Scrutiny immediately fell on the health of Trump and Bolsonaro. In a dizzying chain of events, Bolsonaro’s son appeared to confirm his father had tested positive before denying it. The spokespeople of both presidents insist that neither has contracted the virus despite their repeated proximity to those carrying it. Both have remained in public view: Trump appeared on packed stages with his lieutenants while Bolsonaro joined large rallies and shook hands with supporters.
Their seeming nonchalance in the face of a global pandemic is part of a shared political disposition. Both Trump and Bolsonaro are frustrated with the measures being pursued within their countries to reckon with the spread of the virus. They are fearful of such policies’ impacts on both the economy and their political futures. As the crisis unfurls, the two leaders have taken a backseat to more proactive state governors and mayors. All the while, they have fanned the flames of self-aggrandizing culture wars in the shadow of the pandemic.
In an interview with Fox News on Tuesday, Trump reiterated his position that the lockdowns in large parts of the country were too damaging to the economic health of the country, even if they help safeguard the population.
“Our country is not built to shut down,” Trump said. “Our people are full of vim and vigor and energy. They don’t want to be locked into a house or an apartment or some space. … You can destroy a country this way, by closing it down.”
Trump said he wants the United States to be “opened up” by Easter, or April 12, and painted a picture of “packed” churches. He once more played down the severity of the coronavirus threat, likening it to the public health risk posed by the flu or automobile accidents.
This all contradicts his administration’s own scientific advisers and other leading public health experts, who have warned the White House that scaling back social distancing could not only hamper mitigation efforts, but also overwhelm hospitals, as my colleagues have reported. The World Health Organization, meanwhile, said on Tuesday that the United States could be the next epicenter of the pandemic.
Such warnings don’t seem to fluster Stephen Moore, a conservative economist who has Trump’s ear and is believed to be among a cast of right-wingers urging Trump to scale back the restrictions.
“I’m not in any way disparaging the public health people. They are vital to this process,” Moore told my colleagues, before offering up a glimpse into the depths of his free-market worldview. “But you can’t have a policy that says we’re going to save every human life at any cost, no matter how many trillions of dollars you’re talking about.”
On Monday, Brazilian authorities reported an eightfold increase in coronavirus cases in the span of a week. With close to 2,000 people confirmed infected, South America’s most populous country is also the continent’s biggest coronavirus hotspot. Some of the first cases in Brazil involved close to two dozen people who were part of Bolsonaro’s entourage that traveled to the United States.
But no matter his own personal connection to the outbreak, the Brazilian president, not unlike Trump, has looked upon the coronavirus threat with skepticism. He earlier dubbed it “a fantasy.” In a speech Tuesday evening, he declared the coronavirus a “little flu” and upbraided governors in the country for instituting lockdowns over some of Brazil’s major states. And he touted his own supposed athletic prowess as evidence that he could withstand the virus.
This is in keeping with his rhetoric through much of the crisis. When the governor of the state of Sao Paulo — the country’s economic center — announced a two-week shutdown of the state to take effect starting Tuesday, the president reacted angrily.
“The people will soon see that they were tricked by these governors and by the large part of the media when it comes to coronavirus,” he said in a television interview on Sunday night.
Bolsonaro’s approval ratings have plummeted amid the crisis, while political polarization has deepened. In the evenings, residents of the country’s major cities under lockdown have started banging pots and pans and chanting for the president’s ouster. Bolsonaro, while incessantly bemoaning the perceived plots of his enemies on social media, joined supporters in mass street protests earlier this month against Congress and the country’s supreme court — two democratic institutions currently reviled by Bolsonaro’s hardcore nationalist base for thwarting his agenda.
“Bolsonarismo is an explicitly violent movement that holds democracy in contempt,” wrote Vincent Bevins in a trenchant essay for the New York Review of Books. “It has made use of the niceties of representative government, but it also believes they can be discarded in service of the movement’s real goals: the affirmation of the traditional family, the maintenance of Brazil’s existing social order, and, most importantly, the eternal crusade to crush the left.”
But health officials in Brazil have far more immediate concerns, including the likely spread of the coronavirus in the country’s teeming favelas, or slums. “The people who brought this were the rich coming from vacations to Europe, but the people who will suffer much more will be the poor,” said Paulo Buss, one of Brazil’s leading public health doctors, to my colleagues. “Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be there soon, and we will have big numbers.”