Jair Bolsonaro undermined Brazil’s coronavirus response. Now there’s a political crisis.

By Jen Kirby

On April 19, the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, completed construction of a 500-bed field hospital for coronavirus patients at the Riocentro convention center. It’s one of several such hospitals being built in Rio de Janeiro to deal with the growing outbreak there. The state has more than 6,700 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 670 deaths as of April 28.

That same day, on April 19, Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro joined a protest outside army headquarters in Brasilia, the country’s capital. There, protesters supported military intervention and demanded an end to lockdown measures state governors in the country have put in place — and which Bolsonaro opposes.

“I am here because I believe in you,” Bolsonaro shouted to the tightly packed protesters. “You are here because you believe in Brazil. We don’t want to negotiate anything; what we want is action for Brazil.”

During his speech to supporters, Bolsonaro, his face uncovered, coughed.

President Bolsonaro coughs as he speaks to his supporters during a protest against social distancing in Brasilia on April 19.
Sergio Lima/AFP via Getty Images

This split-screen moment highlights the strange situation in Brazil, where state governors and public health officials try to battle a deadly pandemic that is threatening to overwhelm the country’s health care system while the elected leader of the country downplays the severity of the virus and fights against their efforts at every turn.

Bolsonaro has referred to the coronavirus as the “little flu” and scoffed at social distancing measures intended to slow the spread of the virus, proclaiming in late March that “we’ll all die one day.” He’s called on citizens to go back to work, directly contradicting the orders of state governors and the recommendations of his public health experts.

Bolsonaro’s reckless response to the coronavirus undercut the country’s ability to manage it and drew outrage, especially from the opposition, for his mishandling of the outbreak. And now Brazil is at the edge of a political crisis, as Bolsonaro is now facing an investigation into possible corruption. This scandal threatens to plunge the country deeper into turmoil in the middle of a pandemic.

“Any political crisis in Brasilia weakens the government’s response to this and reduces the cohesiveness of how states respond,” Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas in São Paolo, told me.

The coronavirus threatens catastrophe in Brazil

Brazil is the largest country in Latin America, with more than 200 million people. It also currently has the continent’s worst outbreak. The health ministry has recorded more than 68,000 cases and approximately 5,000 deaths as of April 28.

But the real toll is almost certainly higher. Brazil, as elsewhere, lacks large-scale testing. Brazilian researchers have estimated that the country likely has 12 times the official number of coronavirus cases. Late last week, Brazil saw some of its largest increases in cases and deaths from the coronavirus, but the pandemic has not yet reached its peak.

“This could be very catastrophic for Brazil,” Karin Nielsen, professor of clinical pediatrics in the division of infectious diseases at UCLA, told me, “and it’s already on top of an ongoing crisis, and shortages of medical supplies and medical equipment.”

Brazil has universal public health care, but people with means can buy into a private health care system. Experts told me that the public health system has faced a number of cuts in recent years, brought on by Brazil’s recession in 2015 and the austerity measures that followed.

The system was already overburdened before the coronavirus came along, and now the pandemic is putting even more pressure on those public hospitals, with the number of ICU beds running short in major cities.

A field hospital under construction in Riocentro Convention Center in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on April 15.
Alessandro Dahan/Getty Images

“The problem is that in the last years, especially after conservative federal governments were in power, there was a remarkable underfunding of the system, deepening structural and historical problems and increasing regional inequalities,” José Ricardo Ayres, professor of preventative medicine at the medical school at the University of São Paulo, told me in an email.

Ayres said that insufficient and badly distributed intensive-care services are a huge challenge, and compounding this are shortages in basic equipment, like personal protective gear. This problem is not unique to Brazil, but it risks depleting the front-line health care workers, straining the hospital system even more.

Hospitals in the city of Fortaleza, in the northeastern state of Ceará, are almost at capacity, as the virus has spread to every single neighborhood in the city. In Manaus, the capital city of Amazonas, in northwestern Brazil, the city’s daily death rate has risen from 30 to more than 100, though the recorded Covid-19 death toll as of April 23 was just 287, NPR reported.

Cemeteries are digging mass graves as bodies pile up. Mayor Virgílio Neto said Manaus was “no longer in a state of emergency but rather of absolute calamity.”

State governors and mayors across Brazil have implemented stay-at-home orders and shuttered businesses to try to “flatten the curve” and prevent the country’s health care system from collapsing.

São Paulo’s Governor João Doria shut down Brazil’s most populous state on March 24 and has since extended the lockdown, most recently until at least May 10.

Rio de Janeiro’s Gov. Wilson Witzel called for a state of emergency in mid-March, shutting businesses and emptying Rio’s famous beaches. Witzel (who tested positive for Covid-19 earlier in April) has continued to extend the orders until at least April 30.

Bolsonaro has fought these restrictions (more on that in a minute), but even without his meddling, these stay-at-home orders are not always easily enforced across Brazil.

Some of the first-known coronavirus cases recorded in Brazil came from wealthier people traveling abroad, but once the virus seeded in the country, it spread rapidly — including to Brazil’s favelas, the crowded, low-income communities on the outskirts of major cities.

Controlling transmission in these communities is a challenge. People live in very small spaces, often packed tightly with other family members. Homes are stacked one on top of the other. Many of these communities also lack access to clean water and adequate sanitation, making even simple preventative techniques like hand-washing difficult.

How easily Brazilians can social distance, experts told me, is fractured along class lines. Many middle- or upper-class families can stay in their apartments and work from home. But about 40 percent of Brazil’s workforce, or approximately 38 million workers, participates in the informal sector of the economy, which often means people depend on a daily wage to eat and survive.

Reports suggest that the local gangs that control territory in major city favelas are also trying to enforce quarantine measures and distribute supplies, organized crime filling in for where Bolsonaro’s government is failing. Brazil’s government has taken measures, including approving a monthly stipend of 600 reals (a little more than $100) for three months for the unemployed and those who work in the informal economy.

“But it is still insufficient to effectively reduce their vulnerable social situation and susceptibility to Covid-19,” Ayres said in his email. “The higher mortality rates in poorer neighborhoods in São Paulo city is a testimony of it.”

Brazil’s indigenous communities are also in peril, especially in remote areas far from adequate health facilities. And though some of these groups are removed from population centers, they are at greater risk of coming into contact with the disease through miners and loggers, who are often on the land illegally — something that has increased during Bolsonaro’s tenure, as the president has expressed little regard for vulnerable indigenous communities and their protected lands.

“Coronavirus could wipe us out,” Ianucula Kaiabi, an indigenous leader in Brazil’s Xingu national park, told the Guardian at the end of March. About 6,000 people and 16 tribes live in that area of the southern Amazon, and indigenous leaders were trying to seal off roads.

Brazil was always going to have these challenges in the face of a pandemic — but they are even greater when the country’s leader is sending mixed messages about the reality on the ground.

How Bolsonaro is exacerbating Brazil’s coronavirus crisis

In early March, as the coronavirus was taking hold around the world, Bolsonaro traveled to the United States to meet with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. At the time, both leaders had been questioning the seriousness of the virus, but the Mar-a-Lago meeting turned out to be something of a virus hot spot.

Bolsonaro’s top aide tested positive for the virus, as did other US officials who attended the session. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo told Fox News his father had tested positive but later claimed he didn’t say that. Then Bolsonaro released an official statement saying he’d tested negative and accused the media of spreading fake news.

After his brush with the virus, Bolsonaro, at first, seemed a little contrite: He held a Facebook Live event where he wore a face mask. He also said that the World Health Organization had acted “responsibly” when it declared the coronavirus a pandemic, and discouraged a rally of his supporters.

It didn’t last.

Bolsonaro soon returned to downplaying the severity of the coronavirus threat, calling it a “little flu” and a “measly cold.” He questioned the official statistics (which are likely an undercount), saying governors were manipulating the numbers for political ends. And he dismissed much of the fear, and the human toll, surrounding the virus.

A projection on a wall in São Paulo, Brazil, implores people to “stay home” and practice social distancing on April 24.
Miguel Schincariol/Getty Images

He suggested that vulnerable people — older people and those with underlying conditions — could stay home, but that everyone else needed to go back to their jobs and their regular lives. “We have to face this virus, but face it like a man, dammit, not a boy,” Bolsonaro said in late March. “We have to face it with reality. That’s life. We’re all going to die someday.”

“Protecting jobs is essential,” he added.

Bolsonaro also flouts social distancing guidelines: He does not wear a mask when in public and still shakes hands with supporters — who, in gathering to greet the president, are often squeezed together.

His cavalier approach to the pandemic has put him in direct confrontation with state governors and other local leaders, some of whom used to count themselves among his allies.

In March, after Bolsonaro called for an end to lockdowns, governors in 25 of 27 states kept them in place.

At least two of those governors — Witzel, the Rio governor, and Doria of São Paulo — had previously aligned themselves with Bolsonaro. Witzel won an upset election, campaigning with one of Bolsonaro’s sons. Doria campaigned in 2018 by calling himself “BolsoDoria,” though he’s since said he isn’t a bolsonarista.

Now, though, public safety seems to be trumping political fealty. “We’re fighting against the coronavirus and against the ‘Bolsonaro-virus,’” Doria said in an interview with the Associated Press published on April 16.

“It’s as if you had two parallel kinds of politics,” Flávia Biroli, a political science professor at the Universidade de Brasília, told me. “The governors follow their path, and Bolsonaro keeps screaming and bringing some confusion to people.”

It’s not just governors who have found themselves at odds with the president.

In late March, Bolsonaro launched #BrazilCannotStop, a national campaign encouraging Brazilians to get back to work and normal life — that is, before a federal judge banned the campaign because it undermined state governors’ authorities to impose quarantine measures.

And in mid-April — as the country’s outbreak was getting increasingly dire — Bolsonaro fired his health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta. Mandetta had publicly contradicted Bolsonaro, advocating for social distancing measures and essentially backing the state governors.

It was a difficult path to navigate, given his boss was saying the opposite. Ultimately, Mandetta had enough after Bolsonaro greeted a crowd of supporters outside a hospital, removing his mask and signing autographs.

“Brazilians don’t know whether they should listen to their health minister or to their president,” Mandetta told a Brazilian news program shortly after that incident. Mandetta was out of a job before the week was up.

Many Brazilians and political leaders denounced Mandetta’s firing: Brazilians protested from lockdown, banging pots and pans from windows and calling for Bolsonaro’s ouster. Polls suggest the majority of Brazilians support the social distancing measures and disapprove of Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic.

And Brazil’s Supreme Court has backed up the power of state governments to implement stay-at-home measures, meaning Bolsonaro can complain, but he can’t overrule them. “Bolsonaro wants to be the president of reopening,” Stuenkel told me.

But Bolsonaro’s actions are still potentially dangerous. The president garners a fervent base of support, who tend to fully buy into Bolsonaro’s rhetoric and who are distrustful of the mainstream media. As Bolsonaro agitates against these lockdown measures, so do they. Bolsonaro supporters are protesting the lockdowns and decrying the dire health warnings as “fake news.” In São Paulo, Bolsonaro supporters blocked access to hospitals.

The president’s attitude is “already propagating like wildfire,” UCLA’s Nielsen said, “and it will just be disastrous.”

Bolsonaro’s attitude has also undermined any coherent response from the federal government. A competent Bolsonaro administration would be backing up the states with resources, coordinating the response to make sure supplies get where they’re needed, and helping to acquire gear and other equipment from abroad.

The absence of a unified strategy to fight the pandemic has led to a patchwork of measures across Brazil, with some states easing lockdowns while hospital systems in Brazil’s major cities buckle under the surge of coronavirus patients.

“We should be making the lockdowns better and more restrictive right now, but we’re going the opposite way,” Yago Bertacchini, a 26-year-old lawyer in Maringá, a city in Paraná state in southern Brazil, told me.

Bolsonaro may believe it’s “better to bet on the economy”

“Bolsonaro seems to be betting that he has very few tools to solve the health crisis,” said Matthew Taylor, an associate professor of international studies at American University, “and so he’s better to bet on the economy.”

In other words, Bolsonaro’s emphasis on protecting the economy is strategic. Most experts and people in Brazil I spoke to see it as a way to both deflect from the coronavirus crisis and give himself a solid talking point when the economy does collapse.

“I think he wants to be able to say, at the next election, ‘Those governors stopped you from working; it would have been a lot better if I had been able to prevail,’” Anthony Pereira, professor of Brazilian studies at King’s College in London, told me.

Brazil’s impending economic crisis seems undeniable. The country’s economy is still struggling from a recession in 2015 and 2016, and its economic outlook was not exactly rosy even before the pandemic hit. Brazil’s widening deficit could limit its ability to use stimulus to tackle the economic fallout, and the country also faces higher borrowing costs. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that Brazil could see negative growth greater than 5 percent in 2020.

Bolsonaro may be acting cynically, but the fallout from shuttering restaurants, closing shops, and stalling businesses could be catastrophic — and it could deepen the public health crisis.

The millions in Brazil who rely on informal jobs to survive day to day don’t have many other options. Even those who may want to abide by social distancing measures may not be able to; they’re in a precarious position where they risk their lives either way — by working or by staying home.

“It’s very hard to disentangle the economic crisis and the health crisis,” Biroli, at the Universidade de Brasília, said. “I am really afraid of a near future where we have a deep economic crisis from which it’s going to be hard to sort out alternatives, and a deep health crisis for which the country is not prepared.”

Bolsonaro’s battles over the coronavirus have left him isolated — and now an explosive political crisis is making it worse

The bolsonaristas, his most loyal followers, remain as devoted as ever. They include evangelical Christians, who ardently buy into Bolsonaro’s promises to restore traditional culture, and those with a nostalgia for the country’s authoritarian past, such as the protesters earlier this month who wanted the military to intervene on behalf of Bolsonaro to help overrule lockdown measures.

But the bolsonaristas alone did not bring Bolsonaro to power. He also needed buy-in from the establishment. So he brought in technocrats and those who embraced a more traditionally right-wing agenda, like smaller government and a more free market, liberal economic ideology.

Bolsonaro needed their backing to win over moderates who were wary of his more radical rhetoric. These individuals, in turn, were sometimes expected to act as moderating and disciplining forces on an unpredictable president — the “adults in the room,” if you will.

That somewhat fragile coalition has splintered as the president has bungled the coronavirus crisis. His battles against state governors have weakened him politically, as did his decision to fire the health minister. He doesn’t have robust support in Brazil’s congress, and impeachment chatter has percolated, backed up by Brazil’s mainstream press.

The louder Bolsonaro yelled about reopening the economy, the more isolated he became.

Then, on Friday, the discontent over the coronavirus boiled over, though not exactly because of the pandemic.

Bolsonaro’s popular Justice Minister Sérgio Moro resigned after Bolsonaro fired the chief of the federal police, Maurício Valeixo, without a clear reason. And just like that, a political crisis threatened to overshadow both the public health and economic crises.

Moro has a reputation as an anti-corruption hardliner; he was the federal judge who presided over Brazil’s sprawling 2014 corruption scheme known as Operation Car Wash. The corruption scandal involved bribes between politicians, executives at the country’s state-run oil company, and everyone in between.

Moro’s legacy has been tarnished somewhat after the Intercept published a major investigation that showed Moro had collaborated with prosecutors to help convict high-level figures, including former leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. That undermined Moro’s reputation for impartiality and fairness, but not entirely.

Sérgio Moro during a hearing in Brasilia on June 19, 2019.
Evaristo Sa/AFP via Getty Images

Which is why Moro’s resignation was so explosive. Upon his departure, Moro delivered an exit speech, and he did not hold back. He accused Bolsonaro of trying to meddle in law enforcement, saying the president had fired Valeixo because he wanted “a person he could be in touch with personally, whom he could call directly, from whom he could receive information, intelligence reports.”

There are plenty of good guesses about why Bolsonaro might have wanted to replace Valeixo with a police chief more favorable to him, though nothing definitive yet. Top among them are investigations into those close to Bolsonaro, including his sons.

His son Flávio, who is a state senator, has been under investigation for some time for an alleged money-laundering scheme in which he is accused of using public funds to pay nonexistent employees, including at a chocolate shop in Rio de Janeiro.

And then there’s Carlos, another son and politician, who is being investigated by federal police for organizing fake news attacks that smeared justices on the Supreme Court. The Folha de São Paulo news outlet reports that federal police had homed in on Carlos as the ringleader of the group, and that police were also looking into the role of Eduardo, yet another Bolsonaro son (and Steve Bannon associate), in the alleged fake news ring. (Carlos and Eduardo have dismissed the fake news allegations as, well, false.)

Brazilian media has suggested that Bolsonaro wanted to push out Valeixo to get control of this case against his sons. But Bolsonaro has been defiant: “The prerogative is mine, and the day I have to submit to any of my subordinates, I cease to be president of the republic,” the president said last week.

But Moro’s words carried serious weight, and Brazil’s attorney general referred Moro’s allegations to the Supreme Court. On Monday, a Supreme Court justice authorized a 60-day investigation into whether Bolsonaro engaged in corruption or obstruction of justice in his firing of Valeixo.

So, in the middle of a deadly pandemic and a worsening economic crisis, Brazil’s president is under investigation.

Calls for lawmakers to act against Bolsonaro are growing louder, but experts I spoke to aren’t sure Brazil’s Congress will want to take up impeachment in the middle of a pandemic. But if the Supreme Court finds Bolsonaro acted illegally, that could force Congress’s hand.

Which means that, for right now, much about Brazil’s future is uncertain — except that people are dying every day. As Bertachinni, the lawyer in Maringá, told me: “We are not even close to the worst.”

Supporters of President Bolsonaro take part in a protest against the National Congress and the supreme court in Brasilia on March 15.
Sergio Lima/AFP via Getty Images

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