OPINION | Brazil was a better version of SA – until it wasn’t anymore | News24

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OPINION | Brazil was a better version of SA – until it wasn’t anymore | News24

Brazil could still happen to us. Yes, the lockdown may have slowed the tide. But nothing has changed about our immense vulnerability, writes BI editor Helena Wasserman.


Few countries in the world so closely resemble South Africa than Brazil. Strip away its vastly bigger economy and soccer prowess, and our biggest challenges are the same: poverty, violence, inequality, corruption and unemployment.

In fairness, for some time, Brazil has emerged as a better version of South Africa.

Brazil has made progress in tackling these problems, lifting 29 million people out of poverty between 2003 and 2014, with its unemployment rate dipping to below 7% by 2014. Since then, its economy has deteriorated – but it’s still only around 12%, around half or a third of local jobless rates, depending which number you want to go with.

And while the Gini coefficient of South Africa and Brazil was at almost the same level 25 years ago, Brazil has managed to make a lot of progress. In South Africa, the richest 10% of the population still holds more than 70% of the wealth, while in Brazil that is closer to 40%.

For decades, violent crime has marred both South Africa and Brazil at similar rates, but murder rates in South Africa are now markedly higher.

Enter Covid-19.

Brazil and South Africa had their first confirmed cases days apart.

South Africa was in a much more vulnerable position, with vastly higher comorbidity rates. Diabetes is more prevalent here, and South Africa has the biggest HIV positive population in the world, with some estimates that more than two million of those are not on anti-retrovirals. South Africa has more than 500 people with tuberculosis per 100 000 – more than 10 times the rate of Brazil.

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Yet, almost four months on, more than 50 000 Brazilians are dead from Covid-19 and one million are infected. Adjusted for South Africa’s smaller population, the equivalent would have been 14 000 local deaths – far from the already tragic loss of 2 000 lives.  

But the comparison is not made for some warped schadenfreude. It’s to highlight two points.

Firstly, South Africa’s strict lockdown was crucial.

There has been intense criticism of it, and as the full scale of the economic horror plays out, this will only intensify. We are constantly being told that the government ruined the economy for nothing – by many of the same people who for weeks tried to sell us fairy tales about how South African should strive to achieve herd mentality, like the (initially) lockdown-free Sweden, which is now suffering a much higher death rate than its neighbours, while suffering the same blow to its economy.

South Africa could afford a lockdown even less than the richer Brazil. Yet it was enforced locally before a single death – in the same week that the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, criticised municipalities for imposing quarantines over “a small flu”.

By 5 May, when the first lockdown was announced in a major Brazilian city (São Luis), South Africa had been under strict curfew for almost six weeks, and had already moved down to Level 4.

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The local lockdown wreaked havoc on the economy – and some of it could have been avoided: for example, by not starving the state coffers of cigarette sin taxes.

But, as Brazil shows, the cost of not having a lockdown is considerable.

When a deadly pandemic gets out of hand, an overburdened health system creates a financial crisis of its own, and millions of sick days start to pile up, affecting general productivity.

Importantly, nothing dulls consumer sentiment quite like widespread death and the fear of being next. Even without any form of lockdown, big parts of the economy (including retail and transport) are paralysed anyway as people stay clear of others out of fear. Certain industries – like mining, where many South Africans are already suffering from lung diseases – could have ended up incapacitated without a lockdown.

Currently, the World Bank expects Brazil’s economy – which continued largely without a lockdown – will contract by 8%, compared to its expected forecast for SA (-7.1%) this year. This is still dire for us. Unfortunately, there are few silver linings – for now, surviving a global pandemic will have to do.

What is clear, however, is that we now know that we should take the anti-lockdown brigade with a pinch of salt. And remember that these crusaders are omitting a crucial bit of information in their arguments: They know perfectly well who will end up dead. (Probably not them.)

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In South Africa, as in the rest of the world, most of the people who will die from Covid-19 will be poor. This is a sacrifice these noble folk on Twitter are willing to take.

If we avoided lockdown in a (probably misguided) effort to save the economy, and knowingly allowed the poor, the elderly and the compromised to die, we go against the grain of what it is to be South African. From our history, we know that nothing good comes from valuing some lives more than others. Telling people they are expendable will perpetuate the legacy of violence and injustice we encounter every day. 

The other, much bigger point: Brazil could still happen to us. Yes, the lockdown may have slowed the tide. But nothing has changed about our immense vulnerability. By now, we all know what we need to do to protect ourselves and those around us. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Respect physical distancing.

“Brazil é o pais do futuro e sempre será.” Brazil is the country of the future and always will be, locals say, in expressing the irony of a nation that never quite fulfils its promise.

One local equivalent: “In South Africa, the best never happens, and the worst never happens.” We can’t afford to only hope for the latter. The lockdown is basically over, what happens now is on all of us.

– Helena Wasserman is the editor of Business Insider