Brazil’s influential business community has hit out at President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, increasing pressure on the populist leader as the country’s death toll mounts.
Bolsonaro’s down playing of the crisis and refusal to implement a nationwide lockdown, long criticised by opponents on the left, is increasingly irking the country’s financial sector, which backed the former army captain when he ran for president in 2018.
Hundreds of prominent business leaders, including a former central bank chief, some of Brazil’s richest bankers, and economists on Sunday signed an open letter to the Brazilian government, demanding it take stronger action to speed up vaccinations and encourage the use of face masks.
Without naming Bolsonaro, they attacked “the country’s highest political leadership” for ignoring science, encouraging crowds, backing unproven treatments and “flirting with the anti-vaccine movement”.
Brazil is in the midst of a brutal second wave of Covid-19, with hospitals across the country operating at full occupancy and some facing critical shortages of oxygen. On Tuesday, the country reported 3,251 deaths in a single day, the highest daily tally since the start of the pandemic in March last year.
For many of the signatories, which included Roberto Setúbal and Pedro Moreira Salles, the co-chairs of Itaú Unibanco’s board, and José Olympio Pereira, the president of Credit Suisse in Brazil, the letter marked the first time they had publicly spoken against the president.
“Despite being part of the financial system, these people are fed up with Bolsonaro, with the way he has conducted the pandemic, with the way he conducts his government. It is a disaster. He has been a disaster,” said Mailson da Nobrega, a former finance minister, who signed the letter.
“The suggestions made there are not new ideas but . . . it is a type of protest — a way to replace the street protest which is now impossible.”
The private sector’s growing opposition is likely to concern Bolsonaro, whose prospects for re-election took a hit this month when a supreme court judge quashed the graft convictions of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, potentially setting up the leftwing former president to run in the polls next year.
It is unclear, however, whether his mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis is enough to turn the typically rightwing business community towards Lula, who has favoured generous public spending and government intervention in Brazil’s public companies.
“In reality it all depends on how Lula would present himself in terms of his team and policies. His [first] two mandates were somewhat different: the first one was very responsible in fiscal and monetary terms, while the second was less so,” said Eduardo de Carvalho, a portfolio manager at Pacifico Asset Management in Rio de Janeiro.
The publication of the business leaders’ letter comes weeks after Verde Asset Management criticised the Brazilian government in a letter to investors for failing “miserably” to acquire vaccines in a timely fashion.
“The delay in protecting the population is clear to see, and has obvious consequences both in terms of lives and in economic terms,” read the missive.
Ilan Goldfajn, the former head of Brazil’s central bank, told the Financial Times: “What’s most important is that governments should follow science and exercise the necessary leadership to fight the pandemic.
“This includes being the effective co-ordinator of policies to combat the pandemic such as lockdowns co-ordinated by the federal government, increasing the supply of vaccines as an emergency measure [and] distributing masks free of charge, preferably PFF2.
“The government has failed in these aspects, not following science, nor exercising leadership,” Goldfajn added.
More than 300,000 Brazilians have now died from Covid-19, the second-highest death toll in the world after the US. In per capita terms, the country ranks 18th.
To date, less than 8 per cent of the Brazilian population has received a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, despite the country’s impressive historical record on rolling out nationwide immunisation campaigns. Critics said the slowness is a result of disorganisation within Brazil’s health ministry and the vocal opposition of Bolsonaro, who once joked the jabs would turn citizens into crocodiles.
The president has since publicly embraced the vaccination drive and argued that his government took all the necessary steps to procure supplies, despite having earlier expressed particular disdain towards the Chinese-made CoronaVac.
Carlos Melo, political analyst and professor at Insper, said the next election was going to be fought on the economic and health crises now dominating Brazil — topics that he said will remain in voters’ minds until the polls in October next year.
“2018 was an anti-Worker’s party election,” he said, referring to Lula’s party. “Will 2022 be the same? I think not. It is going to be an anti-Bolsonaro election.”
Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice