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Could the Coronavirus End Jair Bolsonaro’s Presidency?

How the pandemic is rapidly restructuring Brazilian politics

Sergio Lima/AFP/Getty Images

Brazil’s first known fatality was a 63-year-old housekeeper named Cleonice Gonçalves whose boss contracted Covid-19 in February while on vacation in Italy. The employer, who lives in the expensive Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Leblon, suspected she was sick upon her return and sought testing but did not tell her maid, who came to work just as she had for decades.

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread, the president of Brazil—Latin America’s largest country—is now the most prominent world leader still questioning isolation measures. Almost 500 people have died from Covid-19 complications in Brazil so far, with more than 7,000 people diagnosed. Those with precarious living arrangements, subject to unreliable infrastructure and the vicissitudes of the informal job market, will be hit hardest both by the disease and the measures designed to curb its advance. As one resident of Brazil’s largest favela, or slum, put it: “If everything stops, it will end people’s lives! There will be nothing people can do to survive!” But while it is sadly predictable that the poorest should bear the brunt of a public health emergency, Covid-19 is also having a surprising impact on Brazilian politics. Quite simply, it has upended them, enabling large-scale public defiance of Brazil’s far-right president from both ordinary people and elected officials in ways that would have been unthinkable mere weeks ago.

Erstwhile political allies are now locked in bitter public squabbles. Ambitious politicians with no clear path up the political ranks have found fresh vulnerabilities to exploit and challenges to meet. Millions of people around the country are banging pots and pans out their window on a nightly basis in a distinctively Latin American vote of no confidence in their president. If the election of radical right-wing retired army captain Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency represented “the ultimate validation of a right-wing resurgence that started gathering strength in 2013 when massive demonstrations of general dissatisfaction clogged the arteries of the country’s major cities,” as I argued upon his inauguration, the current moment has exposed him as woefully out of his depth. With terrible force, the novel coronavirus has forced a sudden change of perspective about what matters in a leader.

In late 2018, Bolsonaro rose from the wreckage of the country’s economic and political crises to the height of elected office. As a dogged defender of the country’s 1964–1985 military dictatorship and a staunch social conservative, Bolsonaro had unmatched credibility in harnessing the reactionary fervor that gripped Brazil after more than a decade of center-left Workers’ Party, or PT, governance. In his broad rollback of that leftist legacy, Bolsonaro has championed social service cuts, privatizations, rescinded labor rights, and reduced protections for indigenous peoples and other minorities. Now, from his isolated perch, the president drags his feet, resists containment measures, and dismisses the coronavirus as “just a little flu,” while the governors of states large and small ignore his mixed messaging and urge citizens to adhere to the stark guidelines set forth by the World Health Organization.

As state and local authorities attempt to ban all large gatherings, Bolsonaro has continued to undermine their efforts. On March 29, he visited a shopping mall and open-air market in Brasília to suggest that there was no danger. He has stepped in to keep churches open, deeming them “essential services,” despite their high risk of spreading contagion through mass assemblies. His “Brazil Cannot Stop” social media campaign urged people back to work—before a federal judge barred further promotion at the end of March. On Thursday, he suggested governors taking drastic measures against the virus lacked courage.

In an April 2 interview, in which he sought to defend the blasé attitude of Brazil’s federal government in the face of rising international condemnation, foreign minister Ernesto Araújo feigned respect for the WHO while subtly downplaying its standing: “I think it is important that people bear this in mind, that the WHO is formed by its member states, and that the recommendations of its secretariat, headed by the director general (Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus), while certainly relevant, are not mandatory. Nor do I think that the Director-General himself presents them as mandatory, he does not intend to tell the countries exactly what the measures of each should be. It would be impossible for a body to have the capacity to determine measures for 200 different countries.” Araújo posited a lack of global consensus around containment strategies, asserting that “there does not seem to be a single approach. The approaches of each country are also changing daily, evolving in different ways. Everyone recognizes the seriousness of the challenge.” The quote neatly encapsulates the administration’s strategy so far: erring on the side of doing too little rather than too much, and, when questioned about this approach, exaggerating the uncertainty about how to stop the spread of the virus.

In addressing the pandemic, Bolsonaro’s government has drawn from the repertoire of dissimulation it has resorted to when facing prior public relations crises, whether over allegations of corruption or its apparent countenance of deforestation in the Amazon. To parry criticism from abroad, the administration calls it an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of a duly elected president. Domestically, he casts any attack as a boon to an opposition that, in reality, remains fragmented and unpopular. More than anything, Bolsonaro’s political fortunes have thrived on a diet of conspiracy theories and siege mentality. First, his party insisted that the moderate leftism of the PT, a party whose luminaries have been applauded by the likes of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, would inevitably and intentionally turn Latin America’s largest country into Maduro’s Venezuela. On this point, Bolsonaro was supported by voters and voices from the center to the far right of the political spectrum. Then came the idea that foreign leaders and international organizations were playing up the damage caused by fires in the Amazon as a way of ultimately wresting the rain forest out of Brazilian hands. On this point, Bolsonaro also drew considerable if decidedly less support. Now, casting doubt on the propriety of WHO prescriptions, the government has found itself appealing solely to its most fervent base—Pentecostal pastors with megachurches in particular. The problem for Bolsonaro is clear: Covid-19 is not an abstract threat that can be invoked with little consequence and manipulated to fit immediate political needs. It is real, it is here, and it is killing people. His political strategy of diminishing returns, confronted with reality, appears on its last legs.

The most glaring evidence that Bolsonaro’s discursive strategy has hit a wall is the fact that governors who until recently were vocal supporters have refused to join his crusade against social distancing. The turning point came last month when the president, despite the risk of contagion, encouraged his supporters to take to the streets to strengthen his hand in ongoing negotiations over a tax reform bill, among other issues. Ronaldo Caiado, the conservative governor of Goiás who ran for president in 1989, turned up at one of these rallies. Caiado began his speech by presenting his anti-left credentials to enthusiastic applause from the crowd. He reiterated his support for the president, garnering even more cheers from the faithful. “But before anything else, I’m a doctor,” he declared, the crowd cooling as it became clear where Caiado was headed. In the end, boos rained down on him as he shouted for protesters to go home. By the end of the month, Caiado, an influential voice with deep ties to the powerful agricultural lobby, had broken with the president. The governor of São Paulo, João Doria, who rode the Bolsonaro wave to higher office in 2018, has also turned on him. “It’s not rational to make [public] health and people’s lives political, especially those who are poor and vulnerable,” Doria said, criticizing Bolsonaro for politicizing the crisis.

In addition to pushing away allies in crucial state capitals, Bolsonaro has achieved the seemingly impossible, as major opposition figures, otherwise riven by deep personal and political tensions, unite against him. On March 30, these progressive leaders released a joint statement calling on Bolsonaro to resign, declaring that he “cannot continue governing Brazil.… We need unity and understanding to face the pandemic, not a president who contradicts public health authorities and subsumes everyone’s life to his authoritarian political interests.”

Whether that statement is a promising sign of unity among Brazil’s splintered opposition or evidence of its flailing irrelevance is debatable but beside the point. What should worry Bolsonaro—if the prospect of thousands of citizens felled by an affliction he refuses to take seriously does not—is that his ouster has suddenly and irrefutably entered into the realm of the possible. Covid-19 is not a man-made disaster. The Bolsonaro administration, on the other hand, is.