Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been contesting international norms and scientific evidence ever since he came to power, but coronavirus may be the contest he finally loses, writes Francisca Costa Reis (University of Leuven).
The World Health Organization’s decision on 11 March 2020 to reclassify the Covid-19 outbreak as a pandemic represented a turning point for public health systems and governments the world over. As infections soar towards 600,000 and related deaths climb beyond 25,000, states have sought to buy time and reduce the pressure on their health systems by closing schools and businesses or bringing in lockdowns and social distancing. But not all countries have followed the same path in their responses, and Brazil’s reaction – particularly that of its president Jair Bolsonaro – has been conspicuously different.
Brazil’s reaction to Covid-19
With over 3,000 confirmed cases, Brazil has become one of the centres of South America’s growing coronavirus crisis, yet the country’s response has been patchy and uneven, revealing critical incompatibilities between the federal and state levels, not to mention Bolsonaro’s personal refusal to the pandemic as a serious crisis.
There are essentially two opposing camps in Brazil’s response to the coronavirus outbreak: those contesting the seriousness of the issue, as personified by Bolsonaro, and those leading the country’s response to the crisis, mostly state governors. A third, middle-way group is made up of those few politicians that hope to bridge the gap between federal and state levels, such as Vice-President Hamilton Mourão.
Bolsonaro’s response to the reclassification of Covid-19 as a pandemic has been characterised by denial and belittling. In various televised addresses Bolsonaro has shown little desire to mount a serious response, calling it a “little flu” and attacking the media for supposed fear-mongering and sensationalism.
Just days after Minister of Health Luiz Henrique Mandetta warned against the pandemic’s potentially disastrous impact on Brazil’s health system and urged the population to respect social-distancing rules, Bolsonaro defied public-health recommendations to attend a sizeable rally of his supporters.
In an attempt to take matters into their own hands with the number of cases skyrocketing, cities and states like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have taken drastic measures, closing schools and non-essential businesses in an attempt to halt the spread of the virus.
These measures, which echo moves taken across the globe, have been vociferously contested by the Brazilian president, who furiously accused state governors of staging an insurrection against the federal government for their own political ends.
As of late March, the President continues to urge people to go about their lives as normal, emphasising the need to keep the country’s economy ticking over. State governors, on the other hand, have maintained their stance on the need for serious measures to fight the pandemic, pointing out that the dead cannot be resurrected whereas the economy can.
To complicate matters further, postures within the cabinet have also been inconsistent. Most notably, Vice-President Hamilton Mourão has emphasised that the government’s official position continues to require social distancing and isolation, even though Bolsonaro himself has claimed that such measures only apply to those over the age of 60.
Contesting the incontestable: a familiar pattern?
While most of the world has followed the recommendations of health officials and scientists, Bolsonaro’s recent behaviour and active contestation of the seriousness of this disease has done quite the opposite. While this might initially seem surprising, a closer look at Brazil’s positioning vis-à-vis other global challenges reveals a familiar pattern.
From the moment he took office, Bolsonaro and his cabinet have dismissed climate change as an ideological construct that suffocates the economy, thus ignoring a broad scientific consensus on the disastrous impact that this process will have for particular societies and for the planet as a whole. Prioritising the country’s economic development and claiming sovereignty over its territory, Bolsonaro has also continuously downplayed issues like deforestation while simultaneously gutting the country’s environmental laws.
In this blatant contestation of the incontestable, President Bolsonaro even went so far as to fire the head of Brazil’s space agency over the institution’s provision of deforestation data, an unusually direct form of rejecting scientific evidence.
Is coronavirus one contest too far for Bolsonaro?
While denying the undeniable and prioritising the economy over scientific evidence may be Bolsonaro’s daily bread, contesting the seriousness of coronavirus could be a tipping point.
The president’s climate-change denial has sparked reactions and condemnation both inside and outside Brazil, but it comes as no surprise to Bolsonaro’s core constituency, which likely agrees that the economy should come before the environment. However, reactions to the government’s inaction in the face of Covid-19 seem to suggest that a tipping point could be on the horizon.
There have been three key developments:
- Studies show that Brazilians widely support the restrictive measures put in place by states to fight the pandemic.
- Huge pot-banging protests against Bolsonaro have taken place in several cities that overwhelmingly backed Bolsonaro in the 2018 election.
- The idea of impeachment has been floated, indicating serious discontent amongst the political class.
It seems that when the lives of people are directly and visibly affected, contestation of the incontestable ceases to be sustainable. Precisely how this tipping point will ripple though Brazilian politics is difficult to predict, but Bolsonaro is finding himself increasingly alone on an island of denial as the bitter truth of coronavirus unfolds around him.
• The views expressed here are of the authors rather than the Centre or the LSE
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