Will the coronavirus be Jair Bolsonaro’s kryptonite?

and . Mar 20, 2020
Will the coronavirus be Jair Bolsonaro's kryptonite? President Jair Bolsonaro announces measures to cushion the effects of the coronavirus. Photo: Carolina Antunes/PR

Under strict lockdown measures, citizens in several parts of Italy have used their windows and balconies for singing and dancing—heartwarming attempts to lift morale in the country that has become the new epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic. In Brazil, however, these same windows and balconies are being used as protest venues, directing their outrage squarely at the Jair Bolsonaro government.

For the past three days, at 8 pm sharp, Brazilian urban centers have banged pots and pans in protest of President Jair Bolsonaro and his erratic management of the Covid-19 crisis. This form of demonstration is known in Brazil as a panelaço—from panela, the Portuguese word for pot—but is more widely referred to as the Spanish word cacerolazo, being generally more common in other South American countries.


see these protests as evidence that the president is growing more and more isolated and that his support base is waning. According to consultancy Atlas Político, which published the first opinion poll since cases of Covid-19 infections began appearing in Brazil, trust in the government has sharply decreased over the past month.</p> <p>Two-thirds of Brazilians disapprove of his management of the coronavirus crisis—and 45 percent are in favor of his impeachment. This bad mood has affected the perception of other areas, too, with voters saying they believe crime rates and corruption have gone up.</p> <p>Another study by XP Investimentos corroborates this, showing that the population critical of the Economy Ministry&#8217;s measures outweighs the percentage in favor—the first time Paulo Guedes&#8217; department has suffered such a reversal.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/1627983"><script src=""></script></div> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/1628207"><script src=""></script></div> <p>Political scientist Magno Karl compares Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s situation to an onion losing its outer layers. What is left is a hard-core nucleus of supporters—but even that is not entirely safe. &#8220;If deaths related to Covid-19 jump, even the staunchest defender of the president could turn. Nobody accepts losing a relative because the government was too slow to act,&#8221; Mr. Karl told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>Even on social media, where Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s army of trolls tends to skew discussions in his favor, the president is taking a beating. The government tried to gaslight the <em>panelaços</em> by calling for a similar &#8220;protest in support&#8221; of the administration on the same evening. But it didn&#8217;t work. According to the <a href="">Laboratory of Image and Cyberculture Studies</a> at the Federal University of Espírito Santo, anti-Bolsonaro interactions on Twitter have overwhelmingly surpassed positive ones—light green in the picture below. The numbers are backed by another study, carried out by consultancy Arquimedes—which detected that 80 percent of social media interactions in recent days have been negative for the government.</p> <figure class="wp-block-embed-twitter wp-block-embed is-type-rich is-provider-twitter"><div class="wp-block-embed__wrapper"> <blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-width="550" data-dnt="true"><p lang="pt" dir="ltr">A imagem abaixo é um rede de RTs dados por 246.630 perfis (pontos) do Twitter. Os pontos maiores conseguiram espalhar mais seus posts. O posicionamento do grupo bolsonarista (verde claro) corresponde a 16% das interações totais, basicamente a base de apoio do presidente. <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; Fabio Malini (@fabiomalini) <a href="">March 19, 2020</a></blockquote><script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script> </div></figure> <h2>Bolosonaro in &#8220;political quarantine&#8221;</h2> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s erratic behavior—calling Covid-19 a &#8220;fantasy&#8221; created by corporate media and making physical contact almost 300 people on Sunday against all medical advice—led congressional leaders to try and inoculate him to prevent even more harm, as we explained in our <a href="">March 17 Daily Briefing</a>. That tactic, however, raises two questions: is it possible to face a crisis of this magnitude without the leadership of a president? And the more difficult question: will Mr. Bolsonaro accept being kicked into touch?</p> <p>The president&#8217;s vanity has put him at odds with Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, one of his most important cabinet ministers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Mr. Mandetta&#8217;s sober demeanor has been praised by pundits and citizens—he is already the second most popular government official after a year out of the spotlight—which has reportedly disgruntled Mr. Bolsonaro. This frustration was seen in the president&#8217;s decision to set up a crisis cabinet within the government and put an Army general in charge, instead of Mr. Mandetta, a qualified physician.</p> <h2>A perfect storm</h2> <p>As we explained in our March 19 and March 20 Daily Briefings, <a href="">Latin America is set to plunge into a deep recession</a>, and <a href="">unemployment rates could double this year</a>. In a country where people have consistently <a href="">lost purchasing power</a> over the past five years, that is fuel for social unrest.</p> <p>A health emergency coupled with an economic crisis of yet unknown proportions—as nobody knows how long the crisis will last—could prove too much of an obstacle for Mr. Bolsonaro to surmount. When a president becomes toxic, citizens hold them accountable for all problems, no matter how much responsibility they have. That happened with Dilma Rousseff in 2015, and is starting to happen now.</p> <p>The House of Representatives currently has 17 impeachment requests pending against Jair Bolsonaro. Speaker Rodrigo Maia—who has the power to start or shelve proceedings—said he will not take any action that could hamper how Brazil deals with the coronavirus outbreak. But what if the major obstacle in dealing with the pandemic becomes the president himself?

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Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

Brenno Grillo

Brenno has worked as a journalist since 2012, specializing in coverage related to law and the justice system. He has worked for O Estado de S. Paulo, Portal Brasil, ConJur, and has experience in political campaigns.

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