Pandemic policy discord deepens Brazil's Covid chaos

A hospital worker plays guitar for a Covid patient in Brazil, where confusion often reigns as the federal, state and local governments squabble over policy measures to contain the pandemic
A hospital worker plays guitar for a Covid patient in Brazil, where confusion often reigns as the federal, state and local governments squabble over policy measures to contain the pandemic Tarso SARRAF AFP
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Brasília (AFP)

Marcia Matos was getting her two-year-old ready for preschool when news arrived of the latest twist in the political and legal battles that have plunged Brazil's Covid-19 response into chaos: In-person school was canceled again.

In the hard-hit South American country, where more people are currently dying of Covid-19 than anywhere else, confusion often reigns over schools, churches, shops, restaurants and the general population, as the federal, state and local governments squabble over policy measures to contain the pandemic -- with clashing court rulings thrown in for good measure, sometimes at the 11th hour.

Matos and her son got a dose of the confusion Monday morning as she got him dressed for preschool, following Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes' Friday announcement that schools would reopen after a 10-day closure.

Little did she realize a judge had blocked Paes' decision late Sunday night, until she heard the news from a friend.

"It's a mess. The school only told parents about the ruling after class was already supposed to have started," said Matos.

Some children got all the way to their schools, only to learn they were closed. The ruling was overturned on appeal Tuesday -- though legal experts say the court battles may just be starting.

Adding to the mayhem, Paes is locked in a policy dispute with interim governor Claudio Castro. The latter has allowed bars and restaurants to remain open until 11:00 pm in Rio de Janeiro state, while the former has ordered them closed in Rio de Janeiro city, the state capital.

- 'Huge legal void' -

And that's just Rio. At the federal level, President Jair Bolsonaro has fought expert advice on containing the coronavirus and vocally criticized lockdowns, face masks and vaccines.

That has left state and local governments in the sprawling country of 212 million people to put together a messy patchwork of policy responses on their own.

"There's no national coordination or guidelines from the health ministry... which has left a huge legal and scientific void," said infectious disease specialist Jose David Urbaez, who serves on a technical commission on the pandemic for the capital, Brasilia.

"There's no nationwide definition in Brazil of what constitutes essential businesses and services, so every place makes its own rules based on local political and economic forces. It's creating chaos," he told AFP.

Bolsonaro argues the economic damage of lockdowns is worse than the virus itself.

The far-right president continues to rail against them, even as Covid-19 has claimed more than 330,000 lives in Brazil, second only to the United States, with the country registering more than 4,000 Covid-19 deaths in 24 hours for the first time ever on Tuesday.

The Supreme Court ruled early in the pandemic that states and cities had the right to implement Covid-19 restrictions, circumventing Bolsonaro.

But even the high court is divided against itself.

On Saturday, Bolsonaro-appointed Justice Kassio Nunes Marques ruled states and cities did not have the authority to suspend in-person religious services, deciding in favor of an evangelical Christian group.

But on Monday, Justice Gilmar Mendes ruled the opposite, deciding against the center-right PSD party in a case out of Sao Paulo state.

He asked the full 11-judge court to make a final ruling on the matter. They have put it on the agenda for Wednesday.

- Football fumbles -

Brazilians' beloved football has gotten caught up in the chaos, too, as clashing court decisions have alternately blocked or allowed various local and international matches.

Sao Paulo clubs Santos and Palmeiras are the latest stuck in legal limbo.

They are due to face Argentine sides San Lorenzo and Defensa y Justicia, respectively, next week for South America's Copa Libertadores and Recopa tournaments.

But there is a hitch: Sao Paulo state has barred sports events. So organizers moved the matches to Brasilia -- only for a judge to block them there, too.

Another judge later overturned the ruling, clearing the way for the matches to go ahead -- unless there is another last-minute surprise.