Brazil Congress clears way for emergency pandemic aid

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — A measure to renew billions of dollars in emergency aid for millions of Brazilians struggling amid the COVID-19 pandemic passed in the lower house of Congress on Thursday, though lawmakers were still working on the details.

The bill, already approved by the Senate, allows for a maximum spending of 44 billion reais — $7.9 billion — though the initial measure did not specify how much families would receive, or for how long. Economy Minister Paulo Guedes earlier said it should be between $175–$375, for up to four months.

A similar cash transfer program last year totaling 330 billion reais helped nearly 70 million Brazilians, nearly a third of the population, and was widely credited with helping to avoid an even worse economic crash. But it was discontinued on Dec. 31.

In Rio de Janeiro’s long-derelict port neighborhood, 34 year-old Tassiana Nascimento Costa said last year’s emergency fund had enabled her to feed her two children and that life had become a lot more difficult since it was discontinued.

Costa, who usually makes a living selling bottled water and other drinks in the streets, said her income fell from about 200 reais a day to just 50 or 70 reais. And with the recent resurgence of COVID-19 cases and deaths, she’s afraid of catching the virus and is no longer working, relying solely on a family allowance, a separate government aid program.

If the amounts cited by Guedes are approved, the pandemid aid would bring her an additional $18 each month. “As I can’t work at the moment, this helps,” Costa said. “But it won’t change my situation much.”

Last year’s program boosted Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s popularity, and his ratings have dropped since it came to an end.

It also helped stave off an even deeper recession in Latin America’s largest nation. Brazil’s economy contracted 4.1% last year, less than the 5.3% plunge forecast by the International Monetary Fund in April 2020.

Brazil is passing through its worst moment of the pandemic. The number of new COVID-19 cases is still surging, with a new record high 2,286 deaths reported on Wednesday. New measures aimed at limiting activity, or the strengthening of existing ones in some Brazilian states, could also add financial pressure to Brazil’s poorest.

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