June 10, 2020

Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro followed Trump’s coronavirus blueprint. Now its cases are surging


RIO DE JANEIRO – He’s shown disdain for facts and science-based recommendations. He’s said the public will eventually realize they were “tricked” by governors and large parts of the media over a “measly little cold.” He’s embraced chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as treatments for the coronavirus despite no evidence of the anti-malaria drugs’ effectiveness in fighting the disease.

As Brazil’s coronavirus infections have surged to a level surpassed only by the United States, President Jair Bolsonaro, the leader of Latin America’s largest country, has followed a near-identical coronavirus script to President Donald Trump.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro has downplayed the dangers of the pandemic and argued against an aggressive national lockdown. He has continued to attend large political rallies, where he shakes hands with supporters and has touted his #BrazilCannotStop campaign, which asked people to get back to work and normal life. A federal judge later banned it. He has replaced two health ministers who publicly disagreed with his COVID-19 approach with military officials – a near but not total parallel to the case of U.S. health official Rick Bright, who claimed he was ousted from his position after raising concerns about Trump’s promotion of hydroxychloroquine.

FDA: Hydroxychloroquine isn't safe or effective in treating, preventing COVID-19

Bolsonaro has also blamed Brazil’s state governors for “destroying jobs.” And in the wake of Trump’s announcement that he wants to withdraw from the World Health Organization over claims it failed to adequately raise the alarm over the coronavirus because of its close ties to China, Bolosonaro said that he, too, is considering following in Trump’s WHO footsteps, accusing the global health organization of “idealogical bias.”

A supporter of President Jair Bolsonaro wears a face mask with Bolsonaro's image during a demonstration at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on June 7, 2020.
A supporter of President Jair Bolsonaro wears a face mask with Bolsonaro’s image during a demonstration at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on June 7, 2020.

Trump and Bolsonaro have been “remarkably similar” in their dealings with the coronavirus, said Steven Levitsky, an expert on Latin America at Harvard University and the author of “How Democracies Die.” “Both were incredibly slow to recognize the outbreak and to listen to experts who were calling for immediate action,” he added. 

Rubens Ricupero, a former Brazilian minister of finance who previously served as Brazil’s ambassador to Washington, said that Trump and Bolsonaro also both “prioritized the economy” over COVID-19 isolation measures, a decision he believes will likely lead to more economic damage over the longer-term because the disease was allowed to spread farther afield. “The economy will take longer to get back to normal,” he said. 

More worrying, Bolsonaro said on Saturday that Brazil would stop publishing running totals of coronavirus deaths because they were “not representative” of the true situation.

The move, which means the public won’t know how many people have been infected or died because of coronavirus, has angered opposition lawmakers and public health officials. Brazil’s Supreme Court ordered the government on Tuesday to release the figures. Critics worry it could be an attempt by Brazil’s right-wing leader, a controversial and polarizing figure who routinely insults women and racial minorities, to disguise the true nature of the country’s death toll. Coronavirus cases in Brazil are now growing at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world and the nation is on track, within a few weeks or more, to surpass Britain’s deaths in the No. 2. spot behind the USA.

This “trick will not absolve the government for its responsibility from an eventual genocide,” Gilmar Mendes, a Supreme Court justice, wrote on Twitter. 

Coronavirus surge threatens Brazil

Oliver Stuenkel, a political analyst and professor of international relations at Brazil’s Getulio Vargas Foundation, a think tank and university, said Bolsonaro’s coronavirus response may resemble Trump’s, but the latter has been far more extreme.

“Trump hasn’t dismissed all the experts in his government. He has kept (National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director) Anthony Fauci, who is still saying things that are in accordance with scientific standards. In Brazil, there are currently no recognized health care experts in charge of handling the crisis,” Stuenkel said.

Yet Brazil’s health-care system is on the brink of collapse.

In five Brazilian states, beds for COVID-19 patients in the intensive-care units of public hospitals have reached over 90% of their capacity, according to Agencia Publica, a Brazilian investigative news agency. In Manaus, the Amazon rainforest region’s biggest city, mass graves have been constructed to accommodate a wave of deceased patients, many of them with links to the area’s vulnerable, poor and Indigenous communities. 

Brazilians have expressed their discontent with Bolsonaro’s administration by taking to their windows in the evening to bang pots and pans in protest.

Amanda Coimbra, 30, a translator who lives in Rio’s famous Copacabana neighborhood said these protests have become a kind of “ritual” for her almost every day at 8:30 pm.

From the top floor of her 12-story apartment complex she has a panoramic view of a “sea of pans” that pop-up in the windows of the buildings scattered all around. 

“We are so upset, angered and desperate with this situation. Our government is basically not doing anything about this (pandemic),” Coimbra said.

As the public backlash has grown, hundreds have taken to the streets to protest Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic but also Brazil’s legacy of deep-rooted racism – under the spotlight anew since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. In recent weeks,  Black Lives Matter marches have joined forces with anti-Bolsonaro demonstrations to highlight cases such as that of João Pedro Mattos Pinto, a 14-year-old black student who was killed during a police operation in Rio. Pinto was playing in his yard.  

In this March 7, 2020, Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, center, stands with President Donald Trump, second from left, Vice President Mike Pence, right, and Brazil's Communications Director Fabio Wajngarten, behind Trump partially covered, during a dinner at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
In this March 7, 2020, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, center, stands with President Donald Trump, second from left, Vice President Mike Pence, right, and Brazil’s Communications Director Fabio Wajngarten, behind Trump partially covered, during a dinner at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

Bolsonaro’s “government has kept a lot of issues like inequality and racism out of the political agenda,” said Marcos Nobre, a professor of politics at Brazil’s University of Campinas, in São Paulo, and author of”Period: Bolsonaro’s War Against Democracy.”

“This is an opportunity to take back these agendas,” he said. 

For Bolsonaro and Trump, their mutual admiration is well documented, with the U.S. president noting on several occasions that they have “many views” in common.

But as Brazil’s coronavirus crisis has appeared to spiral out of control – many experts believe its 740,000 infections may be a vast undercount – Bolsonaro’s standing with Trump has not shielded him from the imposition of a U.S. travel ban from Brazil.

“Today’s action will help ensure foreign nationals who have been in Brazil do not become a source of additional infections in our country,” said White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany last month as Brazil joined China, Europe, Britain and Iran on the list of countries where certain travelers are banned from entering the U.S. 

Still, Bolsonaro is used to deflecting criticism. 

“It’s no use for the press to pin these issues on me when it’s not up to me,” he said when questioned recently over an escalating coronavirus death toll in São Paulo state.

Bolsonaro has also pushed ever more false and outlandish claims, such as when he said in a now deleted Facebook post that the WHO encourages homosexuality and masturbation among young children. While the country has swiftly evolved into a new epicenter of the pandemic, and more than a dozen of his senior administration officials have tested positive for the virus, he has encouraged Brazilians to hold barbecues and has been seen riding a personal watercraft on Lake Paranoá, near Brazil’s capital.

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s admiration for Trump remains undimmed.  

On May 27, as Bolsonaro joined a group of his supporters in prayer just outside of Brazil’s presidential palace in Brasília, hidden behind a row of hands raised in the president’s direction was one man who was shouting out above the crowd, as revealed in a video of the event that was being streamed live on Bolsonaro’s Facebook page. 

“Let us pray for you. I believe you were brought here by God,” the man said of Bolsonaro. Wearing a mask and addressing loyalists from behind a short metal fence, Bolsonaro eventually shifted the conversation to his admiration for Trump.

“It has to be Trump (in office),” he said, referring to his delight at the current U.S. administration. The crowd cheered. A few days later, the White House issued a statement announcing a shipment to Brazil of 2 million doses of hydroxychloroquine.


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