Bolsonaro’s words encouraging Brazilians to ignore social isolation

. May 05, 2020
social isolation bolsonaro No masks, no distancing: Bolsonaro supporters outside of the presidential palace. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has been a global outlier among major world leaders by downplaying the severity of the disease, famously referring to it as a “little flu.” While his opposition to social distancing has caused no concrete change to public policy around the country — state governors are in charge of these decisions within their own territorial lines and all have employed some form of social distancing measures — the fear among health experts is that the president’s message may encourage citizens to disobey confinement rules.

</p> <p>A <a href="">recently published study</a> by the University of Cambridge — in conjunction with the Fundação Getúlio Vargas São Paulo School of Economics — has attempted to quantify to what extent President Bolsonaro&#8217;s words and actions have had an impact on the population&#8217;s behavior during the Covid-19 pandemic. The results show that Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s anti-isolation message has reduced the overall rate of social distancing in Brazil, particularly in municipalities that showed the most pronounced support for the president in the 2018 election. Consequently, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in these &#8220;less obedient&#8221; municipalities has also increased.</p> <h2>Brazilians listen to Bolsonaro</h2> <p>The study considers two important dates as a starting point to measure social isolation trends: March 15 and March 24. On the former, Jair Bolsonaro joined <a href="">anti-democratic street protests in Brasilia</a>, despite the Health Ministry warning the event should be called off due to the elevated risk of contagion. Beyond simply waving to the crowd, Mr. Bolsonaro — who was suspected to have been carrying the coronavirus at the time — greeted the protesters, taking photographs and having physical interactions with<a href=""> at least 272 people</a>.</p> <p>On March 24, the president addressed the nation in a televised speech, referring to Covid-19 as a &#8220;little flu&#8221; and &#8220;the sniffles,&#8221; claiming that it wouldn&#8217;t affect him personally due to his &#8220;athletic past.&#8221; He also criticized the closure of schools and urged the population to return to work.</p> <p>Using granular location data from tens of millions of mobile phones across the country — which the researchers stress are anonymous — the study plots the effects on social distancing measures in the aftermath of these two major examples of Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s anti-isolation campaigning.</p> <p>Below, we see the average effect of social distancing nationwide, with t=0<em> </em>representing March 15 and March 24. What we see is a clear decrease in adherence to isolation measures after each one of these crucial data points.&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="aligncenter"><img src="" alt="Bolsonaro social distancing" class="wp-image-38199" srcset=" 633w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 633px) 100vw, 633px" /></figure></div> <p>However, when looking at &#8220;pro-Bolsonaro&#8221; municipalities — those where his support in the 2018 election was over 50 percent — the downward trend becomes even more precise. The first chart measures the effects on social distancing in all Bolsonaro-supporting cities, while the second figure takes only those pro-government municipalities located within equally pro-government states.</p> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="aligncenter"><img src="" alt="social distancing voters jair bolsonaro" class="wp-image-38197" srcset=" 640w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 640px) 100vw, 640px" /></figure></div> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="aligncenter"><img src="" alt="covid-19 bolsonaro" class="wp-image-38198" srcset=" 640w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 640px) 100vw, 640px" /></figure></div> <p>As we can see, the reduction in social isolation in these pro-Bolsonaro municipalities is far less ambiguous than the national average. Both show a marked decrease in distancing for over a week after both Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s participation in anti-democratic rallies and his anti-isolation address to the nation.</p> <h2>Less isolation = more Covid-19</h2> <p>In a bid to contextualize exactly how harmful such a decrease in social isolation can be, the researchers took the log data for Covid-19 cases in Brazil and overlaid it on their same time charts.</p> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="aligncenter"><img src="" alt="coronavirus brazil" class="wp-image-38200" srcset=" 550w, 300w" sizes="(max-width: 550px) 100vw, 550px" /></figure></div> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="aligncenter"><img src="" alt="Less isolation = more Covid-19" class="wp-image-38201" srcset=" 640w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 640px) 100vw, 640px" /></figure></div> <p>Though there are caveats with Brazil&#8217;s official Covid-19 reporting — such as a low rate of testing, delays in diagnoses, and inconsistencies in reporting between states and municipalities — the general trend of cases shows an increase after both March 15 and March 24, compared to the ten days that preceded these events. Once again, the rise in cases is sharper in pro-Bolsonaro municipalities.

Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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