democraciaAbierta

Brazil feels the consequences of pandemic populism

Brazil has the public, private and nonprofit capability to contain and control the virus. It desperately lacks the leadership to bring this about.

Robert Muggah Miguel Lago
22 July 2020
Wheatpaste by graphic artist Szucinski with Bolsonaro saying: ''it's just a flu''. Sao Paolo, Brazil, july 2020
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Cris Faga/Zuma Press/PA Images

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.

Although the president could win some sympathy from his base for contracting the virus and surviving, it could mark the beginning of the end of the most chaotic administration in Brazil's history. His government's response to the pandemic has been marked by incompetence, recklessness and cruelty, and there is no sign of the disease letting-up. Today, Brazil's national response is overseen by an active duty army general with no experience in public health.

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.

Notwithstanding his bluster and bravado, Bolsonaro popular support has taken a hit since the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak. As the disease spread uncontrollably - Brazil now registers the largest number of nurses who have died as a result of the virus worldwide - dismay soon followed. With the president defying common-sense health measures, high profile ministers were either sacked or resigned, former allies turned against him, support from his middle class base began to fall, and calls for his resignation or impeachment grew. Even before the president's positive diagnosis, he faced at least 48 separate charges of impeachment. As of last month, 55 percent of Brazilians said they would like to see him removed before the next election.

As dire the situation may appear, the president will not go down without a fight.

In recent weeks Bolsonaro has busily expanded his Congressional base, where he reportedly commands the support of 40% of parliamentarians. He has won some over by offering petty government positions. The president won over parts of the military establishment the same way: almost 3,000 army personnel were nominated to government positions.

This is proportionally more than Venezuela, a country that has endured a dictatorship for years. Bolsonaro is also still supported by hardcore loyalists that represent about 30 percent of the population, many of them armed. The president also has steady support from many state police, having supported illegal mutinies earlier in 2020. To wit, officers in São Paulo recently protected pro-Bolsonaro protesters who flouted social distancing orders.

Even so, Bolsonaro faces a host of existential threats not just from the uncontrolled COVID-19 crisis, but from opposing politicians, the supreme court and the criminal justice system. In addition to the threat of impeachment for crimes of responsibility, he could be convicted by the Supreme Court for common crimes, or ejected by the national electoral tribunal for alleged misconduct during the 2018 campaign. His three sons also face a dizzying array of criminal investigations, including for money laundering and hate crimes.

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.

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