New York — On May 19, 2020, two notable events occurred in Brazil: for the first time in the country, there were more than a thousand COVID-19 deaths and its president, Jair Bolsonaro, gave an interview via Instagram to the blog website de Magno where he said, laughing, “The one on the right takes chloroquine, the one on the left takes Tubaína”, a brand of soft drinks from the interior of the state of São Paulo. Bolsonaro’s words revealed one of the most marked consequences of the coronavirus infection: the ignorance and insensitivity of numerous politicians worldwide in their response to the pandemic.
It takes some chutzpah by Jadir Bolsonaro and Donald Trump to promote the use of chloroquine and one of its derivatives, hydroxychloroquine, medicines used against malaria, to combat the coronavirus pandemic. They did this against the opinion of their own medical experts, who alerted them on the high risk of taking these medications due to their negative consequences on the heart, since they can even cause death.
These attitudes occurred when Brazil is the country most affected by the coronavirus pandemic worldwide with more than a thousand deaths a day, and the United States has more than 95,000 deaths and more than 1.5 million people infected. They underscore the irresponsible attitudes of many political leaders, who put their personal interests and faulty beliefs before the health and survival of their own citizens.
The coronavirus pandemic, like few other events worldwide, has clearly revealed the best, and the worst of people. The best, because it has shown how, thanks to the heroic work of hundreds of thousands of health workers, millions of people have been saved from dying from a deadly infection. The worst, because leaders like Bolsonaro and Trump, with their refusal to accept the danger of the pandemic, have put millions of citizens at risk.
In the case of President Trump, his conduct is even more worrisome because he has shown the most prejudiced characteristics of his personality. The Trump administration has sealed the border to immigrants and turned away tens of thousands of people. In addition, and this represents a tremendous health risk in recipient countries, many among those who have been sent back to their countries are infected with the coronavirus. Guatemala’s health minister, Hugo Monroy, said, “The United States has become the Wuhan of the Americas.”
Both in Brazil and in the United States, the number of infected people continues to increase rapidly. Sᾶo Pablo, the largest city in the Western Hemisphere, is fast becoming a hot center of the pandemic, and hospitals are already at the height of their capacity of response.
“It’s one body after another, we don’t stop,” says James Alan, a coordinator of gravediggers in Vila Formosa, a gigantic necropolis in São Paulo in an interview by Carlos Meneses Sánchez for the EFE agency. The workload is so great, says Alan, that they often have to perform some burials in the dark, by the light of their cell phones. The situation is so pressing that the Governor of the State of São Paulo declared, “In Brazil we have two types of viruses, the coronavirus and the Bolsonaro virus.”
Another consequence caused by the pandemic is that it has made evident the deficiencies of the countries’ health information systems. This hinders the possibility of having an adequate idea of the breath and progression of the pandemic. This is a particularly serious problem in developing countries whose already poor health systems are overwhelmed by this new situation. In Brazil, public health experts estimate that the actual figures on the pandemic are 15 times higher than those officially released.
Given these circumstances and the great variability of manifestations of the coronavirus, it is impossible to predict what will happen in the coming months, and for how long we will have to deal with the effects of coronavirus infection. To insist that the virus will magically disappear is a fallacy.
César Chelala is an international public health consultant and the author of AIDS: A Modern Epidemic, a publication of the Pan American Health Organization.