The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bolsonaro worked to shake Brazil’s faith in vaccines. But even his supporters are racing to get their shots.

Brazilians line up to get a coronavirus vaccine at a train station in Duque de Caxias in April. (Bruna Prado/AP)

RIO DE JANEIRO — Rodrigo Lucas thinks of himself as a Bolsonaro man. He has supported Jair Bolsonaro’s demands that the coronavirus be treated with unproven and ineffective medications. He has condemned the Brazilian president’s critics on social media. His background image on Twitter is of Bolsonaro. And he describes himself as “right wing to the root.”

But there’s one place where Lucas, 37, has refused to follow Bolsonaro: vaccine skepticism.

“In a war, we have to use weapons that we have,” Lucas said. “Whether it came about in six months or a year, if the laboratories are recognized, we have to believe in it. I’m not going to find a conspiracy theory in everything.”

All of the pieces were in place for Brazil to follow the United States down the path toward vaccine resistance. The country is politically polarized and wrought with disinformation. Brazilians, who have watched politician after politician get sent off to prison, are primed to mistrust. And they’re led by a man who has repeatedly worked to undermine faith in scientific research, the country’s institutions — and the vaccine itself.

Should a coronavirus vaccine be mandatory? In Brazil’s most populous state, it will be.

Bolsonaro, who was infected with the coronavirus last year, has declined to get his shots. He once predicted fewer than half of Brazilians would seek to be inoculated.

“I don’t consider myself vaccinated; I am vaccinated,” he said. “Everyone who has contracted this virus are vaccinated, even in a way that’s more effective than the vaccine itself. So don’t argue it: Anyone who has contracted the virus is immunized.”

But Brazilians, even those who support Bolsonaro, have been largely tuning him out. As the delta variant bears down on Brazil, a country at odds over nearly everything has found common ground on the vaccine, assuaging fears that vaccine skepticism would undermine the country’s response to its devastating outbreak, and showing the limits of Bolsonaro’s powers of persuasion.

Polls show the number of Brazilians who say they intend to get vaccinated has risen dramatically in recent months, from around 3 in 4 — and even lower in São Paulo — to around 9 in 10.

However, getting the vaccine has been another matter. The country has reported more than 20.3 million cases of covid-19 and more than 569,000 deaths — second only to the United States — but it has continued to suffer vaccine delays and shortages. Where there’s a vaccine, however, the Brazilian answer has largely been: Yes, please.

More than 72 percent of all Brazilian adults have gotten one shot of the vaccine — a rate that pulls it even with the United States. In São Paulo state, the figure is 86 percent. In the south, where many have supported Bolsonaro, 77 percent of adults have received at least one dose in Rio Grande do Sul, and 76 percent have done the same in Paraná.

Bolsonaro once said he’d stage a military takeover. Now Brazilians fear he could be laying the foundation for one.

“I didn’t have any doubt that as soon as they were available, people would put the politics to the side,” said Carla Domingues, an epidemiologist who once directed Brazil’s immunization program. “Brazil believes in the vaccine and Brazil wants the vaccine.”

Some have broken the law to get jabbed. Prosecutors across the country have prosecuted people for cutting vaccine lines. Clandestine vaccination clinics have opened.

For some Brazilians, one or two doses has not been enough. One retired teacher in the state in Minas Gerais got two shots of the Chinese Coronavac vaccine. Then another of the AstraZeneca. Then one more of the Pfizer.

In Brazil’s embrace of vaccines, epidemiologists see the strength of the country’s long-standing inoculation culture. Its mass vaccination campaigns have historically reached just about everyone, and quickly. Nearly ninety million Brazilians were vaccinated against H1N1 in three months. It conducted in 2018 the world’s largest yellow-fever mass vaccination campaign. The country’s vaccine mascot, Zé Gotinha — he looks like the Pillsbury doughboy on a diet — is an ever-present figure.

“We need to take into account Brazilian culture,” said Margareth Dalcolmo, a pneumologist and researcher at the research institution Fiocruz. “Brazil, since the creation of the national vaccination plan in 1973, has always had great trust in vaccines.”

The drive to get vaccinated suggests the political weakness of Bolsonaro, now the target of a damaging congressional investigation into his government’s hands-off approach to the pandemic. Bolsonaro, who once suggested a vaccine might turn recipients into alligators, has himself refused to get the vaccine — but not his son Flávio Bolsonaro, a federal senator. His vice president, Hamilton Mourão, has also been immunized. One of his ministers, Luiz Eduardo Ramos, went out and got it, secretly, while at the shopping mall.

“I, like any other human being, want to live,” he said.

Brazil battles coronavirus with a Chinese vaccine even the Chinese concede could be better

Mauro Paulino, the director of the prominent Brazilian polling service Datafolha, said vaccine hesitancy is strong among about a third of Bolsonaro’s most ardent supporters. “Bolsonaro is the leader and he is influencing his supporters, without a doubt,” he said.

But he said the share of the electorate that say they will positively vote for Bolsonaro — he called them the “convicted Bolsonaristas” — is a shrinking sliver of the electorate.

“The data shows very clearly that the federal government has an influence over the opinion of Bolsonaro followers,” he said. “But what’s happening is he has fewer and fewer supporters.”

One die-hard is Carlos de Lima Belucio, 44. A resident of the northern state of Pará, he has advocated for Bolsonaro to stage a military takeover of the country. He says there’s no way he’ll get the vaccine.

Belucio said he’s already gotten the coronavirus twice — maybe even three times — and doesn’t find it very threatening. The only way he would consider getting vaccinated, he said, is if it came with a guarantee he would never catch the virus again.

“I don’t trust the vaccine,” he said. “I’m not a guinea pig.”

Read more:

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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