Political blame game hurts Brazil’s coronavirus strategy

. Jun 15, 2020
Political blame game hurts Brazil's coronavirus strategy President Jair Bolsonaro with his wife, Michelle. Photo: Alan Santos/PR

Brazil has over 43,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, but the federal government’s strategy appears to be tampering with official data — or placing the blame on state governors and municipal mayors. While the president’s rejection rates have gone up in recent months, his strategy is working, as regional and local administrators have begun reopening their economies — just as Mr. Bolsonaro intended — even before their rates of daily new cases and deaths have decreased in any significant way. The president has created a toxic environment that, coupled with governors’ decision to put their electoral ambitions ahead of public health issues, could cost tens of thousands of lives.

</p> <p>On June 8, Mr. Bolsonaro <a href="">published</a> on Twitter: “I remind the nation that, by a decision of the Supreme Court, actions to combat the pandemic (closing trade and quarantine, e.g.) were under the full responsibility of governors and the mayors.” While economic hardships are much to blame for popular opinion shifting on social isolation — with support for it consistently going down — the president&#8217;s grip on a sizable portion of the electorate helped that process along.</p> <p>Not coincidentally, the approval ratings of governors and mayors went up as <a href="">ill-advised reopenings began</a> across the country. However, politicians&#8217; choice to prioritize short-term gains despite health hazards might come back to haunt them. Political scientist Claudio Couto, a professor at think tank Fundação Getulio Vargas, says the sheer amount of Covid-19 deaths will influence public perception in the long run. “At this point, the government will not be able to prevent the health disaster already underway. The spread remains uncontrolled, and people are leaving their homes. Things will only get worse,” he told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>On June 10, when meeting supporters in front of the presidential palace, Mr. Bolsonaro was <a href="">challenged by a woman</a> asking about the constantly rising number of deaths. He told her to ask her state governor.</p> <p>Aside from deflecting responsibility for the coronavirus death toll, Mr. Bolsonaro tries to spread the idea that the federal government did its best to <a href="">support governors</a>, mayors, and citizens. He often cites the emergency salary to informal workers, and a transfer of funds to states and municipalities, as proof of his argument. The president, however, doesn’t mention his attempts to encourage people to keep working and press for a reopening, even while Covid-19 cases are still rising.</p> <h2>How Bolsonaro&#8217;s detractors position themselves</h2> <p>State governors were the first to enter on a collision course with the president — with São Paulo&#8217;s João Doria calling Mr. Bolsonaro a &#8220;virus,&#8221; and Rio&#8217;s Wilson Witzel saying he is a president &#8220;who just won&#8217;t govern.&#8221; But it is hard not to see ulterior motives in their actions. Ever since entering politics, in 2016, Mr. Doria has always been transparent about his presidential ambitions. Mr. Witzel shared that dream until two weeks ago — when he was targeted by a Federal Police probe and now faces impeachment.</p> <p>Former Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta is another chief critic of the government. He was fired in April for not agreeing with the president&#8217;s order to prescribe hydroxychloroquine for all coronavirus cases. &#8220;How many of the 800,000 confirmed cases and 41,000 lives lost were because of the foolish attitude? Inflated reality? Still wanting to hide? Watch out. Death is on the prowl and blame will lie at the feet of the unwary,&#8221; said Mr. Mandetta.</p> <h2>Bolsonaro&#8217;s popularity wobbling</h2> <p>While governors and mayors are seeing a <a href="">boost in popularity due to caving</a> to Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s wishes, the president&#8217;s popularity also actually decreased over the same period. According to pollster Datafolha, in March, 33 percent of Brazilians called Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s response to the coronavirus &#8216;bad&#8217; or &#8216;terrible&#8217; — this rose to <a href="">50 percent</a> in late May.</p> <p>In research published this month, political scientist Camila Rocha and sociologist Esther Solano concluded that the president&#8217;s attitude toward the pandemic is his <a href="">main weakness among voters</a>. Mr. Bolsonaro is seen as lacking character and humanity.&nbsp;</p> <p>&#8220;He cannot speak like that. He has to have a proper attitude. A reporter asked him about the victims, and he said: &#8216;so what?&#8217; It is complicated; he said it like that because it wasn&#8217;t with a family member, right? His family would be treated in a top hospital; we will not&#8221;, said one former supporter, participating in Ms. Rocha and Ms. Solano&#8217;s study.

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José Roberto Castro

José Roberto covers politics and economics and is finishing a Master's Degree in Media and Globalization. Previously, he worked at Nexo Jornal and O Estado de S. Paulo.

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