Backlash grows against Brazil's Bolsonaro even as he moderates tone on pandemic

There are signs Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro may be changing his tone after downplaying the coronavirus threat and undermining directives from health officials. Experts say his sagging approval ratings are the reason.

'We have two enemies: the virus and the president,' infectious disease expert says

Public health officials in Brazil say one of their biggest challenges in containing the spread of the virus is countering the misinformation coming from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. (Andressa Anholete/Getty Images)

Health officials bracing for the worst and a president sending mixed messages. Sounds like the situation in the United States, but it's what's happening in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro has found himself increasingly isolated from the rest of his government in the battle against the spread of the coronavirus.

From belittling the virus as "a little flu" to making public appearances in crowded settings, Bolsonaro has downplayed the risks of the virus, while actively encouraging BrazIlians to get back to work — a position that has put him at odds with  Minister of Health Luiz Henrique Mandetta other members of his cabinet, state governors and a growing segment of Brazilians. 

While Mandetta has called for physical distancing, Bolsonaro has focused on the economic impacts of virus mitigation measures while also questioning the science. This week Facebook and Instagram removed posts from Bolsonaro on grounds that the content was harmful, after he questioned social distancing measures and promoted an unproven treatment for the coronavirus. 

"The messages are not clear if you have two important members of the same government saying different things," said Luis Eugenio de Souza, of the Institute of Public Health of the Federal University of Bahia. 

'We really expect a tragedy'

As of Friday, Brazil had more than 9,000 cases and 359 deaths, according to an ongoing tally by Federal University of Bahia. Both numbers growing rapidly: Based on the university's estimates, there could be more than 20,000 cases by the middle of next week, and de Souza says the peak could come sometime toward the end of April.

An aerial view of Vila Formosa cemetery in São Paulo during a burial amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. (Miguel Schincariol/Getty Images)

The country began quarantine measures on Feb. 7 that got progressively tighter and declared a national emergency on March 20. By the end of March, 58 per cent of the country was practising social distancing, according to Brazilian technology company inloco

Videos on social media in recent weeks show some Brazilians taking to their balconies, banging pots and pans to protest Bolsonaro's handling of the situation, chanting "Bolsonaro out!"

In a country with millions of people living in impoverished and unsanitary conditions who are unable to stay at home and are worried about their livelihoods, public health experts worry about the cumulative impact of the president's message.

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"We really expect a tragedy in the next two-three weeks," said Dr. Jamal Suleiman, an infectious disease expert with the Instituto de Infectologia Emilio Ribas in São Paulo.

"We have two enemies: the virus and the president — I really don't know which is the worst," Suleiman told CBC News, adding he spends an inordinate amount of time making media appearances to counter the president's message.

Eyeing re-election

Bolsonaro was elected in 2018 riding a populist wave with a promise to stand up for working-class Brazilians and a clear mandate to help the country recover from economic stagnation.

Analysts say having not met high expectations set for job creation and wage growth, Bolsonaro's opposition to quarantines and lockdowns has more to do with the economy than public health. 

An aerial view of a nearly deserted Copacabana beach as residents in Rio De Janeiro heed warnings to practice social distancing. (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

"His calculation is to blame someone else for the economic crisis," said political analyst Marco Bastos, of the City University of London. By blaming state governors who are pushing quarantine measures, "he's trying to find a scapegoat to the sluggish economy."

Taking a position of coronavirus sceptic has allowed Bolsonaro to bolster his image as a defender of the poor and working class, who are concerned about their jobs if efforts to slow the virus shut down the economy, said analyst Oliver Stuenkel, an associate professor of international relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo.

"He's sought to create this situation where he's kind of the defender of the poor against the 'deep-state' health officials who are imitating the World Health Organization but have no idea what's happening in Brazil," said Stuenkel.

He said Bolsonaro is looking to the next election two years from now, when his position against quarantines and physical distancing measures could play well if the country's economic woes worsen because of the virus. 

Bolsonaro can say he was always against those measures, Stuenkel said. "He must assure [voters] there's a culprit, and that culprit cannot be him if he has a chance at re-election." 

Change in tone

But Stuenkel said Bolsonaro is realizing his bet that people are more concerned about the economy than the health implications of coronavirus may not pay off.

A sign of that came during a televised speech to the country on Tuesday during which he moderated his tone slightly, calling the coronavirus "the biggest challenge of our generation," though he also stuck to his economic message.

 "The collateral effects of the measures to combat the coronavirus must not be worse than the disease itself," Bolsonaro said, echoing a message U.S. President Donald Trump delivered via Twitter recently. 

A sanitary worker cleans streets and alleys of the Vila Ipiranga favela in Niteroi, Brazil. Vila Ipiranga was the first community in the country to get the same cleaning agents used in China to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (Luis Alvarenga/Getty Images)

So acute has the public backlash to Bolsonaro's comments been, in the favelas, the sprawling slums in some of Brazil's major cities, that locals and criminal gangs have taken to hiring their own health care workers and imposing their own curfews to combat the spread of the virus. 

"Once you have too many people dying and you keep talking about the economy, there's a risk you're seen to be unable to handle this adequately," Stuenkel said.

De Souza said in spite of the president's efforts to minimize the threat from the virus, he thinks the public is heeding warnings to self-isolate, a feeling bolstered by images of near-deserted hot spots like Copacabana Beach. 

"I think people are understanding what is the right thing to do, and that's why the president is losing support quickly," de Souza said citing recent polls that also show the Health Minister's popularity rising

Mirroring Trump

A close ally of Trump, both politically and ideologically, Bolsonaro's change in tone has mirrored the American president's recent shift to apparent acceptance of the virus as a serious threat.

Bastos said Bolsonaro was looking at Trump's approach but also his own sagging approval ratings in changing his message this week. 

"He's seeing that approval ratings are rewarding politicians who are taking firmer actions on quarantine and social distancing, so he was certainly briefed about that and following this data," Bastos said.

He added, "I would wait to see if this more moderate tone is a new normal of Bolsonaro."

Suleiman doesn't think Bolsonaro has had a change of heart about the severity of the coronavirus in Brazil.

"We don't believe in any words that he speaks," he said.

Impeachment floated

The idea of impeaching Bolsonaro has been floated by some political opponents, but Bastos doesn't think it's realistic. 

He said there would need to be protests in the street — an impossibility given current physical distancing guidelines — and the process would take months of political hearings and committees, something politicians can't afford at this moment.

The question, Bastos said, is to what extent the public holds Bolsonaro responsible if bodies start piling up in the streets because of a botched response to the virus.

The more immediate challenge may be the fate of the health minister. Stuenkel said Mandetta could get fired because Bolsonaro is envious of his popularity, or he could resign.

"It really depends to what extent does the Health Minister tolerate his boss continuously doing stuff that goes completely against what the health minister is saying," Stuenkel said.


Steven D'Souza

Senior Reporter

Steven D'Souza is a Senior Reporter based in Toronto. Previously he was CBC's correspondent in New York covering two U.S. Presidential campaigns and travelling around the U.S. covering everything from protests to natural disasters to mass shootings. He won a Canadian Screen Award for coverage of the protests around the death of George Floyd. He's reported internationally from Rome, Israel and Brazil.

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