The Burner Episode #215: UK Government, Brazil and Nature’s Return

James Butler asks: can Covid-19 tell us anything about climate change? Vincent Bevins brings us the lowdown on the crisis in Brazil. Michael Walker delivers a verdict on the UK government’s handling of the pandemic.


James Butler: Good morning. This is The Burner. I’m James Butler and it is Friday 10 April, Good Friday, and we are still in lockdown.

You might have noticed things are quieter or that the air is cleaner but in fact it wasn’t here in London yesterday where air pollution was still high, far from ideal in a respiratory pandemic. And even less ideal if you want to take your daily state approved exercise on a bike as I do.

But perhaps you’ve seen social media posts marvelling at nature’s return, goats wandering through empty streets, or even vaguely creepy nonsense about nature, ridding itself of its virus: human beings. That foolishness aside, there have been really startling effects on pollution across major industrial centres, as both production and petrol-fuelled travel have suddenly crashed in cities in the North of Italy, China, and indeed the UK and Germany. You see rates of carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide plunged by 40%. It seems irresistible to say that therefore, isn’t this the time that we should really be talking about climate change?

Two notes of caution.

One is that it can seem a little perverse at a time like this to try to point to what’s happening as a sign of how you might make lasting change with an enforced lockdown in place and many people very sick and many more scared. I think we should be careful about the analogies we draw here. It wouldn’t be good to be lumbered with a message that sounds like: what if [we enforced something similar to what’s in place with] the coronavirus but good?

The second point is this: If there are some similarities to be drawn out, there are also differences, especially in the science. The science of climate change is a hundred years old: it’s mature, well-refined and it’s accurate. It’s a vast field. New discoveries or surprising data are batted back and forth and poured over in excruciating detail. It’s also abundantly clear what we need to do when it comes to climate change.

By contrast, the science of Covid-19 is young. It’s messy. This data is incredibly noisy with different reporting standards all over the place. The urgency and tangibility of the pandemic – the fact it’s here in front of us – means of course we have to act rapidly and have to act decisively as worldwide outcomes and what might happen in the next year are still unclear.

That, in turn, suggests two things. First, we should be wary of making too strong an analogy because climate denialists will leap on any error in the science of Covid-19 and its associated policies. They will use this to suggest and conclude that we shouldn’t take the scientific consensus on what we need to do about climate change seriously and therefore they’ll make an excuse to dock the radical change that we need.

Secondly, what’s the difference between climate and coronavirus? Time. The same longest span we’ve had to study climate change is exactly the thing that makes it so difficult to get action politically. The fact that it doesn’t rip across the world with viral speed, killing people in front of us, means action so often meets with delay or inaction. That’s in part because facing up to the true scale of the climate emergency is mentally difficult.

What’s that T.S. Elliot line? Humankind cannot bear reality very much. If its effects are slower, if it kills people farther away… Well, it’s easier not to know. Not least if the corporate interests backing you are so invested in denying it as well. As we all know its consequences will be on a far vaster scale than this pandemic.

What can we take from the coronavirus period then? It is an astonishing and rapid shift in human relations to nature; air traffic had halved by mid-March; road traffic in the UK fell off by 70% by the end of the month; seismologists even say that the reduction in human noise is visible in their instruments and Europe is forecast to reduce its carbon emissions by 390 million tons.

I think we can take two things from this. First, it is possible, immediately and rapidly, to change human behaviours and drastically reduce carbon output. The challenge is doing it in such a way that it can be permanent rather than temporary and doing it in such a way that we don’t lock everyone in their house all the time but make it possible for people to live fulfilled and flourishing lives. Secondly, if we are assume that we this tells us that we do in fact actually have the power, at the level of government, to bring about huge changes to the way that life is lived, it ought also need to be done with consent and, frankly, tremendous imagination.

This point struck me the other night when I was taking my daily state-approved exercise through the streets of central London with that blood red moon of the other night hanging over me. I was struck with the vast and empty roads in the barren plains of tarmac. What a waste of space. How much would the city was given over to the car and how we might otherwise live? I think that’s what’s particularly valuable about this period; using its bleakness and its strangeness to look at things to which we are otherwise habituated and ask: why do we do things that way? Isn’t this a crazy way to live? And as we miss things, to realise what we both really need and truly value and how society might be changed to allow us to pursue those things. I, for one, I’m never saying no to going out and seeing friends again. If you’re able to over this weekend, why not save your daily exercise for a long night walk of that kind? When will you let the creative and political imagination open out in front of you? There are worse things to do.

So, yes, we’re seeing the first global dip in emissions since the 2008 financial crisis. It’s funny what it takes, isn’t it? But the idea that this period alone might change things is I think wildly over optimistic because they’re also going to throw everything they have at a rapid return to growth and they’ll argue for lightening carbon regulations and caps – light as they already are – in order to do so.

In the US, they’re pushing pipeline building even in the midst of the crisis and they’ve already promised bailouts for their aviation industry. The UK and Europe will be pressured to do the same, but it would be phenomenally dangerous to do so. That’s some actual creative destruction we should get behind. Given that Cop26, the international conference on climate change due to be held this year in Glasgow, has been postponed because of the crisis. Now would be a really good time to start thinking about a green exit from the crisis. In a moment of recovery, it couldn’t be a better time for activists who are inspired by the moves towards the green new deal or the green industrial revolution, whatever you called it, to renew their push for it. If we are to rebuild, if we are to use this opportunity to rethink and remake what comes after, it must be a break; it must be a real break from business as usual. I think in that there’s the best way to treat this moment as simply a glimpse of a possible future and the scale of the activity needed to get there. If there is a silver lining, it’s that it demonstrates activity on such a scale is possible when necessary and it couldn’t be more necessary.

But such a glimpse, such an experience, also allows us to preview some of the real questions that will press on us as the coming climate crisis bites. What do we value? Is there an alternative to the doctrine of “growth, growth, growth”? How might we transform industry towards dealing with the climate crisis? How might we transform industry to make the things that we need? What are other ways to slow down our lives where necessary, or even whole sectors which are – in the final analysis – pointless?

People at times, and I include myself among them, have been down on the rather ramshackle ideology of the Extinction Rebellion process last year; turned off perhaps by the chakras and patchouli, or the earth hats’ call to spirituality, and yet perhaps [this ideology] can also tell us something valuable. All this talk about reverence for the planet and the sense of the fragility of the ecological balance, it can tell us that any true way of dealing with climate change will also be a huge culture shock. It’ll be a culture shock of the kind many are experiencing now; or it may be that what we’re experiencing now is a mild tremor compared to the earthquake to come. It really will doubtless require something like a transvaluation of values, a shift in the way we think about what’s important and what isn’t. And perhaps that too is something to think about during the lockdown.

Now, early on in the pandemic, just a few weeks ago – although it feels like quite a lot longer – we heard a bit about the rumblings from Brazil about how Bolsonaro had dismissed the virus or how he appeared to lie about testing positive for it. So what are the politics of the coronavirus in Brazil? How is this government perhaps the purest example of an ultra right populist regime, always entirely, obsessively cohered around hatred to the left? How is it dealt with it?

I asked Vicent Bevins, who’s in Sao Paolo, to tell us.

Vicent Bevins, journalist and author of The Jakarta Method

VB: This is Vincent Bevins and I’m in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where we are in partial lockdown – a mostly effective lockdown. It seems I will be trapped not only indoors but in the country for the foreseeable future, which wasn’t the plan, but that’s fine. As I’m recording this now, I am home and most of the city is. It is a bit anxiety-inducing to be inside and it certainly doesn’t help that anxiety to know that there’s a power struggle in the country now ruled Jair Bolsonaro.

What I found when I got here is that, like most far-right leaders in history, he is constantly at war with somebody. He cannot exist politically without an enemy.

I came here last month to write a piece for the New York Review of Books on the first year Jair Bolsonaro’s government. What I found when I got here is that, like most far-right leaders in history, he is constantly at war with somebody. He cannot exist politically without an enemy. And as I arrived, before coronavirus had really hit the country – he was at war with congress and the supreme court. The threat that his government would shut down Brazil’s democratic institutions has always hung over his government, which started at the beginning of 2019, with his son and chief ideolog for the movement, Eduardo Bolsonaro, saying quite explicitly twice that they could shut these down with the military quite easily. That was the situation that I encountered when I arrived.

As I was in Brasilia the capital talking to people in the Bolsonaro movement, it became clear to all of us that the president’s plane itself had probably brought the virus to the country back from a meeting with Donald Trump in Florida at the Mar-A-Lago resort. Bolsonaro supporters had a “anti-democracy and pro Bolsonaro protest planned for March 15th, and he said that he wanted his supporters not to go. But then they all did anyways, and he went out into the street shaking hands and celebrating along with them. That really enraged a huge part of the centre and the centre right even in the country. And as a result of that action that he took a few weeks ago, there have been demonstrations every single night across the country.

These protests are called Panelaços in Portuguese, it’s a traditional Latin American way of protesting. What you do is you go out to the balcony and you bang pots and pans loudly and you yell things like Bolsonaro out or Bolsonaro is a murderer. This has been going on almost every single night for a few weeks now. I hear them especially loud because I live in a part of downtown Sao Paulo which is densely populated and also has a quite diverse group of people. But you’re also hearing them in parts of the country that had absolutely voted for Bolsonaro. We’re talking the parts of the Brazilian capital that were essential to ensuring his electoral victory.

Even if Bolsonaro himself is not really neoliberal on economic policies – he doesn’t really care about economics, he cares about wiping the left off of the face of the earth – he still had to make an alliance with these parts of Brazil’s upper classes. Even in those neighbourhoods we’ve noticed Panelaços over the last few weeks. When it became clear to all the serious people in government that the new coronavirus was a real threat to the country, governors of the largest states, Sao Paulo and Rio, stepped up and put in place restrictions on movement much more quickly than anyone in the federal government. These governors, even though they are right wing and former allies of Bolsonaro, became the new enemy for the Bolsonaro movement for.

For a while, Bolsonaro was attacking the governors of Rio and Sao Paulo, and everybody else in the country that was saying that we should take this virus seriously; then he was going on TV and telling his supporters to defy the leaders of these governments, to ignore their warnings and rebel against them. I mean, if you ask me, I think this is done entirely for political purposes. Bolsonaro cares a lot more about being at war with his enemy of the week than about not believing that the coronavirus is not as serious as the other half of the political spectrum here say it is.

But he was in that battle for a few weeks, with governors in congress claiming that he didn’t think coronavirus was going to be as big of a deal as they did. Again, this did not go over well with the centre-right sections of the coalition which brought him into power. Opinion polls are showing that they do not like the way Bolsonaro was handling this crisis, even though there is – it must be said – a hardcore of Bolsonaro supporters that are unlikely to ever to abandon him; it’s 20%-30% of the country, mostly privileged young men, the kind who are really willing to go into the streets for him.

However, in the last week or two, it became clear that the Brazilian people trusted a lot more Bolsonaro’s health minister than they did the president. And so Bolsonaro’s health minister, who was taking a more serious line on the virus than he was, became his new enemy of the week in the past few days. Now in this battle with minister Mandetta, it seems that Bolsonaro lost. Over the past few days there were very loud rumours that he was going to fire his health minister. The health minister himself said he was going to be fired, but then we got word very recently that, behind the scenes, the members of his government that were upset with Bolsonaro’s handling of the virus, especially the military high command, told him he couldn’t fire this man. So, for the last 48 hours, what we’re hearing is that Bolsonaro has lost a little bit of real power from the sort of military deep state – again, these are also all right-wing figures, there’s nobody of any importance from the centre-left in Bolsonaro’s government. But at least people that hate Bolsonaro have been celebrating this sort of setback for him in the last 48 hours. Where this leads next, we don’t really know.

Now, as for the virus itself, I think we’re in the same place that the UK was a few weeks ago, meaning that a lot of people are infected but don’t know it yet. Now, if it turns out in the next week or two a lot of people come on the radar as sick or dying, of course Bolsonaro will be responsible for causing a lot of unnecessary sickness and death due to his fight with his political rivals. As for that power struggle itself, I think it’s looking increasingly likely that, either in the next year or two, Bolsonaro is deposed or he ends up consolidating power in a way which weakens Brazil’s democracy, if not destroys it. The third most likely option is he stays on as a sort of fully democratic leader.

In order to pay attention to how that power struggle might play out, I’m paying a lot of attention to the military. I think they’re the most important player here and those well-off families in big cities like Rio and Sao Paulo. Unfortunately, I don’t think public opinion is the most important thing right now. We can’t really have demonstrations during the pandemic and there won’t be any elections for a few months. I’m going to be watching to see how this virus interacts with the generals and Brazil’s privileged elite over the next few months. I suppose it’ll be interesting, although I’m not really looking forward to it. So, thank you. And everyone stay safe.

JB: My thanks to Vincent for that and I’m very much looking forward both to reading his book and to welcoming him to a tradition of Novara FM, where we can really dig into the fate of the left in Brazil and, I very much hope, the fall of the Bolsonaro regime. We will of course stay in touch as this story develops there.

JB: If you were to look at the front pages this morning, you might be forgiven to think that we live in sunny times, covered as they are with news that the leader has exited intensive care and things are looking happier for the nation. Little mention, of course, of the rocketing death toll. Little mention of protective equipment or testing. And little mention too of how we got here. Should this really be our national mood?

Here’s Michael Walker.

MW: This weekend, as we witnessed the horrific rise in the death toll from Covid-19, we will no doubt hear the levels of public outrage at those who have dared visit a park or buy non-essential sundries reached breaking point. Now, of course some people are dicks, this is not a time for karaoke and IRL house parties, and I’m not going to encourage you to spend your Easter Sunday having a picnic with friends. But it is important to remember that any deaths reported in the immediate future are not the result of lockdown breaches, however regrettable, but likely infections that took place about four weeks ago. That means when we see scenes of doctors working overtime and ICU beds filling up, we should see the cause, not of a few irresponsible revellers, but as a result of government decisions made in the first half of March.

Back then, Boris Johnson was still advocating an exceptionally relaxed approach to Covid-19, suggesting that life could continue as normal if only we washed our hands. This initial response would, of course, escalate until a full lockdown was implemented, but not until the 24th of March – a date by which our current trajectory was all but locked in. So, what did explain the government’s tardiness in implementing proper social distancing measures? When we could see before us what was going on in Italy and when neighbouring countries with fewer deaths than our own, or implementing lockdowns, why did Boris Johnson leave shops and pubs open and advised us to continue life as usual?

An article in Reuters this week provided one clue. It revealed it in the modelling being used by the government, at least until mid-March, that the possibility of a lockdown had never even been considered. This was apparently because the government and their advisers assumed serious restrictions on our daily movements was something us, freedom-loving-Brits, would never be able to accept. This is why achieving herd immunity was considered the best option available to policymakers. A strategy which, even by the government’s original estimates, would mean over 100,000 of us would perish. So, what got in the way of this genius, if idiosyncratic master plan? Well, on the one hand, new modelling, which showed ICU capacity would collapse if Covid-19 was allowed to continue to spread, nudged up the predicted death toll of the government’s plan from a 100,000 to a quarter of a million.

Just as important, the government and their scientists realized they’ve got the attitudes of us, the public, entirely wrong. As images from Italy showed, and as a growing backlash here threatened, the public were in fact more averse to mass death than they were to staying inside. The government had got the politics, not the science wrong. And that’s why a U-turn became unavoidable.

Thus, on the 16th of March, after the Cheltenham Festival was over, and two days after the Stereophonics played to a packed crowd, Johnson finally announced the banning of large public events and encouraged us all to avoid pubs and restaurants whilst, of course, leaving them open. A week later, a lockdown was imposed, though unfortunately not before the virus was running rampant through London, the Midlands and – in what is perhaps the most egregious example of government negligence – Britain’s care homes.

What can we learn from all of this and why in the middle of a pandemic should we pour over sour wounds? Indeed, whilst the lockdown was belated, it has now been implemented. Should that not be enough for any citizen concerned about Covid-19? Well, I’ll give you two reasons why I think this matters.

On the one hand, it’s in the immediacy of a crisis that injustices are felt most strongly and when the victims of government decisions are most likely to have the public’s ear. This is, of course, why politicians prefer to delay their moment of reckoning until passions have subsided and whitewashes can go unnoticed by all of those directly involved. More practically, it should be final proof to the Laura Kuenssbergs, Beth Rigbys and Dan Hodges of this world that we shouldn’t defer to governments or their scientific advisers. It was not only scrutiny but also public outrage which forced the government to change course. Their models had not taken account of the visceral reaction the British public would have to allowing 100,000 people to die, whatever age bracket they might fall into or pre-existing conditions they might have.

Of course, this is not a time to decry expertise in a pandemic more than ever. We rely on the technical skills of those highly educated in relevant fields, but whilst epidemiologists and mathematicians are best placed to make models, they inevitably do so within the parameters of what is deemed xx politically possible. Those parameters should be subject to lively, democratic debate and maximum transparency, not the whims of a Tory government who, if the last 10 years or anything to go by, are willing to sacrifice more than a few lives to protect profit and keep the economy ticking over as usual.

JB: My thanks to Michael for that and those questions about how we got here, about the decisions made, how they changed, whether they’re adequate to the post pandemic future, ought still to be on all of our minds. As should, as Michael suggest, the fact that government hasn’t made these decisions in isolation but responded to a sense of the growing disquiet of the British people as a whole. That’s important. Politics hasn’t just vanished here, even though it seems like quite a lot of the opposition has.

Headlines today

A few quick things. Thousands of people working in the NHS, in care homes and in local services got in touch with a hotline set up by the trade union Unison over the past week expressing their anxiety over lack of protective equipment as they continue to carry out their work during crisis period. Unison passed those testimonies, which included stories from staffing schools, social workers as well as those on the medical frontline to the health secretary yesterday. Will he listen? Hm.

No more miserable an example of how pressing a need this is, is this following story. An NHS doctor diagnosed with Covid-19 has died in hospital three weeks after he warned the prime minister that healthcare workers urgently needed more protective equipment. On March 18, Dr Abdul Mabud Chowdhury wrote to Boris Johnson to employ him urgently to ensure PPE was available to all frontline health workers. He wrote that workers are in direct contact with patients and have a human right like others to live in this world disease-free with our family and children. Dr Chowdhury worked at Homerton hospital in East London. He was 53, just a couple of years younger than Boris Johnson, and frankly did more important and more honourable work in one day than the prime minister will ever do in his life. May he rest in peace. And for God’s sake, let his message now be headed, late though the hour is to hear it.

The full Keir Starmer front bench appeared last night. In contrast to the shadow cabinet itself, which is mostly from the soft left, it’s more strongly packed with figures from the party right. Though there are a few significant Corbynite figures in there as well. It’s frankly a pretty miserable list to contemplate so I don’t want to spend time on it this morning. My immediate issue of concern is that the shadow treasury team yolks together shadow ministers of, shall we say, extremely different politics and I couldn’t think of a more important time than now to have a united, clear and coherent voice on economic policy. Will we get it? It remains to be seen. At least it has pleased one person: George Osborne was full of plaudits last night. Great.

That’s it for this morning and that’s it for this week. Just to note, I will be taking the Easter bank holiday off, trying to have some semblance of weekend – maybe even clean the cassette on my bike. I hope you’ll agree I’ve earned it.

The Burner will be back on Tuesday of next week, not Monday as ever. And as I said yesterday, please do get in touch, especially if you’re in or keeping an eye on the global South and otherwise. Let me know a bit about how you’re getting through the lockdown and what kind of better world you’re imagining. I’m [email protected].

My thanks as ever to all the team at Novara Media and all the guests for this week, and to 65daysofstatic for their excellent music. Stay safe, stay home, wash your hands, and don’t be a prick. That’s it. This is The Burner. I’ll see you after the long weekend.

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Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.