Bitter struggle over vaccines illustrates unfolding of New Cold War in Brazil

By Marco Fernandes and John Ross

On 25 January, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro published two tweets in a row to thank China, causing a considerable stir in Brazil. In one tweet, Bolsonaro said that 5,400 litters of the active ingredient of the Coronavac anti-Covid19 vaccine had been approved and would arrive in Brazil soon, “thanks to the compassion of the Chinese government.”

The reason for this stir was that Bolsonaro, who was dubbed the “Brazilian Trump,” had previously taken a strongly anti-China stance, and even made comments praising Taiwanese separatists in the 2018 presidential election.

This dramatic shift in the tone of the President of Brazil, the largest Latin American economy and a strategic partner of China, has implications beyond Brazil itself and clearly shows us the trajectory of the impact of the so-called “new Cold War” of the United States on China, both in Latin America and globally. What has contributed to this sudden change in tone?

Latin America has become a key area of geopolitical dispute and for struggle and failure of U.S.’s “New Cold War” against China. Relations between China and Brazil, especially in the fight against the Covid-19, has gone beyond the usual “state-to-state” level and has become an issue of broad public debate and a trend topic on Twitter.

In this article, we will review the evolution of Brazil’s relationship with China in the context of U.S.-China relations and around the Chinese vaccine, followed by some lessons about the general situation in Latin America.

Disastrous unfolding of the Covid pandemic in Brazil

The pandemic has killed over 200,000 Brazilians and infected more than eight million people. Faced with this unprecedented human tragedy, and after months of clinical trials in Brazil, the Chinese Coronavac vaccine and the British Astra Zeneca vaccine were finally approved by the Brazilian national vaccine agency on 17 January.

On that day, Mônica Calazans, a 54-year-old black woman and nurse, became the first person in Brazil to get vaccinated – with the Chinese Coronavac vaccine. In a country marked by racism and patriarchy, the event is intensely symbolic. Calazans lives in the state of São Paulo, which in September had signed a contract with a Chinese laboratory to test the Coronavac vaccine. The agreement, which further establishes a strategic cooperation between China and Brazil, also provides for the transfer of this technology to the Butantan Institute, a public institution in the state of São Paulo. Butantan is responsible for the local production of the vaccine.

Brazilians know that both the Chinese Coronavac and the British AstraZeneca vaccine will be produced locally in Brazil. It however only recently became know that not only does Coronavac come from China, but that the British AstraZeneca vaccine also relies on active ingredients from China. The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), which produces the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in Brazil, has publicly stated that the main country of origin for the active pharmaceutical ingredient, IFA, in its vaccines is China. In other words, Brazil is almost entirely dependent on Chinese manufacturing to save its people.

Bolsonaro’s failure in the fight against Covid

The Brazilian government did not make the fight against the epidemic a top priority, like the Chinese government did, trying to minimize the impact of the Covid-19. Instead, the Brazilian government began by underestimating the severity of the pandemic (“it’s just a small flu”) and launched a series of promotional campaigns for a drug (hydroxychloroquine) that does not have proven efficacy. Mass gatherings in the streets were encouraged, while the use of masks was not.

Brazilians should have had access to an effective vaccine to fight the epidemic and this should have united the Brazilian government at all levels and strengthened the strategic partnership between China and Brazil. Instead, unfortunately, the vaccine issue was politicized in Brazil and has become a tool not only for internal political battles in Brazil, but also for the Brazilian federal government to take shots at China.

Brazil’s current president, José Bolsonaro, has been a strong supporter of the “anti-vaccine movement” and has questioned its effectiveness, claiming he suspected that the vaccine could be harmful to people’s health. He has publicly stated that there is no guarantee that the vaccine won’t “turn you into a crocodile”. While Bolsonaro has criticised all vaccines, the main target of his criticism in the past has been the Coronavac vaccine. Some of the president’s closest political allies, like Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo, has never missed an opportunity to harshly criticize China. Eduardo Bolsonaro (member of National Congress and president’s son) blamed China for the outbreak and, without any evidence, reiterated the White House’s accusation that “Beijing concealed the seriousness of the situation in order to avoid political backlash.”

Vaccines and Brazil’s domestic political struggle

Another reason for the boycott of Coronavac stems from a domestic political dispute in Brazil, which is tied to the U.S.’s anti-China Cold War. João Dória, the governor of São Paulo state, was the first to sign up for the Chinese vaccine. And Bolsonaro, with whom he has divergent political views, has made the two tit-for-tat on their strategy toward China. In 2016, Doria and Bolsonaro banded together on an impeachment campaign against former President Dilma Rousseff, and the two became allies in the 2018 presidential election, but have since diverged politically and become political rivals. Doria started out as a businessman before becoming a television host and in recent years turned to politics. It is estimated that Doria could become one of Bolsonaro’s main rival in the 2022 presidential election. The urgent need for mass vaccination in Brazil has therefore now become part of the electoral struggle.

On 20 October, 2020, Brazilian Health Minister General Eduardo Pazuello announced during a meeting with the state governors that the federal government had signed a letter of intent with the Butantan Institute for the procurement of 46 million doses of Coronavac. Unfortunately, the president later denied this and cancelled the letter of intent, stating that: “We won’t buy from China, it’s my decision. I don’t believe that it [the Chinese vaccine] provides enough safety to the population because of its origin.” On 10 November, 2020, the president publicly denounced Coronavac after the death of a volunteer who participated in a clinical trial. Brazil’s National Health Surveillance Agency (ANVISA) suspended the clinical trial even before the cause of death had been analyzed, but the next day they discovered that the volunteer had committed suicide and that the suicide was not related to the vaccine. The clinical trial was therefore allowed to continue.

The end of 2020 then saw a significant increase in family gatherings, beach events, and activities in bars and other crowded public spaces due to the holiday season. Compared to November 2020, confirmed Covid19 cases increased by more than 60% in December 2020, with 1,000 new deaths per day. Mass vaccination became even more urgent.

Mounting public pressure on Brazil’s government

Under pressure from public opinion, on 14 December, 2020, the Brazilian government withdrew its previous decision and resumed negotiations with the São Paulo state government for the procurement of Coronavac. Finally, on 7 January of this year, hours after proving that the Chinese vaccine trial results were valid, Brazil’s health minister announced that 100 million doses of the Chinese vaccine would be purchased, of which 46 million should arrive by April. He  stipulated that all Coronavac doses imported to or produced in Brazil would be included in the federal government’s national immunization program and that the state of São Paulo would no longer have privileged access to the vaccine. The distribution of Coronavac throughout Brazil must follow the criteria for equity set forth in the national public health system.

All 27 states in Brazil have received the vaccine and began administering it on 19 January 2021. Currently, 10.8 million doses of Coronavac have been approved for emergency use, and two million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in Brazil on 22 January, but the British company has no plans to send more vaccines. Due to the huge demand, Brazil still does not have enough vaccines available.

According to Brazil’s national vaccination plan, 30 million doses are needed in the first phase, just for high-risk groups such as health care workers, the elderly and indigenous people. If all adults over the age of 18 years were to be vaccinated with two doses each, 320 million doses of vaccine would be needed.

Increasing public criticism of Bolsonaro’s attitude to China

In light of this development, the Brazilian people have recently become increasingly critical of the Brazilian government on this issue, and on 19 January, Brazilian House Speaker Rodrigo Maia initiated a request to meet with Chinese Ambassador to Brazil Yang Wanming, asking China to speed up the export of raw materials for the production of the Covid-19 vaccine. He said that (due to the federal government’s previous anti-China stance) the Brazilian government had lost the ability to talk to the Chinese government and that China’s help was crucial in this matter.

Some Brazilian diplomats have also told the media in private that there is great concern about Sino-Brazilian relations.

Realizing that only China could help Brazil in the fight against the epidemic and facing mounting public criticism, Bolsonaro, the “Brazilian Trump”, who had been following Trump’s anti-China agenda, changed his tone and started to thank the Chinese government. Some of the right-wing forces that had been supporting Brazil’s federal government before are under pressure from mounting public distrust and increasingly supporting the idea of impeaching the president. This is another reason behind the Brazilian president’s change of tone towards China.

Lessons of the struggle over vaccines

So far, looking back at the whole Brazilian vaccine affair, from a Brazilian perspective, we can learn some profound and general lessons.

First, the far-right anti-China alliance provoked by the United States has brought deep harm not only to the American people but also to the people of developing countries represented by Brazil: often based on fake news and anti-science rhetoric, they first denied the epidemic and then resisted anti-vaccine measures. They have incited hatred both domestically and internationally, with China being the main target: Brazil, with three percent of the world’s population, has more than ten percent of the global Covid-19 cases; the United States, with four-and-a-half percent of the world’s population, has about 19 percent of the global number of new crown deaths. As of Jan. 25, Brazil and the United States together accounted for 636,000 deaths and about 30 percent of the world’s total.

Second, Brazil would have been well positioned to respond to the Covid-19 crisis on its own – the Butantan Institute and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation are two of the most respected public institutions in Brazil, and their vaccine production has reached international standards. A strong public health system is needed to face of a public health crisis. However, Brazil’s public health system (SUS) has been struggling to cope with the current epidemic for several years due to budget cuts. On the other hand, though Brazil has a universal free vaccine system, it currently does not have the capacity to produce most of the vaccines it needs. Relying mainly on the Indian and Chinese vaccine supplies for domestic vaccine production. If Brazil can reach a long-term strategic partnership with China in this regard, perhaps this problem can be solved.

The vaccine case shows that Sino-Brazilian cooperation will bring tangible benefits and advantages to the people of both countries. Trade and productive investments between the two countries have grown rapidly in recent years, which is also crucial for economic development.

Huawei and Brazil’s 5G network

In addition to this fight over vaccines Brazil needs to decide which companies’ 5G technology to adopt for its telecommunications system in May of this year. China’s Huawei has more advanced technology and a more affordable price than rivals Ericsson and Nokia. Certain parts of the Brazilian government, however, without evidence, have reiterated Washington’s claims that the company is spying for the Chinese government and have tried to prevent Huawei from competing in the 5G auction.

As China’s Ambassador Yang Wanming said in a recent interview with Brazil’s largest newspaper Folha de São Paulo: “Certain U.S. politicians spread false lies that this is cyber espionage by the Chinese government to confuse and force other countries to sacrifice their own interests and to hinder high-tech innovation and development in developing countries.”

According to FENIFRA (Brazilian National Association of Telecom Infrastructure and Maintenance Companies) data cited by Ambassador Yang, it is estimated that if Brazil bans Huawei, Brazil will lose nearly $20 billion, 2.2 million jobs, and the creation of Brazil’s 5G network will be delayed by three years. Not to be overlooked is the reality that Huawei is currently responsible for more than 40 percent of Brazil’s telecom network. Brazil’s telecom companies and certain parts of the Brazilian government have also advocated for fair competition in which Huawei participates, but pressure from the White House has been intense.

BRICS

The US has also made determined efforts to undermine BRICS – the organisation involving Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted on 20 January, “Remember BRICS? Well, thanks to @jairbolsonaro and @narendramodi the B [Brazil] and the I [India] both get that the C [China] and the R [Russia] are threats to their people”. The U.S. intentions are clear: they are trying to alienate Brazil from the BRICS countries, causing the Brazilian people to lose the benefits they could gain from the organization.

As the largest developing country organization, the BRICS countries have contributed significantly to the Brazilian economy through cooperative institutions such as the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB), of which Brazil is one of the largest beneficiaries. The NDB has recently approved several Brazilian projects with loans of about $3 billion. However, in December, the Brazilian government failed to pay an annual fee of about $300 million to the NDB, which may now cause a delay in obtaining financing for these Brazilian projects.

If Brazil does not revive its BRICS strategy of joint development and, most importantly, cooperation with China in economic, political and friendly exchanges between the two nations, it will be difficult for Brazil to “work together to better defend equality and justice, based on international order and rules, and the common interests of emerging markets and developing countries,” as Ambassador Yang put it.  

The US is acting against the interests of the Brazilian people

These series of events in Brazil over the past year or so has therefore shown that the new Cold War waged against China by the U.S. administration is not only jeopardizing China’s interests, but also those of the peoples of other countries.

For Brazil, through cooperation with China, the Brazilian people can quickly obtain the Covid-19 vaccine and better fight the pandemic, have access to Huawei’s most efficient and cheapest 5G technology, and benefit from the cooperation of BRICS countries. At the same time, China has an important market in Brazil, and Brazil is a source of imports for several key Chinese products, such as soybeans, meat, oil and iron ore. In short, “win-win” between China and Brazil is not a sentimental term, but represents a tangible benefit for the people of both countries. In fact, by attacking China, the United States is also acting against the common interests of China and Brazil; it is not only opposing China, but also harming the interests of the Brazilian people. In fact, many other countries in Latin America are facing the same dilemma as Brazil.

Conclusion

Two factors have changed the situation in Brazil.

One is China’s continued active foreign policy based on the idea of a “community of shared future for humanity”. Although some Brazilian politicians have been using China as a tool in their response to the epidemic, and have even attacked China for helping Brazil, China has not stopped sending positive signals and providing the help that the Brazilian people need. For example, since January, the Amazon region has been suffering a shortage of oxygen in the hospitals, causing the death of many Covid-19 patients. The Brazilian federal government was warned about it a few days before the shortage and did not take any action.

The first country to offer help was Venezuela, sending thousands of litres of oxygen to Brazil, despite being one of the main political targets of Brazilian’s president. The second country to send aid was China. On 23 January, China’s ambassador Yang Wanming, publicly stated that the provincial government of Guangdong Province and companies such as Huawei, auto manufacturer BYD and Bank of China would also donate 4,300 kg of oxygen, 25 oxygen machines, 360,000 masks and some basic food.  

Second, this pressure from public opinion is a powerful force keeping China-Brazil relations on a mutually beneficial path. The fight against the epidemic is a demonstration of the common interests of China and Brazil, a combination of top-level diplomatic action and bottom-level pressure from public opinion, which is favourable to a win-win situation.

Regardless of who leads the Brazilian government, there is no doubt China will continue to maintain correct state to state relations with Brazil. But the most enduring link between China and Brazil is the common interest of the two peoples. This has been clearly demonstrated by the major events that have taken place recently.

*   *   *

The Chinese version of this article was published at Guancha.cn.

Marco Fernandes is Researcher, Tricontinental Institute; Editor, News on China

John Ross is Senior Fellow, Chongyang Institute, Renmin University of China

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