Jair Bolsonaro not only promoted flouting social distancing rules but also participated in a public protest against democratic institutions that included calls for a military takeover and encouraged supporters to protest against coronavirus measures.
When you are one of the worst-hit countries by the coronavirus pandemic across the world and your head of the state says that the new coronavirus is nothing but a “little flu” that has to be faced “realistically”, you certainly have a problem. When thousands of people are dying across the globe of Covid-19 infection and the head of your state reacts to it by saying “That’s life, we’re all going to die someday”, you certainly have a problem.
Brazil currently has 1.67 million cases of coronavirus. But that is not the country’s only problem. The head of their state, President Jair Bolsonaro, hasn’t really taken the coronavirus threat seriously throughout the crisis period since the outbreak of the virus till he himself got infected by the coronavirus. Bolsonaro announced on Tuesday that he has tested positive for Coronavirus. Bolsonaro also told reporters that he felt “perfectly well,” after taking two doses of hydroxychloroquine, an unproven anti-malaria medicine which he has announced successful.
Coronavirus: The Little Flu
Even when Brazil is the second worst-hit country by the infectious virus, Jair Bolsonaro has not only downplayed the threat of coronavirus since the beginning, he has also often ridiculed the risks that came with the virus that emerged from China’s Wuhan. The President has often called the coronavirus as “little flue”. The 65-years old Brazil President has even shrugged off his own diagnosis on Tuesday, insisting that “life goes on”.
Once a military officer, Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro is known for his brash style, which in fact helped him to gain power on 1 January 2019. His antiques and radical following are such that many experts and critics fear that if Bolsonaro suffers just a mild case of COVID-19, he could feel vindicated in dismissing the virus and his repeated flouting of lockdown orders.
On 22 March 2020, when Brazil had 1,891 cases of coronavirus and 34 people had died of the virus, Jair Bolsonaro was accusing his political foes and the press of purposefully “tricking” citizens about the dangers of coronavirus.
“The people will soon see that they were tricked by these governors and by the large part of the media when it comes to coronavirus,” Bolsonaro had said in a tetchy television interview on 22 March.
Belittling the coronavirus as a “little flu” since its outbreak, Bolsonaro’s – and his supporters’ – preferred response to the pandemic is “vertical isolation”: confining those at highest risk and letting the rest of society get on with life.
Bolsonaro not only promoted flouting social distancing rules but also participated in a public protest against democratic institutions that included calls for a military takeover and encouraged supporters to protest against coronavirus measures.
Bolsonaro Can’t Social Distance
Two tweets by Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro in which he questioned quarantine measures aimed at containing the novel coronavirus were removed by twitter on 31 March.
Bolsonaro had posted several videos in which he flouted his government’s social distancing guidelines by mixing with supporters on the streets of Brasilia and urging them to keep the economy going.
In one of his video that was taken down, Bolsonaro tells a street vendor, “What I have been hearing from people is that they want to work.”
“We just can’t stand still, there is fear because if you don’t die of the disease, you starve,” the vendor is seen telling Bolsonaro, who responds: “You’re not going to die!”
In another video, Bolsonaro speaks about isolation rules. “If it continues like this, with the amount of unemployment what we will have later is a very serious problem that will take years to be resolved,” he stresses.
“Some people want me to shut up, follow the protocols,” said Bolsonaro. “How many times does the doctor not follow the protocol?”
“Let’s face the virus with reality. It is life, we must all die one day.”
On 31 March, when Bolsonaro’s videos were taken down in which he was clearly encouraging citizens to flout the rules, Brazil had 5,717 cases of coronavirus and 201 deaths due to the disease.
They Got Him Covered
But for Bolsonaro supporters, what’s happening in Brazil has very little to do with medicine or science.
For example, one of his supporters Carina Belome Lemes, who is a former public service worker, told Euro News, “We’re facing an unprecedented political war. They are using this pandemic to bring about socialist measures… the people stop their activities, stay at home, don’t kiss, don’t hug, don’t leave your house, don’t work, take the government pack and figure it out. Just like the president said, he’s not going to dictate the rules, he’s going to adopt measures and each state governor and municipal authority must do their part. He is trying… but we’re asking too much from only one person.”
Bolsonaro supporters have been madly in love with their leader. Eighteen months into his term, the president is bedeviled by investigations and possible impeachment, forcing him closer to his military allies. But his supporters continue to rally behind the far-right leader.
On 17th may, wrapped in the yellow and green of the Brazilian flag, scores of President Jair Bolsonaro’s most ardent supporters rallied in Brasília on Sunday, calling for the closure of Congress and the supreme court — institutions they deem corrupt.
On the very day, when his supporters came out to protest against the coronavirus restriction, Brazil had reached 241,080 cases of coronavirus whereas 16,118 people had died.
Fears and Speculations
Oliver Stuenkel, a professor at the Getulio Vargas University, tweeted that if Bolsonaro overcomes the infection, “He will also use his recovery to substantiate his claim that the pandemic is not that serious, after all. Contradicting expert advice, he announced his positive test result standing next to reporters, and took off his mask at the end. His test result will not change his mind.”
2) He will also use his recovery to substantiate his claim that the pandemic is not that serious, after all. Contradicting expert advice, he announced his positive test result standing next to reporters, and took off his mask at the end. His test result will not change his mind.
— Oliver Stuenkel 🇧🇷 (@OliverStuenkel) July 7, 2020
However, the concerns are not entirely exaggerated. Bolsonaro has a history of coming out of crisis and sweeping his voters off their feet. In 2018, Bolsonaro was stabbed during his campaigning. He survived the attack and that helped him in his way to power.
Oliver Stuenkel, referring to the president’s middle name ‘Messias’, said in a tweet, “If he overcomes COVID-19 without serious symptoms, it could strengthen his radical supporters for whom he is a messianic superman. ‘Authority, not authoritarianism'”.
“He is Playing It Safe”
However, Marcio Coimbra, who has known Bolsonaro for years and was a member of his government, told Euro News that “There’s a lot of confusion, but this confusion has a method.”
“Now he knows his government ends if the economy collapses. And so he is using the economy to say he’s by the people’s side. Like that he creates a direct connection to the people. So while he maintains the health ministry taking all measures and communicating with state governments adopting social distancing measures etc, just like in all other countries, he also acts as a populist leader. He’s trying to cover both sides of opinion,” Coimbra said.
Coimbra also told Euro News, “Those who are anti-Bolsonaro, are in favor of social distancing rules etc and identity in this group. But if you support Bolsonaro, you must talk about the economy and jobs that will be lost etc. Political divisions now involve a different vision of the facts – and of the consequences of this crisis. Sensible people, doctors for example, who should be speaking in favor of confinement, if they support Bolsonaro they will talk about the economy and say this disease is not all that serious. So politics are mixed with science. It’s quite sad and reveals the very low level of the political debate in Brazil today.”
Although, on Tuesday, Bolsonaro had to come out and announce that he had tested positive for Coronavirus. But while doing that, he also made sure that he lets his people know that he is doing well.
“I’m, well, normal. I even want to take a walk around here, but I can’t due to medical recommendations,” Bolsonaro told reporters.
“I thought I had it before, given my very dynamic activity. I’m president and on the combat lines. I like to be in the middle of the people,” he said. “Everyone knew that it would reach a considerable part of the population sooner or later. It was positive for me,” the Brazil President added.
‘You can see my face, that I’m well, at ease, thank God. Everything is cool.’
“Life will continue, and Brazil needs to produce,” he said. “If the economy isn’t functioning, it will create other problems that will lead to more death.”
‘You can see my face, that I’m well, at ease, thank God. Everything is cool.' — Watch the moment Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took off his mask after confirming that he tested positive for COVID-19 pic.twitter.com/g8tihcEYaX
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) July 7, 2020
What will the future serve?
From far, Bolsonaro appears to be a confusing entity, most likely a far-right leader who has been openly nostalgic for the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. But when he is seen through the context of maintaining power, he is a populist leader who doesn’t want to lose the power and will probably go to any extent in order to keep it.
Bolsonaro will certainly have a tough time managing to downplay a disease when he himself is suffering from it. It is to be seen whether Bolsonaro continues to pursue his stance of opening-up everything except containing the elderlies, even when he isolates himself from the rest of the world.
For now, Brazil remains the second worst-hit country by the coronavirus pandemic, and her President has gone in isolation.