The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Brazilian Senate panel accused Bolsonaro of helping spread coronavirus. Our research shows his influence.

Not just Bolsonaro but state governors too affected the virus’s spread.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at an event at Palácio do Planalto in Brasilia on Nov. 10. (Andressa Anholete/Getty Images)
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Should Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro be charged with crimes against humanity for mismanaging the coronavirus pandemic? That’s what a Brazilian Senate panel recommended in its report to the government’s prosecutor-general. Its 1,300-page report accuses Bolsonaro and dozens of other prominent political figures of helping to spread the coronavirus, estimating that nearly 120,000 people could have survived with timely and appropriate action. The report cites, for instance, Bolsonaro’s promotion of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment, although it did not work against covid-19 and caused harmful side effects. It also cites Bolsonaro’s encouraging Brazilians to disregard public health guidelines such as staying home where possible, staying six feet apart when not at home, and wearing masks.

Bolsonaro and his allies called the report a “joke,” claiming it is politically motivated. But our research supports some of the report’s claims: Politicians’ actions and inaction probably helped spread the coronavirus in Brazil. Bolsonaro and Brazil’s state governors influenced whether Brazilians followed public health guidance that could have saved lives.

Here’s how we did our research

Why did citizens in some states follow social-distancing guidelines while citizens in other states in the same nation did not? We looked particularly at Brazil and Mexico, where presidents and governors often disagreed and gave different advice on how citizens should navigate the pandemic.

We analyzed data from the University of Miami’s Covid-19 Observatory, a collaborative, intercontinental effort that collects and shares national and subnational data on Latin American governments’ pandemic-related public health policies. The observatory also compiles mobile phone data measuring population mobility, used to assess how much citizens complied with advice to stay home to keep the virus from spreading.

Focusing on Brazil, we paired this data with other information such as each state’s ability to care for sick individuals, measured by the number of hospital beds in each state, and the political leanings of its citizens. In particular, we measured how much each state’s citizens supported their governor and the president, using those officials’ margins of victory in the 2018 elections. We gathered this information from a variety of public sources, including Brazil’s Ministry of Health, election agency and statistical institute.

Using statistical models, we studied how pandemic-related public health policies and other factors, such as the percentage of a state’s population living in poverty, were associated with how much citizens stayed home.

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Policies matter, but so do leaders

Like other researchers, we found that governors’ public health guidelines, such as stay-at-home orders and mandatory business closures, made a big difference. But how much of a difference varied by how much, comparatively, a state’s citizens supported the president and the governor.

In states that strongly supported Bolsonaro, citizens were less likely to stay at home. Controlling for each state’s policy response, citizens in states where support for Bolsonaro was lower reduced their travel outside the home by 16 percent more than citizens in states where support for him was high.

We also found that citizens were more likely to comply with public health guidelines when they approved of the governor who issued them. Consider the state of Amazonas, which had Brazil’s third-highest rate of coronavirus cases within the first 45 days of the pandemic, or about 28 cases per 100,000 residents. The Senate report accuses the Amazonas governor, Wilson Lima, of provoking an epidemic resulting in death and of failing to take action because of his personal interests.

Lima had middling levels of political support among Amazonas residents and passed less-stringent policies than did his peers. Because of this combination, Amazonas citizens were less likely to follow even those limited guidelines. If Lima had enacted even “average” stringency policies at the time, we estimate that citizens would have stayed at home 20 percent more, which would have reduced the spread of the virus and saved thousands of lives. More significant, Bolsonaro won this state in the 2018 election. Our results suggest that state and national leaders both influenced citizens’ decisions, which means the majority of Amazonas citizens were especially unlikely to follow public health guidelines.

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Even without charges, some accountability is possible

Despite the Senate report’s findings, Bolsonaro and the many others accused are unlikely to face charges soon. The prosecutor-general is a Bolsonaro appointee and has sided with the president in the past.

But although the justice system probably won’t take action against Bolsonaro, Lima and the others, they could still face consequences for their actions or inaction. Brazilians go to the polls in October 2022; both leaders will be running for reelection. Voters could choose to vote out those who mishandled the pandemic. While this outcome is not guaranteed, Brazilian’s have increasingly expressed frustration with Bolsonaro’s leadership; many have turned their backs on his guidance and been vaccinated.

Some observers speculate that Bolsonaro may change his approach to the pandemic to win over voters. That seems unlikely; he continues to spread misinformation regarding vaccines. Bolsonaro’s biggest challenge is likely to come from the divisive but popular Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s left-wing former president, who has begun meeting with political leaders throughout the country and said he is willing to run in 2022. The next election might shake up the country once again.

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Claire Dunn is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Isabel Laterzo is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can follow her on Twitter @IsabelLaterzo.

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