COVID-19 brings out the worst in Brazilian elites

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By Mac Margolis

WITH THEIR COUNTRY second only to the United States in COVID-19 infections and deaths, Brazilians might be grateful to the public officials whose job it is to keep them out of harm’s way. Not so Eduardo Almeida Prado Rocha de Siqueira, an appellate court judge with a flair for public scenes and a track record of bullying civil servants.

Siqueira was overheard earlier this month in Santos, a beach town, twice quarreling with municipal guardsmen who had stopped him for failing to wear a face mask outdoors, per a town decree handed down in May. The judge took umbrage, called one guard an illiterate, tried to humiliate another by speaking French, and pulled rank by phoning the municipal public safety secretary. When none of that worked, Siqueira tore up the fine and threw the scraps to the pavement.

It was shabby behavior, not least because it was so familiar.

“You might be a macho in the slum, but here you’re s—,” a São Paulo jeweler snarled at the patrolman dispatched to answer a domestic abuse call in a tony gated community in May. It’s much the same among Cariocas, or Rio de Janeiro denizens, whose high-enders have little use for public health diktats, especially if it’s a happy hour. “Citizen, no!” one woman lectured the municipal health inspector who addressed her husband by that inconceivably equalizing appellation while attempting to enforce social distancing in early July at an overcrowded bar. “Civil engineer. With a diploma. Better than yours.” (No matter that the inspector held a doctorate in veterinary medicine; for entitled Brazilians, all public servants are underlings.) Call it noblesse desoblige.

From Albert Camus’s pestilent Oran — “where poor families were in great straits, while the rich went short of practically nothing” — to Hawaii’s pandemic-driven spike in luxury getaway home sales, microbes have never been democrats. The reaction to the deadly disruption in Brazil shows that what’s wrong in society can always get worse and that, even in dire times, rules are for wimps and nobodies.

Anthropologist Roberto DaMatta nailed the problem in a classic study about one of Brazil’s defining infirmities, closet authoritarianism, best expressed by the pugnacious phrase “Do you know who you are speaking to?” DaMatta published his essay in 1978, the darkest moment of military dictatorship. Compare that phrase, DaMatta says, with the equally iconic yet belligerently democratic comeback so popular in the US: “Who do you think you are?” The mystery is why, more than three democratic decades on, Brazilians cling to such authoritarian ways and balk at embracing equality before the law.

Credit coronavirus for sending the country back to the bookshelf. “I’ve never given so many interviews,” DaMatta, who is 84, told me. He’s not just talking about Brazil’s handful of little emperors, but a culture still channeling its inner peacock.

Each weekend since early July, when Rio officials began easing social distancing orders, I have watched merrymakers throng the low stone wall girding my seaside neighborhood of Urca. So densely packed is the maskless swarm sharing beer and backslaps that only the arrival of a convoy of police cars, sirens and bullhorns blaring, can disperse the folly. There’s a direct path from my neighborhood wall of scofflaws to the arrogant magistrate in Santos and the Brazilian denialist in chief President Jair Bolsonaro, who so ridiculed COVID-19 safeguards that he caught the virus himself and touted medically discredited hydroxychloroquine for the fellow infirm.

Fortunately, Brazil also has shown some encouraging vital signs. No sooner do the entitled demophobes indulge their demons than vigilant onlookers catch their tantrums on smartphones — “instruments of transparency,” DaMatta says — and turn them into shaming memes. The result? The fine-shredding judge apologized after being placed under investigation by his fellow magistrates. The choleric jeweler also posted a lengthy mea culpa, donning a mask and blaming his outburst on alcohol and prescription medication, while Rio’s happy-hour insurgent was fired for unseemly behavior.

Meantime the civil servants they accosted have become celebrities, feted on social media and booked for comment on newscasts, while the aggrieved São Paulo cop and his partner have filed hefty moral damage suits against the jeweler.

Brazil can do better. This is the land of the Carwash investigation, Latin America’s biggest crackdown on political corruption, which at its best showed that even the high and mighty must answer to the law. It also turned that cleansing democratic moment into a cult, where lordly prosecutors overstepped their brief to become avengers as if to “purify the country,” O Estado de São Paulo said in a lead editorial this week. “Brazilians haven’t decided who we want to be, aristocrats or egalitarians,” said DaMatta. “We modeled our state on ideals imported from the US and Europe, but failed to adopt the corresponding practices of individual responsibility and the rule of law. Instead Brazilians prefer to hide behind ambiguity.”

It will take more than smartphones to sort that out.