Credit Image: Marcos Correa/President Brazil/Planet Pix via ZUMA Wire Brasilia DF Brazil

OPINION – Brazil Must Learn from East Asia to Contain the Spread of Covid-19

Judging from the chaotic ways in which Brazil is failing to contain the spread of P1, a new variant of Covid-19, it should depoliticize the handling of Covid-19 and learn urgently from how East Asian states and cities (Mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, South Korea and Taiwan) stop the rapid spread of the deadly disease.

If not, the hyper politicization of handling Covid-19 does not bode well for the human safety and economic future of Brazil in the coming years.

In early April 2021, it was reported that the health system in many Brazilian cities was close to collapse due to the records of some 333,000 deaths, 13 million infected cases, and 11 million recovered cases since the pandemic began.

Over 80 per cent of the hospital beds were occupied in 25 of 27 states in Brazil. From May 2020 to March 2021, the spike in the number of deaths and infected cases kept rising without any effective curbs.

It was reported that the P1 variant is more easily transmittable than the original version of Covid-19. This new type of Covid-19 can evade immunity and reinfect patients at a figure of 25 per cent to 60 per cent.

Although global health experts have called on Brazil to implement strict quarantine measures, strict social distancing and even city lockdowns, the Brazilian leadership appears to turn a blind eye to such well-intentioned advice.

Although Brazil ordered 200 million doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca and CoronaVac vaccines, only 4 per cent of 8 million people had their first dose of vaccination – a slow rate that cannot protect the population against the rapidly spreading and lethal disease. Some studies have shown that both Oxford-AstraZeneca and CoronaVac vaccines can help Brazilian citizens to resist the P1 variant.

Given that Covid-19 can spread easily across national boundaries, Brazil’s neighbours such as Columbia, Argentina, Venezuela and Chile – have found P1 in their territories. This is an alarming sign that calls for all South American states to adopt stricter measures of containing the spread of Covid-19 to protect the lives of their own citizens.

Even Canada found some 550 cases of the P1 virus in Alberta on April 3.

While most South American states did adopt strict quarantine measures, Brazil has been adopting a largely laissez-faire approach to dealing with the disease – a problem compounded by the failure of the central government to work with the local states to curb Covid-19.

It was reported that some local states were taking measures to control Covid-19, but the federal government advocates a loose approach, a problem accompanied by the top Brazilian leaders who have clearly underestimated the rapidly spreading and extremely deadly nature of the disease. 

President Jair Bolsonaro is reportedly an admirer of former US President Donald Trump and adopts a laissez-faire approach to tackling Covid-19. In 2020, Bolsonaro dismissed some officials who advocated a tough and more authoritarian approach to containing the disease. 

In March 2021, he reshuffled six cabinet ministers, including a China hawk and Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo, amid mounting criticisms that his government failed to get more vaccines from China and the US.

Given the abysmal failure of the Trump administration to stop the spread of Covid-19 until Joe Biden became the president in early 2021 and given the failure of any laissez-faire approach to dealing with Covid-19, Brazil is heading for a human disaster unless its top leadership and health officials learn urgently from the successful cases of East Asia to control Covid-19.

The East Asian approach to containing Covid-19 has three types: the authoritarian model of China, the democratic model of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and the semi-authoritarian model of Hong Kong and Macau.

The first authoritarian model was characterized by the rapid lockdown of cities, strict quarantine measures, heavy penalties on all citizens who violated the rules, the rapid local production of vaccines, strict border control with the outside world, and the mobilization of people to get vaccinated.

The second democratic model was characterized by incremental steps of border control, strict quarantine measures, the use of technology in tracing all the networks and origins of the virus-carriers, the mobilization of citizens to wear masks, and the extensive cleaning of public places.

The Hong Kong and Macau model is located somewhere between the mainland Chinese authoritarianism and the democratic model, including the features of strict quarantines, necessary border control, the mobilization of all citizens to wear masks and observe personal hygiene, the appeals to citizens to get vaccinations, the cleaning of public places, the tracing of the sources of virus-carriers, and the government’s subsidies of those citizens and enterprises in need for urgent financial support.

Brazil as a weak developmental state must learn from at least the democratic model of South Korea, Japan and Taiwan to contain the disease as soon as possible. The early phase of the US approach to dealing with Covid-19 – the Trump administration’s laissez-faire approach – proved to be a failure. Any Brazilian move to follow suit is a recipe for humanitarian, economic and political disaster.

Critics of the Bolsonaro administration have pointed to its tendency of ignoring scientific advice from health officials. In any effective combat against Covid-19, politicians must follow the advice of medical experts, who know how the world can deal with the deadly disease effectively.

Other critics have warned that Brazil must show its determination and capability to control the spread of the disease to rescue its reputation, because it had a good reputation of advancing agile and creative solutions to such medical crises as H.I.V. infections and the Zika outbreak.

At the very least, a basic but massive campaign of mobilizing all Brazilians to wear masks, stay homes, impose lockdowns in cities and even rural areas, and enforce social distancing measures will be a necessity to cope with the current crisis. However, some observers have said that rural poverty in Brazil means that social distancing appears to be practically difficult.

In any case, the federal government must show its leadership and determination to assist all municipal cities and local states to control the spread of the disease through the distribution of financial subsidies, and the implementation of a comprehensive plan of requiring all citizens to wear masks, stay homes at least for a short period of time, strict quarantine and much tougher social distancing measures.

Some critics have said that the central government in Brazil even allowed decrees to be signed by the president to let religious services, beauty salons, barbershops, and gyms open, while legislative measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 (such as mandated wearing of masks in prisons) were even vetoed.

If so, there have been over politicization of the handling of Covid-19.

Some Brazilian politicians and authorities have failed to learn from the temporarily successful cases in East Asian states to control the spread of the deadly Covid-19.

If politics is allowed in the process of controlling Covid-19, it must include decisiveness, full respect of the advice from health experts, and most importantly a temporary sacrifice of economic operation in favor of strict quarantine measures. Short-term economic pain is a must to deal with Covid-19, which will hopefully fade away under the conditions of the self-discipline of the masses and the apolitical but decisive nature of governmental leadership.

In short, if Brazil is encountering a crisis of governance in coping with the new variant of Covid-19, it must look to the East Asian models of controlling the spread of Covid-19. Good politics rather than bad politics must be deployed in dealing with deadly infectious diseases, which can kill the lives of millions inside and across national boundaries.