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There are few more curious political stories in 2020 than the enduring popularity of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. The far-right leader was an early skeptic of the threat of the pandemic. Even as medical experts and other politicians warned of its uncontrolled spread in Latin America’s most populous nation, Bolsonaro dismissed the virus as a “little flu” and opposed any measures that would affect the economy. Brazil has now reported more than 180,000 coronavirus-related deaths, a national toll surpassed only by that of the United States.

Yet Bolsonaro’s political future seems rosy, certainly more so than his hemispheric kindred spirit President Trump. A new poll from the Brazilian firm Datafolha this week found that 37 percent of those surveyed saw Bolsonaro’s government as “great or good,” while 32 percent saw it as “bad or terrible” — the latter is two points lower than the last time the poll was conducted in August. His approval ratings remain at their highest since he took office in 2019.

Polling also found that a majority of Brazilians — 52 percent — believed Bolsonaro deserves “no blame” for coronavirus deaths. To an outsider, at least, it’s a surprising verdict on a president who raged against social distancing restrictions, squabbled with cabinet ministers who took the pandemic’s threat more seriously than he did, feuded with state governors who instituted local lockdowns and ended up contracting the virus himself.

Bolsonaro’s political struggles earlier in the year extended beyond his management (or lack thereof) of public health. “Allies said he was leading the country on a suicide mission,” wrote my colleague Terrence McCoy. “His most popular deputy, Sérgio Moro, resigned as justice minister and accused him of corruption. Bolsonaro was growing more erratic by the day — conducting lengthy and unfocused meditations on national television, undermining his own government’s health admonishments, waving a box of hydroxychloroquine at an emu-like bird, and regularly fanning calls for him to lead a military takeover of the country.”

That none of this has cratered Bolsonaro’s presidency is both a reflection of his particular appeal as well as Brazil’s pronounced political divisions. Bolsonaro came to the fore as an anti-establishment outsider, channeling widespread public frustration and cynicism about the country’s political classes and government. During the pandemic, he has pandered to a cult of individualism and self-reliance and, not unlike Trump, insisted that the country can’t afford to shutter businesses to keep the virus at bay.

“Everything is about the pandemic, and we need to stop with this thing,” Bolsonaro said at a news conference last month. “We’re all going to die. Everyone here is going to die. … We have to stop being a country of sissies.”

Bolsonaro’s distinct brand of bravado has won him support from his loyal base of business elites and middle-class men. But his popularity has also grown among Brazil’s poor, who have benefited from months of direct cash transfers that his government implemented earlier this year because of the pandemic. Between April and September, tens of millions of Brazilians received a monthly stipend of $120. That monthly figure dipped thereafter to $60, though the package’s funding is set to expire.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro unveiled the national vaccine plan on Dec. 16 and said his government would buy any vaccine that wins regulatory approval. (Reuters)

“The benefit reached many people long before the disease did,” Cesar Zucco, a political scientist at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, a university and research institution, told my colleagues. “Many people have gone two or three months with never-seen income, and they have not yet seen the disease. And even if they have, it’s income they’re not used to making.”

Economic analysts also suspect that the infusion of direct cash helped stave off the worst-case predictions surrounding Brazil’s pandemic-induced recession. In June, the International Monetary Fund projected a more than 9 percent hit to Brazil’s GDP, but banks now predict an economic contraction under 5 percent.

But Bolsonaro has few laurels upon which to rest. The populist measures have put him at odds with his finance minister, Paulo Guedes, a disciple of Milton Friedman and a proponent of supply-side economics. “It’s one of the most generous social programs on the planet and, some say, too expensive for a poor country like Brazil,” wrote Thomas Traumann in Americas Quarterly. “Given this and other stimulus initiatives, this year’s fiscal deficit is expected to exceed $169 billion — or about 12% of GDP. In the most optimistic forecasts, Brazil will not have a budget surplus again until 2026.”

And, politically, his fortunes have sagged. In local elections last month, the candidates Bolsonaro endorsed all slumped in the polls, with a set of centrist factions winning power in cities across the country. “He spent all his popularity and energy kicking us,” Fausto Pinato, a centrist federal lawmaker, told the Financial Times. “And now he needs us to help him. We don’t need that.”

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro continues to battle domestic rivals over the handling of the pandemic, with attention now squarely focused on the production and distribution of vaccines. João Doria, the governor of São Paulo, announced that he intends to make vaccinations mandatory in his teeming state of 45 million people through a program starting early next year.

Bolsonaro, though, is opposed to such mandates. He mocked the Chinese provenance of the vaccine Doria hopes to use and has joked on Twitter that vaccinations should only be compulsory for dogs.

Experts warn that such mixed signals are a recipe for disaster. “When science gets politicized, it always opens the path for conspiracy theories, that you are being wronged and others are trying to fool you,” microbiologist Natália Pasternak Taschner, a prominent scientist in Brazil, told my colleagues. “And no one wants to be wronged and fooled, so it opens the door for mistrust.”

“They’re playing with lives,” Denise Garrett, a Brazilian American epidemiologist, told the New York Times. “It’s borderline criminal.”

The current course of the pandemic may leave hospitals in some parts of the country on the brink of collapse. “We’re facing a campaign of disinformation and denial,” Suzana Lobo, president of the Brazilian Association of Intensive Medicine, told my colleagues. “The impact in January will be very, very large. Our fear is that in January and February, the health system won’t be able to bear it.”

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