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Opinion Copying the U.S. is leading Brazil to disaster on covid-19

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro greets supporters in Brasilia on May 3 during a protest against opposition leaders, quarantine and social distancing measures. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)
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Brian Winter is the editor in chief of Americas Quarterly.

It was a bewildering sight, even to many Brazilians: President Jair Bolsonaro attending a recent street demonstration as three flags flew overhead: those of Brazil, Israel and the United States.

But the symbolism was no accident. A love for all things American, and a desire to imitate U.S. politics and culture, goes much deeper among Brazilian conservatives than talk of Bolsonaro being a “Tropical Trump.” Sadly, it is now leading their country to absolute disaster as Brazil has passed the United States to become the global epicenter of the covid-19 pandemic, with more than 1,000 deaths a day and the curve still headed upward.

As an American analyst who has studied Brazil for nearly two decades, it has been strange to watch my country’s flag become a powerful anti-establishment symbol there. But conservatives have flown it in recent years to show their rejection of the leftist Workers’ Party, which governed from 2003-2016. In their minds, the left led Brazil down the path of socialist Venezuela, causing numerous corruption scandals, a surge in street crime and the worst recession in at least a century. The United States stands for the opposite, they believe: private enterprise, increased safety through greater gun ownership, clean government and a revival of “family values.”

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

This affinity goes beyond politics. It was reinforced by an explosion in the number of Brazilians traveling to the United States, which quadrupled over the past 15 years to almost 2 million visitors annually, and saw São Paulo at one point become the world’s busiest U.S. Consulate for issuing visas. American brands such as Starbucks and Applebee’s became status symbols for the rising middle class. Brazil has also seen a surge in evangelical Christianity (to which the aforementioned Israeli flag also speaks), with growing ties to megachurches in the U.S. heartland.

Modern Brazilian conservatism did not become mainstream until Bolsonaro’s candidacy began to take off in 2017 —a period that coincided precisely with the beginning of the Trump administration. U.S. conservative celebrities such as Stephen K. Bannon and Alex Jones have eagerly offered advice to their upstart Brazilian counterparts. The most important adviser to Bolsonaro’s government, a Brazilian former astrologer named Olavo de Carvalho, lives in the woods outside Richmond, Va., boasts a large rifle collection and dresses like a modern-day Marlboro Man. When I visited the Brazilian Embassy in Washington a year ago, a senior diplomat had a “Make Unborn Babies Great Again” poster hung prominently in his office.

This self-described “conservative revolution” has contributed to some positive changes since Bolsonaro took office. These include a greater openness to trade, skepticism of China and reforms that shrank Brazil’s bloated state and made life easier for small businesses. The economy was showing modest signs of life before the pandemic hit. But whatever good was done in Uncle Sam’s name has gone horribly awry this year, specifically since the ill-fated evening of March 7.

That was the night Bolsonaro dined with President Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort, accompanied by a large Brazilian delegation. At the time, there were fewer than 500 confirmed cases of covid-19 in the United States, and Trump was still saying he was “not concerned at all” about the outbreak.

Sources close to Bolsonaro’s government told me he returned from Florida more convinced than ever that the coronavirus did not pose a serious threat. Even when several of his closest advisers tested positive for the virus, and Trump himself adopted a more cautious approach in ensuing weeks, Bolsonaro continued to downplay it as a “little flu” and actively attack Brazilian governors and mayors who supported social distancing measures.

In the United States, Trump’s irresponsible rhetoric has been tempered somewhat by institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the leadership of state governors and figures such as Anthony S. Fauci. But in Brazil, Bolsonaro fired his health minister after he continued to sound the alarm about the virus. His replacement then quit less than a month later, after refusing to endorse Bolsonaro’s view that chloroquine was an effective treatment — a stance heavily influenced by Trump’s advocacy for the drug, I’m told.

In recent weeks, even as the World Health Organization called South America a “new epicenter” of covid-19 and the overall death toll in Brazil passed 20,000, Bolsonaro supporters were sharing Twitter memes of anti-social distancing protests in places such asMichigan, and using distinctly American language about “personal liberties” to call for a return to normalcy. Brazilian media have documented how, each time Bolsonaro downplays the virus on TV, social distancing rates slip further. In a country that invests a far lower share of its gross domestic product in health care than the United States, and where people live cheek-by-jowl in favelas in places such as Rio de Janeiro, the effect has been disastrous. And, in perhaps the ultimate irony, Trump closed the border on Tuesday to most travelers from Brazil as cases soar.

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It did not have to be this way. Neighboring countries such asArgentina and Colombia have seen much greater discipline from their leaders — and lower infection numbers. Even some ardent Brazilian conservatives have become critical of Bolsonaro, worried about both the rising human toll and the risk of impeachment as his approval ratings slide.

“This could destroy our movement for the next 30 years,” one told me, speaking privately to avoid potential retribution from Bolsonaro’s followers. Like others, he expressed hopes for a dramatic change of course. There may indeed be things worth imitating about the United States, but our reaction to covid-19 is surely not one of them.

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