Anger as Brazil’s government tries to reverse campus lockdowns

Minister promises to reward universities that go back to teaching as Bolsonaro’s administration battles with state governors over pandemic policy

May 6, 2020
Source: iStock

Brazil’s education minister has implied that he will reward universities that restart teaching activities even though the number of Covid-19 related deaths in the country has now passed 5,000.

A tweet from Abraham Weintraub, Brazil’s education minister, who recently came under fire for a “highly racist” tweet about China, said “those who are teaching classes will receive more resources and will be awarded”. It is the latest example of the battle facing the country’s universities as the federal government continues to shrug off the impact of the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s right-wing, anti-science president, has repeatedly undermined lockdowns and social distancing policies, claiming that the media have whipped up hysteria over the coronavirus, which has more than 3.2 million reported cases worldwide so far.

In response to Mr Weintraub’s tweet, Pedro Cunha Lima, the president of the Education Commission of the Chamber of Deputies, said “universities that are not having classes have an obvious reason, which is to combat this crisis and to reduce the number of deaths”, the Brazilian magazine Istoé reported.

Marcelo Knobel, rector of the University of Campinas (Unicamp), said many Brazilian universities had had to stop teaching entirely because they lacked the resources to support online learning. “This is maybe what the ministry was trying to push in [its] order to start sooner,” he said.

Adriana Marotti de Mello, professor of business at the University of São Paulo, said the education minister lacked authority to compel institutions because federal universities have autonomy and the decision about whether to hold classes is down to institutions following local rules, such as municipal or state-level regulations.

“Instead of working to support universities, Mr Weintraub spends much of his time tweeting, trying to provoke outrage,” she said.

Professor Marotti de Mello added that Mr Weintraub has also refused to cancel the nationwide in-person Enem university entrance exams.

The controversy is an example of the growing feud between Mr Bolsonaro’s government and state governors, Professor Marotti de Mello said. For example, the governor of São Paulo has supported social distancing and in effect shut down the state on 17 March, so the federal university ended face-to-face teaching.

Leonardo Ferreira, a postdoctoral researcher at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, said most universities were following the governor’s recommendations to remain closed or to migrate to online platforms.

“The universities are fortunately going in the opposite direction that President Bolsonaro points to,” he said. “The government insists that the country must not stop and that softer isolation methods should be applied, even without any scientific evidence to support it. I am afraid about how many lives the anti-scientific movement will end.”

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