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Why Jair Bolsonaro’s Coronavirus Denialism Won’t Hurt Him

The Brazilian president is banking on popular outrage at lockdowns if the economy falls apart—and elite fears of his vice president.

President Jair Bolsonaro speaks with supporters in Brasília on April 19.
President Jair Bolsonaro speaks with supporters in Brasília on April 19. Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

Many leaders around the world have taken drastic steps to fight the spread of the coronavirus, but Brazil’s populist leader, Jair Bolsonaro, has fiercely resisted all pressure to take this pandemic seriously.

Many leaders around the world have taken drastic steps to fight the spread of the coronavirus, but Brazil’s populist leader, Jair Bolsonaro, has fiercely resisted all pressure to take this pandemic seriously.

Since the outbreak began, Bolsonaro has compared the coronavirus to a mild flu, incited his supporters to participate in political rallies to oppose lockdown measures adopted by local governments, promoted unproven drugs on social media as miracle cures to the disease, and was even seen visiting bakeries and supermarkets in open defiance of the recommendations of health care experts and of health care regulations in place in the capital city, Brasília.

Last Thursday, Bolsonaro doubled down on this radical strategy by firing his last critic within the federal administration: Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta. Unlike his boss, Mandetta was a strong advocate of social distancing and lockdowns and had gained the trust of Brazilians who fear the country’s fragile public health care system will not be able to cope with this pandemic without stringent measures to slow down contagion. Despite constant critical attacks by his boss, Mandetta was the one person within the cabinet publicly claiming that this crisis had to be taken seriously and that the response had to be based on the best scientific evidence available. Because of that, he was fired.

Mandetta was replaced by Nelson Teich, a doctor and businessman who was once an advisor to Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign. The new minister is not a politician but a respected health care professional with strong ties to some of the country’s more respected hospitals. In order to maintain his reputation, he is unlikely to publicly endorse his boss’s more wacky theories about public health. This is in stark contrast to Mandetta, who is a career politician and will most likely now use his newfound popularity to run for the Senate or for governor in his home state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

At the same time, however, the fact that Teich is not likely to seek elected office but to return to the private sector once his stint in the ministry is over means that he will be more interested in influencing health care spending and regulation as minister, not in making headlines in the media or publicly clashing with Bolsonaro.

After Teich’s nomination, Bolsonaro posted a YouTube video in which he and his new minister talked about the pandemic. The president, as has become usual, raved about the healing powers of chloroquine, a drug prescribed to patients with malaria that is currently being studied as a possible treatment for patients with COVID-19.

Mandetta had always pointed out that there was no firm evidence that chloroquine was effective and that it was dangerous to mislead people into thinking there was a cure out there. Teich’s response, on the other hand, was carefully worded so that he would not appear to contradict his boss, while claiming that it would be “up to the doctors” to decide which treatment would be best for each patient.

But, as criticism of the president’s reckless position increases within Brazil, how can Bolsonaro get away with such a disastrous response to this pandemic? The long-standing rule of Brazilian politics is that presidents who lose too much popular support get impeached. As recently as 2016, Congress got rid of President Dilma Rousseff amid a wave of street protests against corruption at the heart of the government’s then-ruling party.

Bolsonaro’s cavalier attitude toward the risks posed by the coronavirus has turned him into one of the few world leaders who have experienced a significant loss of popular support according to the polls. According to the latest national survey conducted by IDEIA Big Data, one of the country’s foremost public opinion firms, only 33 percent of Brazilians support the president’s performance during this crisis. Conversely, 74 percent of voters supported the former health minister’s response, according to unpublished portions of the IDEIA poll.

With such numbers—Brazil has more than 38,000 cases, the highest confirmed number in Latin America—one wonders how Bolsonaro can afford to fire a popular minister and to double down on his strategy without fear of losing his job like Rousseff. The president appears to be biding his time, betting that Brazilians will soon be enraged by the economic consequences of lockdown measures adopted by local governments throughout the country. When that happens, he could blame the country’s political establishment for supporting such measures and claim that lockdown measures were not necessary in the first place.

Brazil’s economy has already been weakened by almost 10 years of slow growth. Unemployment reached 11.6 percent in March, and estimates suggest this number might double in the next two months. The situation is made worse by the fact that over 41 percent of Brazilian laborers are informal workers and thus are left with no means to earn a salary under the strict lockdown conditions.

Since coronavirus cases started to appear in Brazil, Bolsonaro and his finance minister have clashed with congressional leaders over how much money the government should spend to help those who have lost income as a result of the lockdowns. Currently, Bolsonaro is not even a member of a formally recognized political party, and only a few legislators remain fiercely loyal to him. As a result, despite government opposition, Congress passed a law providing informal workers with 600 reais (roughly $115) a month in emergency aid during lockdowns, but a lack of reliable data means that many will not receive the support they need. Once Brazilians start to fear an economic downturn more than they fear the virus, Bolsonaro is betting that many will come to believe that he was right all along.

But for this risky tactic to even have a chance of working, Bolsonaro must escape impeachment by Congress in the short run. For that, he has a powerful ally in his vice president. While the president has few friends in Congress, his vice president scares many in Brazil’s political elite more than the country’s populist head of state does. Political leaders in Congress know full well that the current president harbors authoritarian tendencies and would love nothing more than an opportunity to sweep aside many of the democratic controls currently in place. Yet in reality he has no support from the top brass of the armed forces for any such adventures.

Vice President Hamilton Mourão, on the other hand, is a retired four-star general who enjoys significant prestige with the country’s military elite and has a long history of praising the country’s military dictatorship (1964-1985). While most in Congress know that Bolsonaro’s populist rhetoric is a threat to them, they also think that having a general with no links to the country’s political power brokers is a bigger risk at the moment.

To be sure, the generals in the cabinet have often opposed some of Bolsonaro’s more controversial statements. The best way to understand the political role that these generals seek for the military in Brazil is not to think of them as moderates trying to temper the more radical instincts of a reckless populist. Rather, many appear nostalgic for the days in which the armed forces held an unelected tutelary role over civilian politicians and a broad influence in policymaking in general. While there is broad agreement within the armed forces’ top brass that going back to the days of military rule would not be in the their best interest, congressional leaders are still far more skeptical in supporting the rise to power of a general than they were in supporting previous vice presidents. Bolsonaro understands how to use this distrust in his favor and often says Mourão would be “worse than me.”

Mandetta’s dismissal ensures that senior government officials in the federal government will be even less likely to publicly disagree with the president. Fortunately, many of Brazil’s state governors and mayors have taken the lead in the fight against the virus. The leaders of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro states, João Dória and Wilson Witzel—both presidential hopefuls who see this as an opportunity to denounce Bolsonaro—not only have fiercely opposed the president’s stance but also have ensured that strict quarantines continue to be observed in their respective territories. Together these two states account for 32 percent of the Brazilian population.

As a result of the public’s support for these measures, many other local leaders have followed suit and are enacting legislation to make up for the lack of support from the federal government. Unfortunately, most state and local governments lack the necessary financial and organizational resources to put together an effective response to this public health crisis. While legislators in Congress have passed new legislation to provide them with emergency funding, the lack of adequate support from the health ministry will significantly affect the country’s ability to deal with this pandemic.

For better or worse, Mandetta’s departure will change little in Brazil’s short-term strategy to fight the coronavirus. Bolsonaro will continue to pursue a risky rhetorical strategy, but his ability to actually dismantle ongoing lockdown regulations will be limited by the opposition of local leaders and Congress. The real risk is that Brazil’s frail economy will start to show signs of weakness soon. When that happens, there is a significant chance that public opinion will start to turn and that Bolsonaro will come out of this crisis stronger as a result—leading to a further erosion of the country’s fragile democracy.

Eduardo Mello is an assistant professor of politics and international relations at the Fundação Getulio Vargas in São Paulo.

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