By Gwynne Dyer
If I were World Dictator, I would immediately place Brazil under total quarantine. I would keep it isolated until they (a) arrest and jail President Jair Bolsonaro; (b) impose a strict countrywide lockdown for at least two months; and (c) vaccinate everybody in the country (all 213,584,556 of them). And then we’ll see.
They’d have to lock Bolsonaro up first because he flatly refuses to do any kind of lockdown. He also regards vaccines as sissy and will not support a national programme to vaccinate the population. Some state governors are trying to buy vaccines for their own local populations, but he calls them cowards for worrying about “a little flu.”
Bolsonaro is Donald Trump on stilts, and is largely responsible for Brazil’s sky-high Covid-19 death rate: more than a quarter-million dead. The United States still holds the lead with half a million deaths – 1,600 per million compared to Brazil’s1,250 per million – but the US Covid death-rate is falling fast since Trump left whereas Brazil’s is still rocketing up.
Because Brazil’s infection rate is so high, it is a pressure-cooker for new and more dangerous variants of the coronavirus. The most recent and worrisome one, P.1, is already moving out into the rest of the world.
Six people carrying P.1 got off the same plane from Brazil in London recently, causing a nationwide scare until they were all tracked down. What makes it so frightening is that it seems able to reinfect people who have already had Covid once.
If it can do that, it can probably also get around the immunity conferred by existing vaccines. There is no evidence of ‘community spread’ of P.1 in other countries yet, but that is only a matter of time unless people stop travelling to and from Brazil.
And what does Jair Bolsonaro say? As Brazil recorded its highest-ever Covid death toll last Thursday, he said: “Stop whining. How long are you going to keep crying about it?… We regret the deaths, but we need a solution.”
His ‘solution’ is to man up, accept half a million or even a million deaths – and to impose that solution on everybody else in the world too, because he’s certainly not going to shut foreign travel down.
Bolsonaro cannot be reasoned with, and Brazilians cannot really be expected to remove him. But if P.1 spreads, that could mean that everybody else in the world gets lockdowns until the end of the year at least.
Nobody is going to invade Brazil to remove Bolsonaro, although he does pose a very real threat. But what everybody else can do is quarantine Brazil. No national or international law stops other countries from banning flights coming out of Brazil. So do it. Now. No exceptions.
How long should the quarantine last? Until we have developed vaccines that work against P.1 and any other dangerous variants, and have had time to inoculate our own populations. So at least until the end of the year, but longer if the Brazilians don’t get their own infection rate under control.
There is a legitimate debate about whether we should try to eradicate this coronavirus entirely (like SARS and MERS) or just aim for long-term ‘containment’ (like the ‘flu). This is not about that. It is about avoiding a deadly escalation in the danger. The world can do this quite easily, if it chooses, and Bolsonaro doesn’t get a vote.