The Two Faces of Moloch: Brazil, the Covid-19 Pandemic and Human Rights
by John Frederick Manderscheid
“I had the best vaccine, it was the virus. No side effects.” – Jair Bolsonaro
Overview of the Country and Health System.
Brazil is a democratic federative republic with a presidential system of government. The current president is Jair Bolsonaro, elected in 2018. The country’s current population is 209.5 million, with a GDP per capita of 8,920.76 USD (2018). The Brazilian healthcare system is a combination of public and private systems, all of which are constitutional rights. The country’s expenditure on health as a percentage of GDP is 9.7% as of 2017; the expenditure of health per capita is 928.80; with 2.2 hospital beds per 1,000 citizens as of 2014; and 2.2 doctors per 1,000; and 10.1 nurses per 1,000; with the number of ventilators at 52,815.
The last decade of the 20th century witnessed the conclusion of the Cold War, and what many historians and economists considered the overall triumph of capitalist democracy over socialism. This period was, what Francis Fukuyama termed, “the end of history”, whereby, the modern, market-based democracy had emerged as the pinnacle of societal evolution. If, as William J. Crotty has argued, the Cold War was one long game of “musical chairs”, the ultimate winner was the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. Over the latter part of the 20th century victory of capitalism, Hayek had seen his deregulatory and pro-market theorems adopted and spearheaded by the neoliberal governmental projects of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, and Ronald Reagan’s America. Both world leaders had come to consider Hayek as a guru, and they pursued the implementation of his ideas with such fervour that Gregg Barak has contended they constituted a form of state crime.  Indeed, to say that the victory or Hayek’s theories was total in the era, would be an understatement, as the period had seen the complete obliviation of the socio-economic rights and labour protections that had been painstakingly fought for since the 19th century. The end result, was to see organized labour and the notion of a social safety net destroyed and demonized, and swept aside, as part of the enshrinement of the democratic free market as the ultimate method of organizing society.
However, as total as Hayek’s victory in the socio-economic and political sphere had been, seeing his ideas adopted at the highest levels of state power, and himself being crowned the victor of history, it was not enough. Thereby, while for many the Cold War victory of the neoliberal economic agenda was the conclusion in a century long battle between labor and capital, Hayek and his colleagues like Milton Friedman, instead envisioned the period not as an end, but merely the beginning. For Hayek and Friedman, as total as the domination of their ideas had been in the Anglo-American Northern Hemisphere, they still advocated that more could be done, and a greater utopia could be achieved. It was this steadfast belief that had led Hayek and Friedman to turn their gaze to South America in the latter part of the 20th century as a fertile ideological ground. There, unconstrained by the remaining labor protections and administrative restrictions that had plagued their deregulatory agendas in the UK and US, they saw a tabula rasa in South America wherein their ideas could come to a fuller fruition. To this end, Friedman and Hayek endeavoured to train generations of South American economists in their Austrian School of libertarian economic and legal theories for implementation in their home countries. This group, later called the “Chicago Boys” held active roles in some of the most brutal regimes of the era, such as Pinochet’s Chile and Videla’s Argentina, where their theorems played not only complementary but enabling roles in the consequent state crimes. While today however, as Fukuyama has admitted, history is not in fact over, and Hayek and Friedman’s experiment in the global South has largely failed, with many of the regimes influenced by the Chicago Boys’ policies having collapsed. The end result, being that today the government of Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil and its struggle with the Covid-19 pandemic will be seen to be the death throes of the last holdout of hope for Hayek’s dream.
In 2018, Jair Bolsonaro won the Brazilian election, running on a platform of populist promises of reduction in violent crime, the elimination of corruption in politics, and economic revitalization. Bolsonaro had vowed to correct and restructure the country’s economic course which had been floundering since a financial crisis in 2014. Key to the implementation of this promise was his appointment of Paolo Guedes as Minister of the Economy. Guedes, was one of the Chicago Boys, and implemented a series of harsh deregulations, which included the removal of wage and price controls and placed caps on public expenditure for social services. In doing so, Guedes sought to replicate the economic revitalization that Friedman had termed the “Miracle of Chile”, which Guedes had previously helped realize during the 1980s under the Pinochet dictatorship which was in turn an attempt to replicate the economic revitalizations of the UK and US under Thatcher and Reagan. Despite their labeling as state crimes, Guedes maintained that the UK and US economic revitalizations were “a wonderful transformation,” with the sole driving factor being that “The country doubled its per capita income”, a goal worth achieving at any cost, with Guedes musing “Thatcher, Reagan, they understood that.” This extreme pursuit of deregulatory monetarist policy at the expense of civil and social rights has been termed by economic commentators such as Naomi Klein as the “shock doctrine”. Accordingly, it is within this spectre of economic deregulation and the repression of civil and political and socio-economic rights that the Brazilian economy and its ability to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic must be understood. As will be seen, the coronavirus pandemic in Brazil represents one of the first examinable instances of a libertarian economic system’s attempt to grapple with a public health crisis, and its utter failure to do so effectively. Accordingly, as this work will endeavour to reveal, the Covid-19 pandemic in Brazil has witnessed severe breaches of civil and political rights, and has exacerbated the ongoing assault and attempted elimination of socio-economic protections in the country.
Covid-19 and the Violation of Civil and Political Rights
Concerning civil and political rights, some political theorists, such as Fabio Luis Barbosa dos Santos and Ruy Braga have noted, the Bolsonaro government, unlike other contemporary right-wing governments, failed to take advantage of the pandemic to concentrate power and restrict civil liberties, opting instead to enhance support for a moral and political agenda. At first glance, this may appear true, given the country’s libertarian affect towards the pandemic crisis, which is largely rooted in an initial attempt to downplay or ignore the seriousness of the coronavirus threat. However, a closer inspection reveals that while there have not been overt attempts at authoritarian restrictions by the government, there has been a gradual series of infringements and violations of citizens’ privacy and data rights. Thereby, a presidential decree signed in October prior to the pandemic, allowed the Brazilian government to collect and store the personal data of several million citizens in a centralized registry which included facial information, biometric characteristics and voice data. Following the rise of the pandemic, the Bolsonaro government saw the health crisis as an opportunity to accelerate and amplify this data gathering agenda. This was exemplified by way of Provisional Measure No. 959, enacted in April 2020, which extended beyond the initial sharing of public bodies to further enact measures which forced telecom companies to hand over data on 226 million Brazilian citizens. While this was ostensibly under the pretext of monitoring income and employment information during the pandemic, though many suspected it was for identifying dissidents and political opposition. In this regard, several NGOs and public interest lawyers in Brazil saw a conflict between this argument of necessity by the government for data monitoring, with the government’s coterminous mitigation of the severity of the crisis. Ultimately, however, the government’s denial of the severity of the virus worked against it, and was utilized by the Brazilian Supreme Court as justification that the data access decree was unconstitutional and saw it struck down. Of the violations of civil and political rights that have taken place in the world, the coronavirus pandemic in Brazil may be considered as exemplifying one of the worst examples, in that not only has the government utterly failed to properly acknowledge or respond to the crisis, but moreover has sought to exploit it to gain further control over the population and subvert democracy Thus, Bolsonaro’s government clearly follows the old adage “never let a crisis go to waste”.
Covid-19 and the Violation of Economic and Social Rights
Regarding socio-economic rights during the pandemic, as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCR) has maintained, one of the most egregious violations was caused by the long-term effects of the pre-2019 cuts from the 2016 Constitutional Amendment 95/2016 (EC 95). Amendment 95 capped public expenditures to prevent inflation per Guedes monetarist policy, which in turn, prevented the adequate provision of services in the fields of health care, housing, and education during vital stages of the pandemic. This series of cuts to social services has been the legacy of Guedes’ hostility to socio-economic rights, which in adherence to his neoliberal teachings has mandated a constitutional hostility to socio-economic rights per their conflict with economic liberties. Significantly, Guedes’ Hayekian influence and its detriments to the government’s handling of the pandemic, have also been exceptionally relevant on the issue of vaccine development. In this regard, as Hayek’s biographers noted, the chief question for Austrian libertarian economists relative to vaccine research was, while acknowledging that they do generate net social benefits, ask – “but where in the supply chain do the social benefits of medical entrepreneurship exceed the costs?” Significantly, the issue of vaccine development during times of crisis has been acknowledged by neoliberal economists as a great point of anxiety regarding the necessity of government involvement and funding for the health sector, notions they normally abhor. As well, historians acknowledge that Hayek’s own experiences with the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic and the vaccination research that it generated, shaped such concerns within the discourse. As it pertains to the issue of state crime it is important to acknowledge that libertarian economics as espoused by Guedes ultimately sought to answer not “how many people can this save?” but instead:
How are costs to be recouped- through the private market, patents, and a socially suboptimal price floor? Or through tax funded public health research? Or are there better ways of rewarding invention and innovation without patents? This is a market design – not an ideological – question. (emphasis mine)
It is this distinction, inherent to the Brazilian economic issue, that demonstrates its inability to deal with the coronavirus crisis humanely, in that it ultimately views the pandemic as a market issue, not a human rights issue. This is all the more evident via the contrast between the attempts to provide a social protective flooring in the public and private sectors. Thereby, to date, the most notable socio-economic relief that has taken place as part of the pandemic has come in the form of the financial offerings for citizens receiving US $120 a month for sustenance (itself an increase over Guedes’ proposed US $40). This expenditure is in stark contrast to the direct transfer of $200 billion US from the National Treasury to the bankers for recapitalization. Thus, although there is socio-economic support, it has been mainly reserved for the banks and not individual citizens. Arguably, this disdain for socio-economic rights has emerged from what may be termed as Guedes’ disdain for social democracy, termed “a COVID-19 particular bête noire for Mr. Guedes, who believes that it has prompted Europe, and Brazil, to give up growth in the name of reducing inequality…”. Notably, Guedes’ opposition to socio-economic rights, emerge from a perception that there is no value in a notion of common society or collective rights. This is most visible in Guedes’ further influence by Friedman and Hayek’s own mentor Ludwig von Mises, the father of libertarian economics who asserted that the negativity of investing in notions of social rights was as stated:
“If and as far as labor under the division of labor is more productive than isolated labor, and if and as far as man is able to realize this fact, human action itself tends toward cooperation and association; man becomes a social being not in sacrificing his own concerns for the sake of a mythical Moloch, society, but in aiming at an improvement in his own welfare.”
In conclusion, the fatal flaw of the Brazilian libertarian economic theorem during the pandemic, was the belief that the individual and their own economic activity had the requisite ability to remedy a crisis affecting the whole of society. This is all the more significant in that it is the antithesis of the widespread and forceful government intervention and spending that is a prerequisite to adequately address any public health crisis. It is therefore no amount of hyperbole, to suggest that the Bolsonaro government’s policies have not just seen violations of socio-economic human rights, but by its pursuit of neoliberal economic theory, have resulted in the complete eradication of such rights from the country in pursuit of economic rights and liberties via the market, even at the cost of political ones. Accordingly, the question Brazil faces is to which social Moloch sacrifices will be made, that of the market or of society? As it stands, the sacrifices being made now, are the people of Brazil being offered up to appease the monetary market. Needless to say, this is not a desirable situation, but a tragically avoidable one.
 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, Free Press, 1992.
 William J. Crotty, Post-cold War Policy The Social and Domestic Context, Nelson Call, 1995.
 Greg Barak, (ed.). Crimes by the capitalist state: An introduction to state criminality, State University of New York Press, 1991.
 Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Penguin.
 Robert Leeson, Hayek: A Collaborative Biography: Part VII, ‘Market Free Play with an Audience’, University of Chicago Press.
 See Ludwig von Mises, Human Action. A Treatise on Economics, Henry Regnery.