In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the new Coronavirus pandemic, which spread rapidly as a reflection of the deepening and widening of globalization, thus becoming a concern of the entire international community. South America quickly became one of the areas with the greatest spread of the Sars-Cov-2 virus, especially Brazil, which would become the second largest epicenter of contagion in the world, behind only the United States (USA) in the world ranking.
The Coronavirus came to claim 4000 lives daily on Brazilian territory, a number close to deaths in war arenas. However, the war that Brazilians faced was against denialism, fundamentalism, patriarchy, colonial legacy, and, above all, the total erosion of human rights. Memories of pain and resistance that will last in the history of the country in the face of negligence and deadly policies of the federal government.
The result of the 2018 elections opened a space-time cavity that teleported the Brazilian state and society into a dark age. The era of “Mito” (1) is what a considerable part of the crowd shouts. It can certainly be considered a reality extracted from a short story by George Orwell and Franz Kafka. So, I ask: would it be a dystopia? Or fantastic realism? Literature experts have defined it precisely. In the absence of one of these, one resorts to Philosophy.
Adorno said, elegantly, that “art needs philosophy, which interprets it, to say what it cannot say, although only through art can it be said by not being said”. A polemic maxim perhaps, but of great value in the present case. If Orwell and Kafka create the setting and dictate the illustrative-descriptive rhythm of the current Brazilian state dynamics — saying it without saying it —, Giorgio Agamben theorizes and says, in fact, more than that. Screams loud and clear: State of Exception.
The great merit of Giorgio’s production is to point out the political violence of the institute of exception present in the constitutional letters, which are commonly inserted as State of Emergency, Siege, War, etc. Through the historical incursion carried out in Homo Sacer I and II, the Italian proves the democratic risk present in the justifying foundation behind the creation of these mechanisms. This constitutes an attempt to formalize, within the limits of legalism, what cannot have a legal character. In other words, the constitutional order grants the political leader the possibility of suspending it.
The institutionalization of the sovereignty of the people, through a due constitutional process, in the Democratic State of Law should not admit, not even under the pretext of exceptionality, the possibility of activating a gear that LEGITIMATE the partial — or full – suppression of the constitutional order. If constitutionalism arises from the social need to limit autocratic sovereign power, the insertion of the State of Exception in the EDD precisely resuscitates the political leader.
Agamben, therefore, in denouncing modern totalitarianism, highlights a similar modus operandi among contemporary states, including the so-called democratic ones. It is perceived that national leaders who are not committed to democratic values voluntarily create a permanent state of emergency — even if not declared in the technical sense —that effect practices that erode rights.
The validity of the State of Exception declared or not technically, in democratic constitutions occurs from the use of post-truth techniques of the State vis-a-vis society. The relativization of the objective fact, taken as true – since proven –, in favor of the use of the untrue fact, but with a strong appeal to emotion and consolidated social beliefs, is the foundation of the dialogic process of convincing contemporary autocratic regimes. And the result of that, what is it?
Achille Mbembe answers us: Necropolitics! The one that mainly affects native peoples, quilombolas, Afro-descendants…
Based on untrue discourses and technologies of power, the current autocratic state carries out social control that relativizes life. In other words, it makes value judgments about who can and cannot die. Which life is worth more? It is the question of millions. Giorgio teaches that it is certainly not the lives of political opponents or members of society that are outside the scope of the desirable standard individual in the hegemonic political-social plan. Sound familiar? I try to clarify. Calm. It’s not just a flurry of ideas.
Since 2019, Brazil has been experiencing a surreal scenario. Using strategies from the post-truth phenomenon, the leader of the Federal Executive, with an autocratic tendency, arrived and remains in power. Its management is characterized by the maintenance of a democratic state restricted only to the formal aspect since the reality shows an authoritarian government that promotes an intense policy of state rigging, disinformation, and damage to rights. In other words, Brazil is legally a Democratic State, however, in practice, it is framing of the Agambenian State of Exception concept is notorious.
If dystopia is considered an imaginary scenario in which there is an oppressive or totalitarian current order, then it will be considered that the present Brazilian reality constitutes a dystopia for its population. The criminal management of an authoritarian and equipped state, without commitment to the fundamental rights of its citizens, which promoted health disinformation, was the ideal scenario for the virus to act.
However, if the federal government was the virus’s greatest ally, it, in turn, did not act with reciprocity. The health crisis vilified the economic and health system, which put in full evidence the surreal scene in which Brazilian society lived, generating a considerable loss of political capital for the government. Otherwise, it is not possible to argue that the crisis caused by COVID-19 was the greatest demonstration of the character of constitutional exceptionality that prevails in the Brazilian State, as well as the realization of its necropower. This brings us to a retrospective of facts.
1. Understanding government crimes, the procedural progress of the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI), and violations of the constitutional charter
Due to the disastrous political, institutional, and health management in the face of the crisis caused by COVID-19, a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (PCI or CPI in Portuguese) was established to determine the responsibility of the Head of the Federal Executive Branch. This found the practice of numerous crimes of responsibility, foreseen in Law nº 11.079/1950 and the Federal Constitution of 1988. These being: (i) attack on political, individual, and social rights. Emphasizing that health is one of the fundamental social rights provided for in the Constitution (Law 1079/50, article 4, item III, and article 7. CF.88: article 85, item III); (ii) violation of laws and judicial decisions, highlighting, here, the position of the Federal Public Administration which, countless times, violated the principles provided for in art. 37 of the Constitution: impersonality, publicity, efficiency, administrative morality, and legality (CR.88: art. 85, item VII); (iii) attack on the free exercise of the Legislative Power, the Judiciary Power, and the constitutional powers of the States (Law 1079/50, art. 4, item II).
However, although such crimes were found, the final report sent by the CPI to the Public Ministry has not yet produced effective results, especially due to the strong ideological and political alignment of the current Attorney General of the Republic with the Head of the Federal Executive Branch, President Jair Messias Bolsonaro. Otherwise, the investigation and the measures to be taken, based on the findings of the CPI, are stagnant due to the rigging of the Public Ministry (MP in Portuguese) to the Federal Government, which seriously harms the Constitution, since the main functions of the MP, according to the Magna Law itself, are the defense of the legal order and the protection of social interests.
Herd immunity by infection, as a thesis that goes against the world scientific community, used to attack multilateral organisms, especially against the WHO, was one of the investigative lines of the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry, regarding crimes against humanity committed by the government during the management of COVID-19. The statements of the President of the Republic Jair Bolsonaro, who came to make an apology against the use of masks, mocked the infected and generated crowds of people, as well as federal deputy Osmar Terra, were against the creation of priority public policies. Their objections to social isolation were policies that supported the extermination of thousands of Brazilians. According to Bolsonaro and Terra, the pandemic would only cease when the population was mostly affected by the coronavirus. In this context, the Brazilian public health system was facing overcrowding, and a shortage of beds, oxygen, and medicines.
Scientific denialism and conspiracy theories were instrumentalized in conjunction with a ‘parallel health office’, which would advise ineffective and high-risk treatments such as chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. The situation worsened with the complaints of former employees of the health operator, Prevent Senior, which until then had been supporting the scheme to destroy public health. According to the defense of former employees, the company even used human guinea pigs illegally, including risk groups, such as the elderly, without the consent of these patients. It was found that Prevent Senior would have worked together with the Federal Government to disseminate fake news, fake studies, and experiments, within a large scheme financed by business elites and supporters of the president.
2. The extreme-right is a political phenomenon that affects both levels
The rise of the extreme right internationally is examined in the context of the third wave of autocratization (2010-present) when Fundamental Rights began to be impacted by governments of the new right. Other consequences of the reactionary escalation were the blockades, organized by conservative alliances, to contain the advance of agendas linked to Human Rights and global justice. As a far-right phenomenon, as well as the ideological bases of Trumpism, the governing principles of Bolsonarism list patriotism, the “defense of the family”, ultra-conservatism; authoritarianism, and the rejection of human rights.
There are some explanations for this trend that affects both levels of politics — local and international. Some neo-institutionalists, such as Acemoglu, interpret that it reflects the renewal of the power of the right historically, beyond the discontent of economic stagnation, since, in recent decades, the neoconservative agendas of economic deregulation have contributed to the increase in indices. of inequality and political instability. In the economist’s view, the rise of Trumpism sets up a period of deeper polarization and persistent dysfunctional governance. Levitsky and Ziblat, in the work “How Democracies Die”, published in 2018, explain that the subversion of democracy occurs gradually, whether through chauvinistic actions or speeches that instigate polarization and political violence. This process would continue, therefore, through the neutralization and capture of institutions; also aiming to crush opponents who take a stand against the autocratic pretensions of elected political groups.
During COVID-19, Brazilian institutions underwent more resilience tests. The federal government clashed with the federative units and the other powers (judicial and legislative). Several states and municipalities were guided by the recommendations of the scientific community and the WHO, adopting measures of social isolation. However, Bolsonaro was a great enemy of preventive measures, signing decrees to keep services and commerce running. The tensions led to a response from the Brazilian Superior Court of Justice authorizing the freedom to legislate to the rulers responsible for the states and municipalities according to the delimited jurisdiction of each territory. The government’s reactions in return ranged from threats proposing military interventions, to allusions to the closing of Congress and the Federal Supreme Court.
The intergovernmental impasses that emerged during the pandemic challenged the centralization of power, ratifying subnational autonomy. For these reasons, paradiplomacy played a key role in managing the health crisis within the authoritarian context. Movements and actions gained prominence, such as the Scientific Committee, an initiative of the Northeast Consortium, which helped in the purchase of equipment and rapid tests from abroad. It is worth mentioning the delay in the purchase of vaccines by the federal government (and later the overpricing), which boosted the Government of São Paulo, in the first instance, in partnership with the Butantan Institute, a Brazilian medical institute, and the Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac, to start testing and producing vaccines.
3. Foreign Minister or humanitarian catastrophe supporter? The face of foreign policy guided by Bolsonarism
The former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ernesto Araújo, contributed strongly to the intensive dismantling of Human Rights (HR) in foreign policy during the pandemic, generating diplomatic tensions, in what implied Sino-Brazilian relations, and delaying the purchase of vaccines and receipt of inputs.
Firstly, it is substantial to emphasize that among the bases of Bolsonaro’s foreign policy is a project of retrogression of Human Rights in international politics. To understand Ernesto Araújo’s movements, according to analysts, it is necessary to examine the extreme right foreign policy implemented by the chancellor, which rejects multilateralism, seeking as a governmental alternative the formation of ideological coalitions, which discursively discredit international institutions. What, in some ways, even looks like an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, that is, the construction of a fundamentalist alignment.
It emphasizes some events that profoundly marked the deconstruction of the HR of Brazilian foreign policy, even before COVID-19, such as the theme of corruption being the main one on the agenda, about Human Rights and Democracy, even with many negative opinions by the agencies of monitoring. It is also worth mentioning Bolsonaro’s offenses directed at Michelle Bachellet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the exorbitant structural violence and impunity, exposed in opinions of the Inter-American Human Rights System. Finally, the withdrawal of the United Nations Global Compact for Migration.
Araújo and Bolsonaro have positioned themselves since the beginning of the health crisis by blaming China, using numerous arguments supported by conspiracy theories – about a “Chinese Virus” and a “New Communist World Order” — they attacked not only China, one of the main partners commercial and strategic actions of Brazil, as well as reiterated attacks on multilateralism and international cooperation — regarding the measures of the global community in the fight against the Coronavirus. The government threatened to withdraw Brazil from the WHO, following many of the stances of the Trumpist government in the US.
The former minister, in his article entitled “Chegou o Comunavírus”, in English The Communist Virus Has Arrived, exposed a debate full of climate denialism, anti-globalism, and Anti-Chinese sentiment. One of the reflections of the misinformation was the growing anti-vaccination wave that started to gain strength in the communication channels linked to the extreme right, with false claims about containing a Chinese monitoring chip inside the vaccines. It is worth noting, in the meantime, that the highest percentage of doses administered, and supply of medical and hospital supplies were the result of Chinese partnerships. The government was generating diplomatic tensions with one of the countries that, until then, was a key ally in the fight against the pandemic. During the CPI’s interrogation, the former chancellor denied all his widely documented narratives, shifting diplomatic responsibility for the acquisition and negotiation of vaccines to the Ministry of Health. Brazilian senator Kátia Abreu accused Araújo of having “selective memory”.
4. Make live and let die, complaints against Bolsonaro in the Hague Court
Indigenous populations were strongly affected by the policy of the Bolsonaro government, they face, in addition to state omission, since they were one of the priority groups, the overthrow of protective measures in their territories. During the pandemic, there was a latent increase in invasions of territories and assassinations of leaders.
In the most serious stages of the pandemic, the delegation of the Minister of Defense, Fernando Azevedo e Silva, assistant to the coordinator of the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (SESAI), traveled to the Yanomami Indigenous Lands, disregarding the decision to isolate people from indigenous organizations. It was a government mission with the participation of journalists and the distribution of 33,000 chloroquine pills to Yanomami health units.
Recently, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a human rights agency that represents the countries of the Organization of American States (OAS), called for interventions and policies to contain the damage caused to the health of the Yanomami peoples, mainly caused by the invasion of illegal mining in the reserve. The report by the Hutukara Associação Yanomami (Hay) released in April 2022, showed an increase of more than 200% in environmental degradation in the area affected by illegal mining. In addition, the territory faces outbreaks of epidemics and increased malnutrition.
Bolsonaro carries a series of complaints at the International Criminal Court, also known as the Hague Court, the body responsible for prosecuting individuals for committing crimes against humanity. The complaints regarding COVID-19 are about the international delay in the purchase of vaccines, government measures contrary to the WHO, and others. The other complaints are precisely about the extermination of indigenous people and the destruction of the Amazon. The organizers of one of the main actions against Bolsonaro on the indigenous issue and environmental protection claim that another government mandate would be devastating for humanity, given the destruction of the forest and indigenous peoples.
(1) “Mito” in Portuguese is a nickname for Bolsonaro that recurs among his younger voters.
This article had the participation of Matheus Lobo Custódio Duarte Maia. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Law at PUC-Minas, a postgraduate degree in Public Policy Management at ENAP and is currently an MBA student in Government Relations at FGV.