'The heart of darkness': neighbors shun Brazil over Covid response

Latin American countries scramble to protect themselves from a country where nearly 60,000 people are expected to die in March alone

It has long been regarded as a soft power superpower, the sun-kissed, culturally blessed land of Bossa Nova, Capoeira and Pelé.

But Brazil’s shambolic response to coronavirus under far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has cast Latin America’s largest country in an unfamiliar and unpleasant role: that of a Covid-riddled, science-shunning, politically-unstable outcast on whom many regional neighbors are now shutting the door.

“The other day I saw a pretty strong article saying Brazil was starting to be seen by its neighbors as a sort of leper colony … and it’s probably true,” conceded Rubens Ricupero, a veteran Brazilian diplomat who quoted Joseph Conrad, not João Gilberto, to describe his country’s predicament.

“The horror! The horror!” the retired ambassador lamented last week, before his country was plunged into further political turbulence by Bolsonaro’s unexpected sacking of the defence minister. “Brazil is in the heart of darkness.”

Brazil’s neighbors, who are now scrambling to respond to the meltdown next door, seem to agree, with Argentina, Colombia and Peru banning flights to their Portuguese-speaking neighbor and Venezuela’s leader, Nicolás Maduro, berating his rightwing rival over a calamity that has killed more than 300,000 Brazilians.

“It’s alarming, even distressing, to see the reports out of São Paulo and Rio … and the reckless attitude of the Trumpist Brazilian right and Jair Bolsonaro towards the people of Brazil,” Maduro declared last week as he ordered a 14-day lockdown to counter the more contagious P1 variant at the heart of global fears over Brazil’s unchecked outbreak.

“Brazil now represents a threat to the world. And whose fault is it? Jair Bolsonaro’s,” Maduro proclaimed, jabbing his index finger into the air. “It’s just madness. There’s no name for it.”

Seven thousand kilometres south of Caracas, in Uruguay, there are signs of similar alarm, with authorities racing to vaccinate residents of its border region with Brazil. “The idea is to create an epidemiological shield,” said Rodney Colina, a government Covid adviser and virologist who detected Uruguay’s first P1 cases and has been calling for tough restrictions to stop its spread. “If we start seeing P1 circulate widely we’d need to go for a total closure of almost everything,” Colina warned.

Close to 60,000 Brazilians are expected to die in March alone, making it by far the most deadly month of Brazil’s 13-month epidemic.

In Argentina, too, sleep is being lost over the mayhem. A group of leading Argentinian scientists recently penned an open letter imploring their government to close its 761-mile land border with Brazil.

“Brazil is a mirror we would rather not have to look into. That’s why it’s so important to impose travel restrictions straight away because once contagions start to rise it will be too late,” said Humberto Debat, an Argentinian biologist who helped produce the appeal, which condemned Bolsonaro’s “irresponsible and denialist” behavior.

Last Thursday, as Brazil recorded more than 100,000 Covid-19 cases in a single day for the first time, Argentina announced it would ban flights from Brazil, Chile and Mexico. Soledad Retamar, a statistician working on Covid data who backs such moves, said: “The fear is that we could start seeing the kind of mortality rates they had in Manaus earlier this year if the P1 variant starts circulating in Argentina.”

Colombian officials banned flights from Brazil in January as well as halting internal flights to the Amazon border town of Leticia, where immunization efforts are targeting younger adults in an attempt to block the spread of the P1 variant. Ana Mauad, an international relations professor at Bogotá’s Javeriana University, said Bolsonaro’s “complete lack of strategy and mishandling of the pandemic” had shocked the region.

“Bolsonaro has managed to turn Brazil into a gigantic hellhole,” Colombia’s former president Ernesto Samper tweeted last week, as the World Health Organization admitted “the dire situation” in Brazil was now affecting its neighbors.

Bolsonaro’s administration has reacted awkwardly to the chorus of international criticism.

“I think this is … terribly unjust,” Brazil’s pro-Trump foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, told the Estado de São Paulo newspaper earlier this month. Araújo, who resigned on Monday after a rebellion from diplomats and lawmakers who accuse him of helping trash Brazil’s international reputation, rejected the idea that there was anything “out of control” in his country and claimed Brazil was the victim of “discrimination”.

“It’s as if … people are only dying in Brazil,” Bolsonaro grumbled last week.

Ricupero said there was no hiding that his South American country had become the pandemic’s “absolute epicentre” and predicted regional restrictions would increase in the coming weeks in countries such as Bolivia, Colombia and Peru.

“Right now, Brazil is at the hour when darkness reigns,” he said.


Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro Uki Goñi in Buenos Aires and Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá

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