Brazil leaves its many poor hanging amid coronavirus surge
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Work had already dried up for Ivanilson Gervásio when the coronavirus first emerged in Brazil in late February. As cases now surge amid a simultaneous implosion of Latin America’s largest economy, hope of finding a job is gone, forcing Gervásio to line up for hours outside a state-owned bank for a $110 monthly government handout.
His goal was to buy beef to feed his 6-year-old daughter, who hasn’t had it for a month.
Multitudes of destitute Brazilians like Gervásio face bureaucratic delays in getting assistance, amid fraud and a disjointed emergency response by federal officials. Authorities even launched a cell phone app for the payouts, although many people have only rudimentary mobile devices.
So Gervásio, like many Brazilians, had to leave home amid a lockdown aimed at halting the spread of the virus and go to a Caixa Economica Federal bank.
As crowds swarmed the bank’s branches across the country, President Jair Bolsonaro was hit with increasing criticism for a slow response in helping the poorest during the crisis.
He already had been slammed by the left and the right for downplaying the health risk and for delaying a rescue of the economy.
The coronavirus has killed more than 5,400 people in Brazil, the most in Latin America, but even local policymakers admit the toll is much higher. They expect the deaths to peak sometime in May.
Big lines emerged across the country on Monday after the emergency aid announced at the start of April was finally freed up. The aid package will help as many as 24 million citizens working in the informal economy without any benefits, representing more than 10 percent of the population.
Gervásio, wearing an improvised black and yellow mask, was typical of the would-be recipients: He doesn’t have a bank account and barely understands the aid distribution app. Unemployed for six years and getting by on odd jobs, he had to use a friend’s phone to register for the benefit.
“There’s no food at home,” said Gervásio, tears welling as he described depending on neighbors for food. “We are not afraid of the coronavirus, but starvation is cruel.”
In the same line was manicurist Maiara Sales, 31, who left her disabled 5-year-old son at home to go to the bank to report that someone had stolen her identity and her first $110 payment.
“I can’t even remove the email that was registered as mine,” she said, adding that many in her neighborhood are hungry. “I see people crying, people who need to eat. The government needs to be more organized. Either they have the money to pay us or they don’t.”
Bolsonaro argues that workers in Brazil’s informal economy are suffering because of the stay-at-home recommendations he opposes that were put in place by governors and mayors. He insists that most Brazilians should be allowed to go back to work, with exceptions for at-risk groups like the elderly or those with underlying health problems.
But the governors counter that Bolsonaro has not released enough federal funds for them to fight the pandemic. Most of the country’s states and cities were already strapped for cash before the crisis, they say.
Even the wealthy governor of Sao Paulo state, João Doria, who made a fortune in marketing, backs stronger state intervention.
“By saving lives, we will be able to save the economy,” Doria said last month.
Doria, one of Bolsonaro’s strongest critics, said his own decision to shut down the state of Sao Paulo — Brazil’s most populous — generated intense opposition from his private sector friends, including one who called him “upset, enraged.”
“I told him that at the end of this pandemic, I will have helped save his life, his family,” Doria said. “And that is because we are taking the right measures.”
Sao Paulo received about $20 billion in emergency federal funds at the start of April but nothing since then, Doria said.
Brazil’s Senate is expected to vote next week on a package of nearly $17 billion for states and cities to compensate for economic losses. Although the lower house of Congress approved it, Economy Minister Paulo Guedes has said handing out the emergency aid would be like doling out a blank check.
Guedes, a free market champion, had rallied much of the business community behind Bolsonaro’s victorious 2018 presidential campaign with promises to privatize many state-owned companies, cut government spending and open up largely closed sectors of the economy to more foreign investment.
Despite Guedes’ aversion to giving out federal funding, Bolsonaro’s administration has acknowledged a need for financial relief.
Caixa slashed interest rates on overdrafts and credit card installment payments, and the government allowed all citizens to withdraw the equivalent of one month’s minimum wage — about $195 — from state-run retirement accounts required for all working Brazilians. The federal government is also sending doctors to some coronavirus hot spots, like the Amazon city Manaus, where coffins have piled up in common graves.
The market-friendly reforms that Bolsonaro and Guedes want to push through is the opposite of what the government should focus on for the foreseeable future, said Monica de Bolle, a Brazilian senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
De Bolle said she expects Brazil’s economy to contract 9% this year, more than it did in the country’s 2015-16 recession, and that unemployment will rise above 20%.
Bolsonaro’s economic team was still focusing on economic reforms in March as coronavirus cases rose, instead of getting resources to those who most needed them, she told an online panel Tuesday sponsored by the Washington-based Wilson Center.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime crisis we’ve never seen before in Brazil,” she said.
Bolsonaro also has been consumed this week with a political crisis that erupted after the exit of his justice minister, Sergio Moro.
Asked about the death toll in Brazil this week surpassing that of China, Bolsonaro responded: “So what?”
He added: “I am sorry. What do you want me to do?”
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Miami contributed.