The only surprise about Jair Bolsonaro's diagnosis for COVID-19 was that it took him so long to test positive. For months, the Brazilian president flouted health precautions, urging his compatriots to get back to work instead. Despite the country's skyrocketing caseload of infections and fatalities, Bolsonaro shunned masks, joined public rallies of his supporters, denied evidence that the virus poses a threat, and championed unproven remedies on live television. Instead of urging citizens to take care or expressing his sympathy about the outrageous death toll, he spewed more misinformation about healthy people being safe from the virus.
The pandemic populist shows little sign of changing course. To the contrary, the pandemic provides a welcome distraction from accumulated criminal investigations that threaten his presidency.
Despite registering over 2.1 million reported cases and 81,000 fatalities - experts believe the numbers could be 10 to 15 times higher - Bolsonaro's cabinet has yet to mount a coordinated strategy including serious testing and contact tracing strategy. As a result, Brazil registers the second highest number of infected people in the world, and could overtake the United States in the next few months.
Rather than rallying the country and leading a coordinated response, Bolsonaro has instead sought to derail prevention efforts, forcing the country's 27 governors and hundreds of mayors to fend for themselves. Some state leaders were scouring international markets for basic protective gear, only to be denounced by the president for paying inflated prices to secure masks, gloves and saline solution. The country's highly regarded and chronically under-funded public health system and its 300,000 health professionals is buckling under the strain, with hospitals in some parts of the country on the brink of collapse. Despite the deepening crisis, Bolsonaro has urged businesses to open instead which guarantees the crisis will worsen.
President Bolsonaro's response to the pandemic is a tragedy foretold. For months, Brazil's leader dismissed the seriousness of COVID-19, describing it instead as a little flu and a liberal fantasy. He publicly derided preventive measures undertaken by states and cities, urging Brazilians to prioritize the economy instead. He ignored court orders to wear a mask, scorned physical distancing, and urged his supporters to invade health facilities to prove the disease was overblown.
By actively resisting basic health measures and encouraging citizens to avoid taking basic precautions, he may have condemned tens of thousands of them to an early demise. The Brazilian press has expressed outrage over the president's recklessness and irresponsibility, even as his defenders rally around him.
Rather than rallying the country and leading a coordinated response, Bolsonaro has instead sought to derail prevention efforts.
The president is acutely aware that the noose is tightening around his eldest offspring, Flavio, who is being investigated by the federal police after months of obfuscation. Meanwhile, opposition politicians are preparing to file charges accusing him of endangering the public with COVID-19 infection. The association of journalists is also preparing a case for the Supreme Court accusing the president of putting their lives in danger.
Brazil's pandemic populist is at a cross-roads. On the one hand, COVID-19 could humanize the president. His survival could also convince some of his supporters about the merits of his disinformation crusade against the virus. At the very least, the president hopes that the controversies over COVID-19 will distract public opinion from the ballooning criminal investigations against him, his family and his entourage.
Like populists in other parts of the world, Bolsonaro thrives on polarization and turmoil - it is what energizes his base and ensures his hold on power. But there is also a chance that the pandemic could hasten his exit, giving rise to a more responsible and effective response. Brazil has the public, private and nonprofit capability to contain and control the virus. It desperately lacks the leadership to bring this about.