South America’s biggest economy at a crossroads due to pandemic

By Maria Angelica Troncoso

Rio de Janeiro, May 24 (efe-epa).- Two months after Sao Paulo state authorities imposed what has proved to be a leaky lockdown to try and limit the spread of the coronavirus, the government of Brazil’s richest and most populous state is discussing whether to impose a complete and total quarantine due to the apparently unchecked rise in the number of cases or allow people to continue circulating and certain economic activities to continue to avoid an economic catastrophe.

The crossroads will be defined in the coming days by Gov. Joao Doria who, despite the measures he has already implemented to strengthen the lockdown, has not managed to get most Sao Paulo residents to remain indoors.

The situation has motivated him to plan for the possibility of ordering a total quarantine, a measure that would extend the economic paralysis for even longer in the region in exchange for preserving the health and the lives of many of its people.

Sao Paulo, with 46 million residents – 22 percent of Brazil’s population – is the epicenter of the pandemic in the country, having suffered more than 6,000 deaths and some 81,000 cases, according to the latest official tally. In Brazil, the country with the second most coronavirus cases in the world, Covid-19 has taken the lives of more than 22,000 people and infected at least 350,000, although assorted studies say that the “true” number of cases could be up to 15 times greater due to the chronic and severe underreporting of cases here.

Sao Paulo state, known as the “engine” of Brazil’s economy, launched its lockdown on March 24, a week after the country’s first Covid-19 death, which in fact occurred in the same-named state capital.

The social isolation rate in Sao Paulo on that first day of lockdown was 54 percent but the maximum level attained was only 59 percent and never got close to the 70 percent that health authorities said conceivably would result in shutting down the spread of the virus.

The governor’s initial idea was not to impose the lockdown for very long and he even began thinking about gradually reopening the economy starting on May 11 but the same dilemma that now, two weeks later, has placed him at a dire crossroads, forced him to back off at that time.

Although Doria guaranteed that the state’s industrial base would not shut down amid the lockdown, dozens of factories, mainly vehicle manufacturers, halted their activities anyway because of the situation and ordered their workers to go on vacation.

The pressure to reactivate the businesses of the region is strong and new measures have been tried in recent weeks in a failed attempt to get the public to remain in their homes to control the infection rate and, hopefully, get to a point where economic activities could be normalized.

And rightly so, for Sao Paulo is responsible for more than a third of the national GDP and for almost 40 percent of Brazil’s industrial production.

Add to that the fact that it’s an important logistical link in the country’s multi-faceted supply chain, since the huge port of Santos is located there, Latin America’s largest maritime terminal.

The aim of implementing the quarantine in Sao Paulo was the same as that in countries like Spain, Italy and the US, namely to keep the maximum number of people inside their homes to prevent chaos in – or the collapse of – the public health system due to the lack of a vaccine and of medications that would help contain the virus.

However, several things have propelled the people out into the streets.

The main one has been the need among the poorest to earn money to feed themselves. They cannot remain at home and need to go out to make something to buy food for their families.

The essential workers also must be out and about, those who must be relied upon to prevent the total collapse of society and who amount to tens of thousands of people in Sao Paulo state, most of them in the state capital.

Then there are the unemployed, people who are neither in school nor working. A group that includes retirees, the elderly and young people who have not yet been able to get into university or the labor force.

And amid the crisis there have also been the vehement disagreements between ultrarightist President Jair Bolsonaro and the state governors, which have served to confuse the public about the seriousness of the pandemic. While Doria is pushing for social isolation, as suggested by numerous scientific studies and the World Health Organization, Bolsonaro has been downplaying the pandemic, calling it just a “little flu” and insisting that people need to get out and back to work because “Brazil can’t stop.”

In fact, on Sunday, hundreds of supporters of Bolsonaro gathered near the Planalto government palace in Brasilia to express their backing of the president, who – without taking any kind of protective measures, such as wearing a facemask or gloves – mixed closely with the crowd, ignoring health warnings.

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