Brazil’s leader, Jair Bolsonaro, is denying the severity of coronavirus to keep his country’s economy ticking over. But as he continues to pose for selfies and shake hands, will the outspoken populist bring the nation to its knees?
Perhaps it’s because Cariocas are spoiled by the balmy weather, beautiful beaches, mountains, lakes and crystalline sea that it proved hard in Rio de Janeiro to shut people away indoors – and for the danger of coronavirus to sink in. Or maybe it’s the fact that Brazil’s leader has refused to take the threat seriously. Either way, it’s sunk in now.
The country’s first coronavirus case wasn’t announced until 26 February, the same afternoon that Brazil’s week-long annual carnival celebrations finished. People had been spending the days dancing by the seafront to a backdrop of beaches, palms and brightly coloured bougainvillea. The announcement seemed almost too well timed.
President Jair Bolsonaro is one of only a handful of world leaders who are actually downplaying the threat of coronavirus, despite the fact that it has spread to all 26 states of the continent-sized country. São Paulo has the highest number of cases of any city in the entire southern hemisphere. But Bolsonaro has repeatedly made a show of defying the rules by leaning in for selfies and shaking hands.
Already a controversial figure in Brazil, the president is against the quarantine measures that his former health minister (who was sacked in April) and many members of his cabinet support. One of the reasons for this is the health of another entity that seems closer to his heart: the economy.
Bolsonaro promised the almost 58 million Brazilians who voted for him in October 2018 that he could turn the country’s fortunes around. But even he, a so-called political strongman, has admitted that any sort of economic depression spurred by the closure of businesses and fewer exports would be the end of his government. He has warned that violence and unemployment would soar in Brazil if shutdowns were allowed to continue. It’s pointless, he said.
What’s more, things might get worse before they get better. Mortality rates could certainly rise steeply in the winter months between June and September. It’s this unfavourable outlook that the federal government is using to justify keeping businesses open and the economy ticking over – for now. Yet the outlook is bad and the inevitable hits to the economies of Brazil’s trading partners – near and far – will compound the issue.
Bolsonaro isn’t facing up though. The man who previously dismissed coronavirus as a “little flu” isn’t above mocking state governors who are telling people to avoid crowds. And this mixed messaging is adding to the confusion. Rio’s state governor, Wilson Witzel, who himself tested positive for the virus, ordered all beaches and most businesses to close in March – but enforcement is lax and defiance frequent.
At the time of writing, postcard-pretty beaches such as Ipanema are supposed to be off limits, as are flights from the dinky domestic airport that overlooks Sugarloaf Mountain; but, being Brazil, the occasional take-off and landing is still visible. Only essential businesses are open, which for now include vendors of coconut water and caipirinhas in disposable cups. Most of us are wearing masks, though many of them are pulled halfway down our faces because it’s still 28C and sunny. Cariocas’ lack of urgency about most things could be seen as romantic. But it’s less so when it means that many are flouting direct medical advice.
Bolsonaro didn’t help matters (are you seeing a pattern?) when he ridiculed the Rio governor for taking a harder line, even accusing him of behaving like a dictator – a move that could cost the president. Municipal elections are still scheduled for October and Bolsonaro’s drift away from congressional allies is a high-stakes bet when the results of the polls are seen as a direct gauge of the president’s ability to secure a victory in the 2022 general election. Bolsonaro’s bullishness might not stand him in good stead.
Seven cases for Bolsonaro’s impeachment, in which he is accused of putting public health at risk, have been logged in congress since March. It was only four years ago that impeachment proceedings catapulted Brazil into political turmoil when Dilma Rousseff was dismissed in the wake of a corruption scandal. Investigations into Bolsonaro’s conduct are likely to be messy.
In contrast to many other Latin American leaders who have seen their ratings soar in recent months, Bolsonaro’s blasé attitude is hurting his popularity. Residents across Brazilian cities have started to appear at windows and on balconies at 20.30 sharp, banging pots and pans in what is known as a panelaço, a popular form of protest in South America. In what has become a regular feature of the partially locked-down evenings, the protestors are calling for the reckless president to stand down.
Experts say that lockdowns are the only way to slow transmission – but they are painfully hard to apply in overcrowded favelas. How do you social distance in a densely populated place or wash your hands regularly when there is no reliable water supply or adequate sanitation? And who covers bills if there’s no work and cash-in-hand salaries go unpaid?
Informal jobs made up 17 per cent of Brazil’s economy last year and one fifth of all Rio residents live in favelas. These are numbers that Bolsonaro needs to reckon with to not only keep the working-class vote but, more importantly, to avert an economic and public-health catastrophe.
These vulnerable communities are aware of the risks and seem sceptical of the president’s erratic advice but many are also keen to keep earning and get the economy going. And it’s not only law-abiding citizens who are deciding for themselves. Criminal gangs in one of Rio’s most notorious slums, Cidade de Deus, imposed a curfew to try to stop the spread, saying that they had to act to protect the city’s poor since the authorities hadn’t. In other favelas, traffickers have shut down drug markets and cancelled all-night parties.
Brazil has become an increasingly polarised society; a place where some people fanatically support the president’s tough-guy pro-military style and where others view his nostalgia for the country’s former dictatorships as dangerous.
For every pot-banger yelling “Bolsonaro out” from their window, there is someone else tooting their car horn in support of a defiant leader who’s calling out their governor and claiming to bolster their economic prospects.
Yet, as is the case with Donald Trump in the US, populist rhetoric is at its most convincing when it’s accompanied by economic growth. As this inevitably slows in Brazil, a reckless gamble on the public’s health, particularly that of society’s least fortunate, could prove fatal to Bolsonaro’s already paper-thin credibility – as well as tens of thousands of his fellow citizens. Brazilians need to think hard about listening to his wayward advice; there’s much more at stake than next year’s Rio carnival.
About the author: Elliott, monocle’s Latin America affairs correspondent, is based in Rio de Janeiro. Listen out for her reports on Monocle 24.