By Eduardo Davis
Brasilia, May 21 (efe-epa).- Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his country’s 27 state governors set aside some of their differences on Thursday to provide a measure of unity against Covid-19 at a time when the pandemic is accelerating in the South American giant.
Brazil today is one of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus and Bolsonaro, one of the world’s most skeptical leaders regarding the seriousness of the situation, reached minimal agreements with lower-echelon elected leaders regarding federal financial aid to the country’s states and municipalities as some 19,000 Brazilians have died and 292,000 have been definitively confirmed to have become infected with the virus.
He did so in a videoconference with governors and lawmakers in which financial aid was barely mentioned and the president’s tough criticism of – and opposition to – quarantines and other measures adopted by local governments to limit the spread of the virus, which Bolsonaro calls “a little flu,” were not mentioned at all.
The meeting revolved around a financial aid program to the states and municipalities already approved by Parliament but still not green-lighted by the president.
The bill sets forth that the federal government will distribute a total of 120 billion reais (about $21 billion) to the states and municipalities to combat the coronavirus, of which the first half will be released piecemeal over the coming four months.
However, in return for supporting it, Bolsonaro said he intended to introduce a clause that freezes the salaries of all federal, regional and municipal public officials until the end of 2021, a move that was accepted on Thursday by the local government leaders.
As Bolsonaro said, it’s a “share of sacrifice” that is being asked of the public sector amid a profound crisis in which informal workers and private business so far have been the most heavily affected.
According to figures from the Economy Ministry, since the pandemic erupted in Brazil a total of about eight million workers in the private sector have seen their workshifts and pay reduced.
In addition, although about 12 million people were unemployed before the health crisis, now some 50 million informal workers have managed to survive thanks to a governmental subsidy of 600 reais ($110), the distribution of which has been beset with serious logistical problems.
Since the first coronavirus case was detected in Brazil on Feb. 26, this was the second meeting Bolsonaro has held with governors and, in contrast to the earlier meeting, agreement and dialogue was the order of the day instead of arguments and shouting matches.
Bolsonaro, who on other occasions has accused governors of pushing the country towards “bankruptcy” by restricting economic activities, this time expressed more caution and concern about Covid-19
He proposed a broader dialogue, adding that “continuity must be given to the efforts of everyone in seeking to mitigate problems and reach those who are affected by the crisis, the size of which we still don’t know,” but the seriousness of which is clear, he emphasized.
“We know how this is harming Brazil and the whole world,” said the ultrarightist leader, who despite his softer tone focused much more on the economic effects and the impact on employment than on the more human and health elements of the crisis.
“We have to work together,” Bolsonaro declared, receiving support for this stance from the governors, along with Senate chief Davi Alcolumbre and Chamber of Deputies leader Rodrigo Maia, who also have been the targets of censure on the part of the president’s supporters, who have gone so far as to demand the “closure” of Parliament and the Supreme Court.
Gov. Joao Doria of Sao Paulo state, the country’s industrial and financial heartland, who has had very harsh confrontations with Bolsonaro over the quarantines that he imposed in his tate, was one of those who hailed the president’s tone on this occasion.
“Brazil needs to be united,” said Doria. “We’re going forth in peace. We’re going to work for Brazil and we’re going together,” he said in his speech.
The head of the Senate made similar comments, adding that “now is the time to raise the white flag” because the country “is at war” against the coronavirus “and in wars everyone loses.”