In Brazil, though, they’ve taken on an added dimension: Angry protests against President Jair Bolsonaro and calls for his impeachment.
That’s because Bolsonaro has essentially become the world’s leading coronavirus refusenik. The Brazilian president has insisted that the risks posed by the virus were not worth the toll that widespread shutdowns would exact on his country’s economy. His allies on social media, including devotees among the country’s evangelical community who clustered in gatherings on Sunday, have echoed his complaints, alternating blame for the crisis on left-wing plots at home and foreign (read: Chinese) malfeasance abroad.
Bolsonaro described the outbreak as a “fantasy,” a “little flu.” Last week, Twitter deleted two of his tweets for spreading misinformation about covid-19, including one where Bolsonaro urged an end to social distancing. His skepticism over the virus fits into a broader narrative of his far-right nationalist rule: Bolsonaro earlier combated the international scientific consensus on climate change, and has found himself militantly at odds with global efforts to mitigate it.
Even as President Trump, his ideological counterpart up north, reluctantly accommodated the warnings of his top health officials, Bolsonaro has scoffed at medical guidelines and taken to the streets to shake hands with throngs of supporters. He wheeled angrily on those in his government who pursued extended lockdowns to stave off the pandemic, engaging in feuds with state governors, including some politicians whom the president once counted as allies.
On Monday, Bolsonaro appeared on the cusp of firing Luiz Henrique Mandetta, the country’s health minister, whose star rose during the crisis through sober, daily technocratic briefings. Mandetta said Monday evening he expects to stay in the job. Brazil has more than 12,000 coronavirus cases and suffered more than 550 deaths, with that number almost certain to rise significantly as the virus spreads into the country’s poorer quarters.
“I would like to stay home to try to stop the disease from spreading,” Paulo Roberto Nunes, 52, who sells peanuts in a Rio de Janeiro favela, told my colleagues. “But who will put food on the table? What does a person like me do?”
Irked by Mandetta’s growing popularity and the mounting dismay over his governance, Bolsonaro and his administration pulled the plug on those briefings last week. Still, a poll released Monday found that 76 percent of Brazilians approved of the health ministry’s handling of the crisis, while only 33 percent approved of Bolsonaro’s management (or lack thereof).
But the president has grumbled about supposedly disloyal ministers, and there’s still speculation about a purge of the cabinet, with Mandetta almost certainly at the top of the list. Meanwhile, the country’s fragmented opposition has found unusual unity by simply pressing ahead with state-level edicts and ignoring the president’s complaints.
“I can say the governors across Brazil have never been as united as we are now,” João Doria, the right-wing governor of São Paulo state, told Time magazine. “The president despises us and attacks us. He has put us in an impossible position by creating a narrative that impedes the protection of people and life. The governors — from the left, center and right — have decided to follow the correct path and maintain the [World Health Organization] protocols.”
There are a growing number of calls for Bolsonaro’s impeachment from the country’s lawmakers. Even senior military officers have conspicuously sprung either to Mandetta’s defense or chided the president — a politician who himself is a former army officer and maintains a cultish reverence for the country’s bygone military dictatorship. A majority of Brazilians, according to a recent poll, still don’t want to see the president’s resignation, but his political isolation seems to be deepening by the day.
“What should worry Bolsonaro — if the prospect of thousands of citizens felled by an affliction he refuses to take seriously does not — is that his ouster has suddenly and irrefutably entered into the realm of the possible,” wrote historian Andre Pagliarini in the New Republic. “Covid-19 is not a man-made disaster. The Bolsonaro administration, on the other hand, is.”
“It seems likely that Bolsonaro’s gambit is less one of willful ignorance than of political calculation, one in which, again like Trump, he is betting on his reelection chances,” wrote the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson. “The next presidential elections are in 2022 and, if he can keep the economy running, and Brazil’s mortality rates remain low, his chances at winning a second term are decent. But, of course, his prospects will drop significantly if the economy, which is heading toward a recession, doesn’t recover, or if the epidemic proves catastrophic. Either way, he is wagering Brazilian lives as his collateral.”