July 16, 2020
Brazilian Civil Society Pursues Range of Strategies to Counter Government’s Deadly COVID Response
Guest Blog by Grazielle David of the Fiscal Justice Network of Latin America and the Caribbean
Grazielle David is an Advisor at the Fiscal Justice Network of Latin America and the Caribbean, or Red de Justicia Fiscal de América Latina y el Caribe (RJFLAC), a CESR partner and member of the Global Alliance for Tax Justice. RJFLAC is an independent group of organizations that campaigns for fiscal justice, focusing on the links between taxation and gender, and human rights and territory.
How are the impacts of the pandemic in your country evolving, and how are they diverging from those being seen in other contexts?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has recently declared South America the new epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, making Brazil the epicenter of the epicenter. The country has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths globally, only behind the United States. With more than 1.4 million cases and more than 60,000 deaths recorded in the 130 days since the first case was confirmed in Brazil, the curve is still growing vertically, likely far from reaching its peak. Meanwhile, the president treats the pandemic as a "little flu" (although he has recently declared he tested positive for COVID).
With political and economic pressures forcing cities to reopen and people to go back to work, Brazil has not been able to even overcome its first wave of infections. COVID-19 exposes the inequalities of Brazilian society. Black people living in poverty at the outskirts of big cities have been most affected. Without labor rights and fair remuneration, and also without adequate social protection, a large part of the population lives under precarious working conditions and chronic poverty. As summarized by one of the leaders of a recent strike by app-based food delivery workers, "It's torture to starve carrying food on your back."
How has the pandemic changed economic policy debates in your country?
The extraordinary budget for pandemic relief approved by Congress was delayed and insufficient on many levels. For health actions, less than a third of the budget already approved has been executed so far, according to the Independent Fiscal Institution.
However, strong pressure from civil society and social movements pushed Congress to institute an emergency basic income for three months, which recently was extended for five months. The amount is $110 per person or $220 for single mothers. Despite the fact that there were some flaws in implementation, this basic income was essential for unemployed people and people living in poverty to get food on the table or pay rent. But it was not enough.
The coronavirus crisis has produced an apparent consensus on the need to increase public spending. Several economists who stood firm in defending fiscal austerity until recently, now defend fiscal stimulus. However, divergences deepen when discussing the role of the State in the medium and long term. Many of those who advocate the adoption of a "war budget" do not hide their concern about the immediate resumption of the austerity agenda, with deepening spending cuts and state reduction reforms, after the acute phase of the pandemic passes.
What are the priority economic measures you are advocating for in response to the pandemic? What have been the challenges and opportunities for bringing rights into these debates? Is the crisis forging closer connections between different civil society actors and movements working for change?
This is the situation of the economic debate in the country now: whether to finally revoke austerity measures, especially the Expenditure Ceiling (a 2016 measure which froze all public spending for 20 years), or persist with this unrealistic and potentially devastating agenda.
To avoid the last option, Brazilian civil society is mobilizing with the Coalizão Direitos Valem Mais (the “Rights Worth More” coalition) to revoke the expenditure ceiling through legal means. It has filed a Direct Action of Unconstitutionality (ADI 5715) at the Supreme Court, claiming the regressive effects of the measure on human rights. The aim is to open fiscal space to properly finance rights, especially the rights to health, a healthy environment, and work. The defense of SUS, the national public health system, is a top priority. Despite all the difficulty faced at this moment due to the lack of federal coordination, the SUS structure has not collapsed and its professionals are saving lives every minute.
Civil society is also engaged in lobbying Congress to enact their progressive tax reform proposal. Simultaneously, they are using legal measures: Fenafisco, Cadhu and Oxfam Brasil have entered a charge of non-compliance with fundamental precept (ADPF 655) at the Supreme Court, to make sure that the constitutional principles of “contributive capacity” and “tributary material equality” are respected in the tax reform. The action calls for an injunction imposing on Congress the duty to correct the regressive nature of the Brazilian tax system.
Of course, the pandemic’s socioeconomic effects are not just short-term. Long-term effects demand public policies that protect people’s lives and dignity. That is why the third main action civil society and social movements are organizing is the promotion of a permanent basic income.
Besides the fact that Brazil is the new epicenter of the pandemic, it is also facing a very serious political and institutional crisis, which makes the defense of democracy a main agenda of social resistance.
CESR has worked with partners in Brazil for a number of years to challenge unjust fiscal policy measures which were having a devastating impact on rights enjoyment in the country, even before the pandemic. In 2017, CESR collaborated with the Institute for Socioeconomic Studies (INESC) and Oxfam Brasil to analyze and visualize the likely human rights impacts of the Expenditure Ceiling and related austerity measures. CESR has also signed its support to the amicus curiae brief recently filed by Brazilian civil society against the Expenditure Ceiling. In addition, CESR is working with partners in Brazil and the wider region (including RJFLAC and INESC) to elaborate a set of Principles & Guidelines on fiscal policy and human rights. For more on CESR’s work and partners in Brazil, see here.
This is the first blog in our Confronting COVID series, profiling how our civil society partners in various countries are responding to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the role that human rights norms, tools and strategies are playing in economic policy debates at the national level.
The illustration “Defend the SUS” by Tony Soares is dedicated to Brazilian frontline healthcare professionals combating COVID-19. @_tonysoares