types of crises. While the pandemic will eventually be over, scientists predict that climate change will cause devastation for decades to come, even considering cuts to emissions, and it cannot be solved with technology improvement alone. However, both crises are similar in the sense that we can think of the response to COVID-19 as a measure for how Brazil is going to be able to react to Climate Change, and health and economic recovery policies can have very relevant consequences on climate in the years to come.

The first main topic worth discussing is the healthcare system. It is clear that well-resourced healthcare systems are essential to protect us from health security threats, which will eventually include climate change. In Brazil, a lack of hospital beds, masks, testing devices, and trained staff to deal with COVID-19 brings a stark warning. The latest assessment of the public healthcare system raises serious questions about its capacity to face the outbreak in a country of nearly 210 million. Brazil’s only response relating to that has been to declare a state of public calamity, which could allow the government to exceed spending caps and boost spending on health care. This has yet to be seen if it will effectively take place.

Furthermore, it is interesting to point out the need to target policies to the most vulnerable groups, which is relevant not only for protection against climate change but also right now in dealing with COVID-19 in Brazil. All types of health shocks have in common that they hit the poorest and the most vulnerable the hardest. They act as poverty multipliers and force families into extreme poverty (due to them not being able to pay for specific treatments when the public healthcare system eventually becomes crowded.) Also, there is an important impact relating to vulnerable groups having the least ability to afford protection measures. Other countries solution for the COVID-19 outbreak serve little as a model for the 30 million people who have no sanitation (or for the 11 million who live in thousands of favelas spread across areas that account for twice the size of the European Union) and, therefore, are unable to follow the most basic recommendations to avoid contagion. Washing your hands often with soap and water is not an option and with each passing day, a rise in the price makes gel alcohol more of an unattainable luxury. Working from home is completely unviable for individuals in less qualified jobs such as cleaning or that are not in the formal market. 

The only concrete solutions done so far relating to poor income individuals in Brazil is the Senate’s recent assistance package to give an estimated 30.8 million informal workers a $115 monthly subsidy for three months. Although a step in the right direction, it is not nearly close to the minimum wage to ensure basic living standards. Above everything, it is a short-term measure that is necessary but does not suggest careful planning to offset coronavirus related impacts for Brazilian workers. 

The effect on vulnerable groups represents, furthermore, more than the low-income individuals for Brazil: the indigenous communities, an essential group in the fight for environmental protection, is also cause for worry. The first coronavirus case among indigenous communities was confirmed on April 1. Health experts warn that the spreading virus could be lethal for Brazil’s estimated 900,000 indigenous people, who have been decimated for centuries by diseases brought by Europeans, from smallpox and malaria to the flu. It is yet to be seen if the government plans to create special policies to deal with the virus in such communities. But many social scientists predict that COVID-19 on the indigenous community can have devastating effects that could heavily influence the strength of activism cause for the environment and climate change in Brazil. Therefore, it would be essential to have such groups targeted in any recovery or contingent plan done by the Brazilian government.

Both the need for climate change adaptability and controlling the coronavirus situation require a global-to-local response and long-term thinking and it is clear that governments will need to be guided by science in all of the recovery plans. Brazilian President Bolsonaro’s alarming response to the COVID-19 pandemic in many ways parallels the ultra-right leader’s handling of the climate crisis. By refusing to listen to experts in the scientific community and take aggressive action to mitigate the impact, as well as by prioritizing short-term economic growth over everything else, he has proven himself more than anything unfit to lead. Bolsonaro’s response to the crisis has been undeniably reckless, downplaying the virus as a “little flu” and saying he does not need to worry because of his “past as an athlete”. Additionally, he has been urging his country’s governors to roll back lockdown measures they have taken to fight the virus’ spread and to only isolate high-risk people.  He dismissed concerns that Brazil could become the next Italy, citing Brazil’s warmer weather and younger population. He even fired his appointed Minister of Health for contradicting his assessment over the coronavirus pandemic. This in many ways mimics his government response to climate change: claiming environmentalism as a left-wing plot, he has ignored the advice of climate scientists, moving to expand oil and gas development and rolling back environmental protections, which have caused deforestation rates to skyrocket in the Amazon. Bolsonaro’s inability to navigate Brazil through these dual crises brings more proof that he is an extraordinarily dangerous president, with his administration presenting an existential threat to public health and to the planet. 

Recently, a webinar from the Regional and Urban Economics Lab of the University of São Paulo (NEREUS/USP) presented on-going research on what can be the expected development of the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequential economic impacts in Brazil under different scenarios. The overall message of all the different economist panelists present in the discussion was of the importance of strengthening lockdown measures, and the likely outcomes for the virus regional transmission if it is ignored and the emphasis is continued to be put on reviving economic activity.

As stressed here many times, the efforts to revive economic activity and deal with the necessary economic shutdown due to coronavirus are the elements that will help determine the shape of Brazil’s economy for the near future. That is to say, the stimulus plans, bailouts, and back-to-work programs being developed now. In Brazil, a country severely hit by economic crises and political instability in recent years, there is not enough room in the budget for all actions that are needed, and many tradeoffs will likely ensue in the near future. So far, the federal government has not outlined any systematic economic recovery plans, with the exception of a few exogenous money injections mentioned here. The government is rather concentrating on instigating campaigns against quarantines that were imposed at the state levels. Campaigns entitled “Brazil Cannot Stop” are misleading, paraphrasing remarks by the head of the World Health Organization to assert that informal workers should continue to go out and that hunger might kill more than the virus in developing countries. Bolsonaro’s current plan for economic recovery seems to be avoiding the much-needed hardening of lockdown measures at all costs.

It might be argued that the President is making a calculated bet, while governors are trying to ensure the isolation practices. Bolsonaro can continue to preach that the federal government is focused on promoting economic growth with this simple deniability of the public health guidelines. However, Bolsonaro’s continued deniability of the coronavirus pandemic is much more damaging in the short run than expected, with many Brazilians being convinced to ignore self-isolation steps advocated by his health minister (as documented in satellite data monitoring of cellphones that implies Brazilians are not staying at home). 

Right now, no effective economic recovery plan can be designed without first ensuring that the public health guidelines are being enforced, which has proven to be a constant and likely lasting battle of reasonable Brazilians against the President.

Activity Rating: ** Long-Lived Impact (positive or negative)

It is clear that, above everything, in both the COVID-19 and the climate change crises the political will to make fundamental changes when faced with existential risks is the most relevant factor. And sadly, in Brazil, it currently leaves much to be desired and most likely the impact of the crises will be heavily felt in Brazil’s economy for many years if, as all indicates, no systematic economic recovery plan is done. However, ultimately, as seen with COVID-19, public health is a political choice and one can only hope that coronavirus makes Brazil learn its lesson. Because it represents a choice politicians will be forced to make over and over again as we are forced to transition to a more resilient, zero-carbon, just, and healthier future. Maybe COVID-19 will be the sufficient push to awaken Brazil to the need of preparing for climate change and to take action that promotes the ability to adapt to different outcomes. Unfortunately, the lack of a recovery plan so far by the Brazilian government does not seem to point in that direction so far.

Take Action:

Please send the following message to the policymaker(s) below. 

Dear Minister,

As the authority in charge of Brazil’s economic public policies, we urge you to look at the recent impact of the coronavirus in the country as a sign of the need to engage in climate change mitigation and/or adaptation. Now, more than ever, it is crucial to develop policies targeting the most vulnerable communities in Brazil and to ensure strong institutions that are able to respond to both the impact of coronavirus in the short run and the environment in the years to come. Denying the need for hardening the lockdown and quarantine in Brazil is not effective and, right now, the federal government should be working on planning a systematic economic recovery plan.


Paulo Roberto Nunes Guedes

Minister of Economy


This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Country Manager Luiza Martins Karpavicius 

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