Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil, and COVID-19

This week in North Philly Notes, Philip Evanson, coauthor of Living in the Crossfire, provides an interim report about Brazil during the pandemic.

Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) met with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House on July 8. It marked López Obrador’s long overdue debut as a statesman in need of establishing international credentials. During nearly two years as president, his whereabouts did not include any trips, official or otherwise, outside of Mexico. He had consistently soft-pedaled Trump’s anti-immigrant insults and truculence, but there was an official agenda celebrating the United States-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade agreement that went into effect July 1. The meeting became an exchange of compliments, and a state dinner followed. There was no reference to common views held by the two chiefs of state on the COVID-19 pandemic. Had COVID-19 been on the agenda, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro might well have been invited. The three presidents stand out as world leaders opting for “life must go on as usual” (López Obrador’s quietly expressed view) in spite of COVID-19.

JAIR BOLSONARO AND COVID-19

Jair Bolsonaro’s efforts to lead Brazil in the COVID-19 pandemic have shown mixed results. Numbers of deaths were high, but not everywhere in Brazil, and well below the U.S. as numbers per 100,000 (ca. 29 per 100,000 in Brazil [comparable to Brazil’s homicide rate] compared to ca. 39 per 100,000 in US). Then a new surge in numbers of deaths largely closed the gap with 44.7 deaths per 100,000 for Brazil, and 46.8 deaths per 100,000 for the US. These figures placed Brazil 5th and the United States 4th in COVID-19 mortality rates as calculated around the world with only Sweden (57.4), Italy (67.5), and the United Kingdom (69) showing higher rates. Eight state governors in Brazil have been or are ill with coronavirus. Governor Carlos Moises of Santa Catarina announced July 1 that he was ill. Santa Catarina had 26,341 cases but only 341 deaths. Official Brazilian statistics unlike in the U.S. give equal emphasis to number of cases, number of deaths, and number of people who become ill and recover. A Johns Hopkins study had Brazil with the largest number of people who recovered from COVID-19. In the U.S., preference is for a dichotomy: the number of new cases and number of deaths, and very little about the large number of people who recover.

Brazilians are very open about expressing fears of dying. The feeling seems shared equally by men and women. Summoning courage to face threats or problems, Brazilians will identify the enemy as in the expression: “Ou ele ou eu,” “It’s either him or me.” (Portuguese nouns are either masculine or feminine. Ending in a consonant, the Portuguese word virus is masculine.) Bolsonaro has made himself the face in identifying COVID-19 as a threat to Brazil, its people and economy. It has been an uncovered face when he appeared in large public gatherings without a mask. But the message was clear: “It’s the virus or us.” Bolsonaro brought an unusual personal history having been nearly fatally knifed at a presidential election campaign rally in 2018. Subsequently, he underwent three serious operations to resize his slashed intestines. The experience seems to have spiked an “I’m not afraid of anything” attitude with displays of over the top virility. Also reignited has been his presumed homophobia. He joked with a group of visitors that wearing a mask was “a thing for queers.”*

Bolsonaro’s aim is to move Brazil out of its erratically applied COVID-19 lockdown which he thinks further shrinks a national economy mired in recession since 2014. Even as recently as July 6th, he continued down this path and vetoed parts of a new law sent to him by Congress. Struck out were provisions that masks must be worn in prison, and that instructions for social distancing must be posted on churches or certain other places where people gather. In the vetoes, he remembered federalism: laws already exist that assign responsibility to the municipal and state in these matters, not the national government.

Layout 1Bolsonaro’s bravura public appearances in mixing with his followers have not won universal approval. Critical and outspoken Brazilians may be found among groups with high and low incomes. The upper middle class and upper class elites voted for him for president in large numbers, but many have lost their enthusiasm, and some now despise him. Low income Brazilians living packed together in dense communities in large urban agglomerations such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo have been unable to practice social distancing, and have little good to say about the government, authorities in general, or presidential antics. The coronavirus is with them, and infection and illness are widespread. Reports in the large circulation daily A Folha de São Paulo (which low income Brazilian cannot afford to buy) record widespread, growing levels of infection in low income neighborhoods, but tend to provide little information about numbers of deaths.

PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO HAS CORONAVIRUS

On July 7, a test confirmed that Brazilian President Bolsonaro had coronavirus. He took the test with symptoms of low fever and cough. Though insisting he felt “perfectly well,” people were instructed to keep a suitable distance from the president. A prominent Brazilian journalist welcomed the news in his column: “I’m cheering for his condition to worsen and that he may die.” His editors wrote to the contrary that they were cheering for recovery, and that the experience would change the president’s attitude about the “greatest public health crisis that Brazil has faced in many generations.” Eighteen days later on July 25, Bolsonaro announced that he had tested negative and was free of the virus. The president celebrated driving a motorbike to a store where he spoke with various people. He wore a mask and only removed it briefly to put on a biking helmet.

Despite being ill, Bolsonaro has not abandoned the positions he took at the beginning on the COVID-19 pandemic: that coronavirus is flu, that many people will be infected, some will become ill and recover, but very few will die. An exception are the elderly, the age group with a far higher incidence of mortality than any other who must do social distancing, wear masks, etc. A vaccine is not available, but several available drugs are that speed recovery. Bolsonaro himself announced he was taking repeated doses of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as recommended by his doctor. While science had not verified that hydroxychloroquine works as a cure, “it’s a matter of observation” he declared, “that many people seem cured, and it works for me.”

Lockdowns are wrong because they stop or slow economic activity and can lead to more business failures, and to more unemployment in Brazil whose economy has been long stagnant and is still contracting. These have been Bolsonaro’s positions during the coronavirus pandemic—he hasn’t wavered, and it seems certain he will stand by them. As for masking, while Bolsonaro had appeared prominently in public without a mask as at mass rallies of his supporters, at other times was seen wearing a mask. Since the diagnosis of coronavirus, he has been using a mask.

Bolsonaro’s hard core supporters elevated him to mythic status, and like to chant “mito” (myth) at rallies. Their reasons include that he survived near death following knifing by a would be assassin, that he easily won the presidential election after having been completely discounted at the outset, and that he served 28 years as a federal deputy without enriching himself. Elected politicians in Brazil are widely seen as corrupt, but Bolsonaro apparently isn’t, an important fact for his supporters. That he is now apparently recovering from coronavirus can only strengthen the mythic status conferred by chanting followers. Masked and recovering, he is in a position to provide constructive leadership and policy making. Of course, he has never been able to act or speak in a manner that suggests attributes of a statesman.

Surgeons at a public hospital successfully sutured his slashed intestines and saved his life in a delicate emergency procedure following the knife attack. This might have prompted a statement strongly in support of Brazil’s often maligned SUS (United Health System) public health system, but did not. Articles 196-200 of the 1988 Constitution require the state to make health care available to all Brazilians, though a private system is allowed to complement SUS, and excellent private hospitals are available to serve the elite, usually paid for by high cost private health insurance. SUS meanwhile has been chronically underfunded and suffers from various shortages. A minister of health in the Michel Temer government (2016-2018) which immediately preceded Bolsonaro’s recognized the limitations with the dismal declaration that it might be necessary to forget about certain social rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Nevertheless, SUS has carried the burden assigned it, and treated 75% of Brazil’s COVID-19 patients. Bolsonaro himself only expressed gratitude to the members of the staff who saved his life, and later offered the hospital some left over campaign funds which it turned out was illegal. His entrenched positions on coronavirus, like other positions Bolsonaro has taken though often supported by his followers also allow numerous critics to continue to believe and assert that the president is something akin to a moronic know nothing, or a clown which leads them into name calling such as Bozo or Bozonaro.

*In November, 2019 before the arrival of COVID-19, Bolsonaro declared he was no longer homophobic. He met with Diego Hypolito, Brazil’s multi-medal winning gymnast shortly after Hypolito came out as gay. The meeting included a photo op with Bolsonaro’s arm around the athlete’s shoulder. According to São Paulo state deputy and Bolsonaro defender Douglas Garcia who is a gay, black, and hails from a favela, Bolsonaro’s homophobia is the result of spending half his life as a soldier—he retired with the rank of captain—in an environment of virility. Garcia added this didn’t mean Bolsonaro would go into the streets ready to shoot at all that’s gay. 

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