COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil: Irrational skepticism and its repercussions, By Isaac N. Obasi

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Skepticism is all about doubt, and as a philosophical concept and school of thought that ‘questions the possibility of certainty in knowledge’, it is not inherently bad. Science itself thrives on skepticism and intellectual curiosity. In actual fact, skepticism and inquisitiveness are major drivers of scientific discoveries or inventions. The problem of skepticism therefore depends on its type and not just skepticism in general terms. 

Consequently, on the one hand, a rational skeptic will stop doubting when there is overwhelming evidence that clears such doubt. This is why Professor B. J. Dudley (the late distinguished Professor of Political Science, University of Ibadan), in 1975 described skepticism as a political virtue in his Inaugural Lecture titled: Scepticism and Political Virtue.

 On the other hand, an irrational skeptic will maintain his/her doubt over an existence of something even when the evidence is very clear. An irrational skeptic is not evidence-driven in his/her approach to issues, unlike his/her rational counterpart. Sometimes driven by ignorance (knowingly or unknowingly), an irrational skeptic continues doubting in a bid (perhaps) to maintain his/her ego.  

For avoidance of doubt, the topic of this article had already been selected before the President of Brazil, Mr. Jair Bolsonaro tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19) on Tuesday, 7 July 2020. Yet, it was his prior irrational skepticism over COVID-19 pandemic, (amply demonstrated by his attitude, loud statements and behaviour) that inspired the choice of the topic in the first place.

 As many of us already know, President Bolsonaro (like Donald Trump of the United States) has been living in denial of the existence of COVID-19 pandemic and downplaying its ravaging impact since its outbreak in China. He was widely reported for calling the coronavirus ‘a little flu’. And afterwards, he began to have problems with his health professionals over the management of COVID-19 pandemic.  

On 16 April 2020, President Bolsonaro sacked his health minister following disagreement over social isolation measures which he dismissed as unnecessary. In less than a month (May, 2020), a second minister (the successor of the sacked minister) voluntarily resigned following also a disagreement with the president over the management of COVID-19 issues. This was at a time when Brazil recorded 844 new deaths in 24 hours (recording a total death toll then at 13,993), and a total number of infections at 202,918 also then. At this time too, Brazil was the sixth most infected country in the world (See http://www.theguardian.com). With the exit of two health ministers (who are health professionals) driving the fight against the virus, and the appointment of non-health professional (with a military background), Brazil has seen the worst in total number of infections and fatalities as we will see later. Yet, with the rising number of cases and fatalities, President Bolsonaro was still going ahead with a business-as-usual mentality. 

He carried on his public duties without wearing a face mask, even after a court ordered him to be wearing one. He joined the American Ambassador to his country in the 4 July 2020 independence celebration activities without a face mask and took a photographer with selected guests without wearing masks. His penchant for disregarding the social distancing and hygiene protocols as well as the lockdown guidelines is unparalleled and only comparable to that of President Donald Trump.   

With President Bolsonaro’s defiant attitude and not-well-thought out statements about the coronavirus, it is not surprising that Brazil is now facing calamitous repercussions. Based on the Johns Hopkins University global records, as of 9 July 2020, (7:35pm), Brazil has a total number of 1,713,160 infections, with a total death toll of 67,964. This  is second to the highest number of deaths recorded globally by a single country namely the United States of America with 132, 803 deaths, as of the same date and time. It is on the basis of this unenviable and embarrassing record of Brazil that Uri Friedman (see The Atlantic, 27 March 2020) has aptly said that “the coronavirus-denial movement officially has a leader, and it’s Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro”. Well said, but Bolsonaro is only a deputy leader of this movement while President Donald Trump is the real and undisputed global leader. It is a fact, that Bolsonaro is a good political student of Trump in everything of which coronavirus denials (or ‘denialism’), is just one aspect. 

But of all of President Bolsonaro’s denial and do-nothing mentality, the one this column finds very scandalous and totally unacceptable, was his statement that ‘some people will die, they will die, that’s life’. It is the height of unpardonable insensitivity and laziness for a president who was elected to protect life (among other things), to make such a callous statement. Yet, he was taking practically no preventive measures to fight the deadly virus. In actual fact, he was busy fighting sub-national level governments that were adopting lockdown measures to stop the spread of the virus. Recall that he once described coronavirus as a ‘little flu’, and now he has tested positive for a virus he denied its ravaging impact. As Uri Friedman (see The Atlantic, 27 March 2020) rightly reported, President Bolsonaro ‘railed against lockdowns; closures of businesses, schools, and public transport; anything that strays far from normalcy. He has lashed out at governors and mayors who have implemented these policies, alleging that they’re committing crimes and “destroying Brazil,” and actively sought to block some of these measures’ (See https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/03/bolsonaro-coronavirus-denial-brazil-trump/608926/ Like President Trump, he has been more obsessed with opening up the economy, thereby disregarding cautious measures to balance life and livelihood, which many serious leaders are battling with all over the world. 

Given Bolsonaro’s defiant behaviour, which this column considers very dangerous to humanity, perhaps the time has come for the world to initiate conversations around the appropriate punishment to be meted out to such leaders. The International Criminal Court (ICC) should consider as crime against humanity leaders who through willful negligence failed to protect their citizens in a pandemic such as this. The irrational skepticism of such leaders in a period of novel pandemic, should no longer be tolerated. The avoidable repercussions are very huge to bear, as we are witnessing in both the United States of America and Brazil. Initiating trial of such leaders at the ICC will make others like them respect science and keep irrational and unpardonable skepticism and ignorance out of science.    

In conclusion, as Uri Friedman once again rightly noted “if there’s one lesson from the global responses to COVID-19, it’s this: The countries that have had the most success ‘flattening the curve’ acted quickly and aggressively to contain the virus, rather than downplaying the threat it posed. Bolsonaro has had months to absorb this lesson, yet has chosen to take the opposite tack”.

•Prof. Isaac N. Obasi, a public policy expert (& former columnist in the Daily Trust, Abuja, March 2003 to October 2006, & Daily Champion, Lagos, April 2005 to December 2008), is of the Department of Public Administration, University of Abuja. Email: nnamdizik@gmail.com      


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