Bolsonaro administration forced to change its tune after vaccine ‘defeat’

and . Jan 19, 2021
Jair Bolsonaro struggling with a face mask. Photo: Antonio Scorza/Shutterstock Jair Bolsonaro struggling with a facemask. Photo: Antonio Scorza/Shutterstock

It has become increasingly clear that Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has lost the vaccine battle. After health regulators approved the temporary use of two coronavirus immunizers on Sunday afternoon — which was followed by the immediate start of vaccination in the state of São Paulo — Mr. Bolsonaro fell silent.

Indeed, after what was a momentous moment for the country in its fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr. Bolsonaro’s first utterance on social media came almost 24 hours later and was completely unrelated to Brazil’s first coronavirus vaccinations. Instead, he tweeted about the opening of a highway flyover in the northeastern city of Natal.

</p> <p>The president simply looked on while his political rival, São Paulo Governor João Doria, grabbed all the plaudits for being the first to begin vaccination in Brazil.&nbsp;</p> <p>Known for his public declarations in opposition to social isolation measures and his anti-vaccine discourse, President Bolsonaro is now being forced to change this image.</p> <p>In October, after Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello had agreed on the purchase of 46 million doses of the Chinese-made CoronaVac, Mr. Bolsonaro demanded the contract be torn up, solely because bringing the vaccine to Brazil was a political project of João Doria&#8217;s. At the time, the president took to <a href="">social media</a> and labeled the immunizer as &#8220;Doria&#8217;s Chinese vaccine,&#8221; saying he could not justify investing in a product &#8220;that hasn&#8217;t even progressed past the testing phase.&#8221;</p> <p>In subsequent meetings with state governors, Mr. Pazuello ensured that the federal government would in fact purchase CoronaVac, but that he could not declare this publicly for fear of reprisal from President Bolsonaro. <strong>The Brazilian Report </strong>confirmed this information with three separate state governors.&nbsp;</p> <p>Sources close to the president acknowledge that Mr. Bolsonaro has &#8220;lost the battle&#8221; but is still trying to &#8220;win the [vaccine] war.&#8221; They say that the government&#8217;s messaging from now on will be focused on its investment in vaccines and the work of federal agencies in immunization campaigns.</p> <p>Indeed, in its official social media output, the Defense Ministry has doubled down on posts exalting the Air Force&#8217;s involvement in taking aid and supplies to the city of Manaus, currently in the throes of a healthcare collapse. As devastating details of the crisis in the Amazonian city came to light last week, Bolsonaro-supporting networks on social media worked to reinforce the financial support the federal government gave to the state of Amazonas last year.</p> <p>Moreover, the Health Ministry will launch a pro-vaccine advertising campaign this week.</p> <h2>AstraZeneca v. CoronaVac</h2> <p>Another future communication strategy, according to government sources, is to compare the efficacy of CoronaVac to the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford. While the former posted overall efficacy rates of 50.4 percent, the latter boasts an average immunization capacity of around 60 to 70 percent.</p> <p>However, in order to make this message stick, the government needs to actually get its hands on stocks of the AstraZeneca vaccine. As a result of logistical and diplomatic snags, India recently vetoed the export of 2 million doses of the immunizer from pharmaceutical firm Serum.</p> <p>The Indian government had asked Brazil for discretion in the transport of vaccines, as the South Asian country began its own national immunization campaign on Saturday. However, the Bolsonaro administration delayed the departure of the aircraft hired to collect the AstraZeneca doses, so that it would have time to deck the plane out with government propaganda material, as <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> <a href="">revealed</a> last week.&nbsp;</p> <p>Since Thursday, Brazil&#8217;s Foreign Affairs Minister Ernesto Araújo has tried in vain to convince Indian officials to allow the country to collect the 2 million vaccine doses later this week. Diplomatic sources who have spoken to <strong>The Brazilian Report </strong>since last week claim that the immunizer is only likely to arrive in Brazil in two week&#8217;s time. First, India will distribute doses to Asian neighbors Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and the Maldives.</p> <p>With this, the plan of attacking CoronaVac will have to wait. Indeed, where he once called the immunizer &#8220;Doria&#8217;s Chinese vaccine,&#8221; Jair Bolsonaro has already changed his tune. According to him, CoronaVac &#8220;belongs to Brazil, not any governor.&#8221;</p> <h2>Bolsonaro&#8217;s social media support in a frenzy</h2> <p>One of the defining aspects of Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s presidency so far has been his ability to control his vast and organized networks of supporters on social media. However, with the president&#8217;s silence ahead of Brazil&#8217;s first coronavirus vaccines on Sunday, his Twitter and Facebook disciples appeared to be directionless. Major Bolsonaro-supporting digital activists were unsure of what position to take, either to double down on their criticism of vaccination, or try to claim credit for the federal government.</p> <p>On Monday morning, the president&#8217;s congressman son Eduardo Bolsonaro <a href="">gave an indication</a> of how his followers are expected to react from here on out. &#8220;Less than 24 hours after Anvisa gave emergency approval [for vaccines] the Bolsonaro administration, which they try try [sic] to tell you is not concerned about vaccines and the logistics of distribution, was already sending vaccines to the whole of Brazil.&#8221;</p> <p>According to a study by think tank Fundação Getulio Vargas, analyzing over 1.18 million tweets sent in the first 24 hours since the Manaus coronavirus crisis, President Bolsonaro&#8217;s support on Twitter has fallen 7 percent. <a href="">Consulting firm Quaest</a> found similar results, showing that the president has seen a continuous fall on the company&#8217;s Digital Popularity Index (IPD).</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/5012140"><script src=""></script></div> <p>Indeed, in the confusion among Bolsonaro-supporting social media circles, some of the president&#8217;s followers resolved to play dirty, promoting a smear campaign against nurse Monica Calazans, <a href="">the first Brazilian to receive a coronavirus vaccine</a> at an event in São Paulo on Sunday. Prominent accounts linked to the president — <a href="">including Senator Flávio Bolsonaro</a> — <a href="">spread misinformation</a> about Ms. Calazans online, falsely claiming she had already received a vaccine during clinical trials and accusing her of breaching social distancing rules during the end-of-year holidays. The 54-year-old nurse has reportedly received death threats.</p> <p>According to Pablo Ortellado, social media expert and professor of Public Policy at the University of São Paulo, the delay between the vaccine news and the beginning of social media reactions shows just how big the defeat was for the Bolsonaro administration.</p> <p>“[Sunday] was a massacre and the government left it with a very bad image. An example of this is that the President himself remained silent immediately after the event. There was a delay in reacting and this delay indicates first that Bolsonaro supporters are studying which narrative to use. So, as soon as there is a decision, they will go heavily in that direction,” Mr. Ortellado tells <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.

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Débora Álvares

Débora Álvares has worked as a political reporter for newspapers Folha de S.Paulo, O Estado de S.Paulo, Globo News, HuffPost, among others. She specializes in reporting on Brasilia, working behind-the-scenes coverage at the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary branches of government.

Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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