Russia, Brazil struggle with coronavirus response

The countries once seen as the potential engines of the global economy in the 21st century are struggling to handle the spreading coronavirus, compounding political crises that had already put some of them on the ropes.

Brazil, Russia, India and China — the so-called BRIC nations — have boomed in recent years, fueled by strong commodity prices and nascent technological and manufacturing sectors that have given them a global edge. Since the turn of the century, millions of people in those nations have been lifted out of poverty.

But now, the virus has claimed the upper hand over ruling governments that have either covered up its spread, downplayed its significance or dismissed it altogether. There are widespread fears that the death tolls in all four countries will be, or already are, substantially higher than the official government tallies.

“If you look at the leadership in Brazil, Russia, India and China, we’re talking about autocratic populists,” said Amanda Glassman, chief executive of the Center for Global Development’s European branch. “Once you’re facing a crisis, that leadership style doesn’t hold up very well.” 

China, where the virus first started spreading in the manufacturing hub of Wuhan in mid-November, has cracked down on the doctors who tried to raise early alarms. It didn’t reveal the extent of the disease until late December, after the World Health Organization started asking questions about a cluster of atypical pneumonia. Even today, it’s almost certain that the communist government has not fully disclosed the number of people who suffered from and died of the coronavirus. 

The lockdowns enforced by the Chinese government, one far more draconian than what non-authoritarian countries could enforce, at one point covered hundreds of millions of residents. The country’s economy has only recently begun its first ginger steps toward reopening. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has also been accused of covering up the extent of its coronavirus outbreak. In early April, the head of the nation’s Alliance of Doctors, Anastasia Vasilieva, was detained after she accused Putin’s government of lying about the number of people who had been infected. 

Shortly after Putin visited COVID-19 patients at a hospital in Kommunarka, near Moscow, the facility’s lead doctor tested positive for the coronavirus. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said last week that he had tested positive, as the number of reported cases surged north of 100,000. And Putin has quarantined himself at his dacha near Moscow.

The coronavirus has struck Russia at a politically sensitive moment, just months after Putin reshuffled his government and ahead of a referendum on constitutional changes that would allow him to remain in office for two more terms. In March, Saudi Arabia’s decision to flood the oil market sent prices plummeting, robbing Russia of one of its chief sources of revenue.

A poll conducted in late April found Putin’s approval rating plunging to the lowest point in his 15-year tenure.

“There is a kind of perfect storm when several different very serious crises overlap,” said Nikolai Petrov, a senior research fellow at the London-based Chatham House. “I would call it a crash test.”

The vote on the referendum has been delayed.

Putin, at least, appears to take the threat of the virus seriously. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has called the virus a “little flu,” even though it has infected more than 135,000 people and killed more than 9,200.

He has urged people to defy social distancing measures implemented by governors, and he fired the country’s health minister in mid-April after the minister urged Brazilians to abide by the governors’ orders.

On Sunday, Bolsonaro appeared outside the presidential palace at a right-wing protest calling for the return of military rule.

“Bolsonaro is the leader of a political movement with strong populist characteristics. One of them is anti-elite, anti-establishment rhetoric. This often also means a refusal to believe in science, in issues such as climate change and the pandemic,” said Maurício Santoro, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University. “Bolsonaro has been downplaying its severity since the beginning of the pandemic, saying that is just an ordinary flu and that Brazil’s economy cannot stop because of it.”

Bolsonaro came to power after a recession sent the economy into contraction for 2015 and 2016, when global commodity prices began to slump. He has not had time to build the political power that makes Putin the focal point of Russia’s government, and onetime allies have become enemies. Brazil’s stock market is down almost a third since mid-February.

“The popularity of the president has been falling, although slowly, and Brazil is split in half concerning the desire for his impeachment or resignation. Probably Bolsonaro’s situation will get much worse in the next weeks, as the pandemic reaches the peak in Brazil and the country starts to feel the impacts of the economic recession,” Santoro said.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces less of a political stress test with the coronavirus, but no less of a public health crisis. Modi imposed a broad lockdown that even he acknowledged has hurt the nation’s poorest residents, but many of his rival political parties did the same in states they control, said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst and researcher at Ashoka University near New Delhi.

“The ability to bring the lockdown and do it relatively quickly without any major outburst in a country the size of India is significant,” Rangarajan said.

Modi has taken the crisis more seriously than some of his counterparts around the world, and state governments are now feeding millions of people who have nowhere else to turn. The early lockdowns appear to have paid dividends, though cases have spiked to more than 57,000 in recent weeks. 

Until the virus is brought under control, India’s volatile politics seem to be on hold. The challenge is likely to come in the years ahead, when the public health crisis evolves into an economic one. The country does not have the money to engage in the kinds of large-scale stimulus it provided during the global recession a decade ago.

“I think political leaders are quite aware that if they go in for a showdown now, they risk a rebound vis a vis their own constituents,” Rangarajan said.

But it will be far more challenging for countries like Russia, Brazil and India to bring the coronavirus to heel than it has been for China; among the BRIC countries, only China has a robust public health system, the Center for Global Development’s Glassman said. And the populists in charge, she said, are less likely to invite the sorts of scientists to guide national responses that countries like Germany, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea have mounted.

“All of them have struggled with giving space to people who work on evidence and science in their policymaking,” Glassman said.

Tags Brazil China Coronavirus COVID-19 India Pandemic Russia Vladimir Putin

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