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How Bolsonaro deflected blame for coronavirus debacle

. Aug 24, 2020
How Bolsonaro deflected blame for coronavirus debacle "I'm with Bolsonaro," reads voter's facemask. Photo: Isac Nóbrega/PR

Back in July, digital influencer Felipe Neto published an op-ed video on The New York Times, arguing that Donald Trump isn’t the worst pandemic president, and that the inglorious title belonged instead to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. The YouTube personality joined a substantial crowd of critics — among them politicians, economists, and health experts — who denounce Mr. Bolsonaro’s nonchalance vis-à-vis the coronavirus. “He shows no sign of taking the crisis seriously,” said Mr. Neto.

And despite the overwhelming criticism — and no shortage of evidence of the Brazilian government’s ineptitude to manage a sanitary and economic crisis — Mr. Bolsonaro felt safe enough to say last week that no other administration in the world has fought the pandemic better than his. “It makes us proud. It shows that there are people who are talented and concerned, especially with the poorest, the most humble,” said the president. His self-aggrandizement, however, completely disregards coronavirus success cases such as South Korea or New Zealand.

</p> <p>But while it might be ludicrous to say that a country with 3.6 million confirmed infections and nearly 117,000 deaths has been the best at dealing with the pandemic, the truth is that Mr. Bolsonaro amazingly managed to deflect any blame for the health crisis away from himself. A few months ago, many <a href="https://meet.google.com/qyh-yxdc-fov">foresaw</a> that the coronavirus would be the president&#8217;s demise. Resilience, however, has been one of the adjectives better suited to Mr. Bolsonaro. Not only haven&#8217;t his approval ratings plummeted, the president is now as popular as ever, thanks to paying a <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/08/20/what-happens-when-brazils-coronavirus-emergency-aid-ends/">BRL 600 emergency salary</a> to informal and unemployed workers during the pandemic.</p> <p>An opinion poll shows that 47 percent of Brazilians believe he has &#8220;no blame&#8221; for the country&#8217;s <a href="https://brazilian.report/society/2020/05/09/brazilian-volunteer-group-honors-covid-19-victims-stories/">coronavirus deaths</a> — with only 11 percent stating that he is the &#8220;main person to blame&#8221; for the crisis.</p> <p>How has the Brazilian head of stage managed to pull this off?</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="799" height="533" src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/50252766608_8d6fa5cd61_c.jpg" alt="How Bolsonaro deflected blame for coronavirus debacle" class="wp-image-48305" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/50252766608_8d6fa5cd61_c.jpg 799w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/50252766608_8d6fa5cd61_c-300x200.jpg 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/50252766608_8d6fa5cd61_c-768x512.jpg 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/50252766608_8d6fa5cd61_c-610x407.jpg 610w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/50252766608_8d6fa5cd61_c-600x400.jpg 600w" sizes="(max-width: 799px) 100vw, 799px" /><figcaption>Jair Bolsonaro among supporters. Photo: Isac Nóbrega/PR</figcaption></figure> <h2>Bolsonaro&#8217;s strategy (or lack thereof)</h2> <p>Jair Bolsonaro has undermined Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, dismissing the disease as a “little flu,” and comparing its risks to those of being &#8220;caught in the rain.&#8221; He repeatedly sparked public gatherings and has refused to wear a mask on numerous occasions. Within his administration, masks have been politicized as a leftist symbol, and not wearing protective gear has become a <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/07/08/not-wearing-masks-a-badge-of-honor-in-bolsonaro-government/">badge of honor</a>&nbsp;— helping transform the presidential palace into a <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/07/30/brazil-first-lady-michelle-bolsonaro-tests-positive-for-covid-19/">coronavirus hotbed</a>.</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro also pushed against the quarantine efforts of Brazil&#8217;s governors and mayors, and research shows that <a href="https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3582908">social isolation lowered</a> in areas where the president is most popular. Mr. Bolsonaro appears to believe that containing the virus is impossible, meaning that there would be no point in trying to slow down its spread. “This virus is like rain, that is going to get 70 percent of [Brazilians] wet,” he told supporters in April. At some point, asked about the high number of deaths, he answered: “It&#8217;s fate.”</p> <p>According to pollster Datafolha, 22 percent of Brazilians think there was nothing the government could do to avoid the sheer amount of deaths in the country. Two researchers from the University of São Paulo, however, completely disagree.</p> <p>“We believe that herd immunity can be achieved in various regions of the country, but this in no way means that we should not intervene during the course of the epidemic — precisely the opposite. With the control measures, the peak will be lower; herd immunity may be reached a little later, but the final size of the epidemic will be smaller,” say Rodrigo Corder, an engineer Ph.D. candidate, and Marcelo Ferreira, who holds a Ph.D. in parasitology studies, speaking to <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.&nbsp;</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/2641109"><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/2641192"><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div> <p>As Mr. Bolsonaro pats himself on the back, many Latin American nations — including those whose governments took the coronavirus seriously&nbsp;— have been suffering a high-scale growth in cases and deaths. Peru and Chile, for example, have more deaths and cases per million people than Brazil.</p> <p>But Messrs. Corder and Ferreira think that the mistakes made by other governments do not make Jair Bolsonaro’s performance any better. &#8220;Social isolation is just one of the necessary measures to control the pandemic. But several others must be applied simultaneously. Extensive testing and contact tracing is a crucial strategy that has been completely neglected in Brazil and most of Latin America.&#8221;</p> <p>In Brazil&#8217;s case, they point out several mistakes beyond the government&#8217;s denialism and disdain for isolation measures. The staunch backing of hydroxychloroquine as a measure to treat Covid-19, publicly supported by the president, is among the mistakes listed.</p> <p>“Some states and municipalities are spending precious resources to purchase drugs such as chloroquine, ivermectin, and azithromycin, none of which have proven to be effective against the virus. Meanwhile, there is a shortage of diagnostic tests. Municipalities have been waiting for tests promised by the Health Ministry for more than three months. This shortage prevents contact tracing and the planning of health actions in the absence of reliable data.”</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <iframe src="https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus-data-explorer?zoomToSelection=true&amp;time=2020-03-01..latest&amp;country=BRA~ARG~CHL~PER~MEX~COL&amp;casesMetric=true&amp;interval=smoothed&amp;hideControls=true&amp;perCapita=true&amp;smoothing=7&amp;pickerMetric=location&amp;pickerSort=asc" loading="lazy" style="width: 100%; height: 600px; border: 0px none;"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>The blame game: where the buck stops</h2> <p>Even after 117,000 deaths and the several mistakes pointed out by scientists, the opposition, and the press, Jair Bolsonaro is not seen as the one to blame by many Brazilians. This can be put down to multiple reasons, including the president&#8217;s propaganda effort to avoid responsibility.&nbsp;</p> <p>After a moment of denialism, the president adopted a strategy to <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/06/15/political-blame-game-hurts-brazil-coronavirus-strategy/">divert blame</a> when the number of deaths started rising fast. His first target was the Supreme Court, which he said hamstrung his government by preventing him from interfering with quarantine measures in states and municipalities. He claims his administration did everything it could, sending money to governors and mayors.</p> <p>Political scientist Ricardo Ceneviva, a professor at research institution Iuperj, says the president was successful in <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2018/09/19/podcast-brazilian-democracy/">creating confusion</a> around the responsibilities regarding the pandemic. For him, the allocations of responsibilities are unclear for citizens and Mr. Bolsonaro took advantage of this. “Brazil&#8217;s division of responsibility among federal, state, and municipal governments makes it hard for the average citizen to place the blame for a crisis. Moreover, the Supreme Court&#8217;s decision not to force the government to step in helped create this narrative confusion,” he tells <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>But between the evidence of failure and the propaganda to the contrary, Mr. Bolsonaro has been gathering success. While his performance during the pandemic has not been praised, he has at least been able to avoid the public blame.</p> <p>“It’s hard for most people to think about counterfactual scenarios. It is not simple to project how the country would be if the president had acted otherwise; if the government had exercised its role properly. What would the country be like now? The average citizen does not think like this, that the situation could have been different. They are stuck in the here and now,” reflects Mr. Ceneviva.</p> <p>The assessment of how Jair Bolsonaro has managed the pandemic has been improving steadily, hand-in-hand with his general approval ratings. More Brazilians rate his government as “great or good” in general terms than at the beginning of the year, which affects how they see his coronavirus response.&nbsp;</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/3557099"><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div> <p>This trend of increasing popularity is also why Mr. Ceneviva does not think that the dispute over the blame for the Covid-19 crisis is done. Asked if the president has won the narrative battle, he says that while Mr. Bolsonaro has been helped by the government&#8217;s emergency aid program, the end of this initiative could see these trends quickly reversed. “The numbers are a snapshot of the moment. As the deaths do not seem likely to fall dramatically anytime soon and with the emergency aid decreasing, it is rash to say that he will avoid responsibility at the end of the day”</p> <p>Health experts believe Brazil&#8217;s Covid-19 epidemic will be re-examined as a case study in the coming years. “At the federal level, we are unable to point toward any significant adjustments. […] It is a tragic example in public health, a sure path to disaster,” say Messrs. Corder and Ferreira.

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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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