Day 6·Q&A

Testing positive for COVID-19 won't change Bolsonaro's pandemic response, says analyst

Political analyst Robert Muggah says Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro's positive COVID-19 test may spell the beginning of the end for his administration — even though he doesn't appear to be changing his approach to the pandemic.

'Despite having contracted COVID-19 ... I don't expect to see him change course one iota': Robert Muggah

After months of downplaying the virus's severity, Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, said Tuesday he has tested positive for the coronavirus infection. (Adriano Machado/Reuters)

Political analyst Robert Muggah says Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro's positive COVID-19 test may spell the beginning of the end for his administration — even though he doesn't appear to be changing his approach to the pandemic.

Bolsonaro confirmed on Tuesday he tested positive for the virus, as the country topped 1.7 million confirmed cases — the second highest in the world, behind only the United States.

The Brazilian president has been dismissive and even mocking of COVID-19, at one point calling it "a little flu."

Muggah, co-founder and director of think-tank Igarapé Institute based in Rio de Janeiro, said Bolsonaro's administration was already on the verge of collapse before the pandemic hit.

Here's part of his conversation with Day 6 guest host Peter Armstrong.

Do you think there's a chance, a possibility, that President Bolsonaro might have a change of heart or a change in his approach to the pandemic now that he's tested positive?

I wish there would be, but I'm afraid there's virtually no chance that he's going to change course.

This is a president who thrives on disunity, polarization and volatility and has, in fact, managed to sustain his leadership by continuing in this form of governance.

So despite having contracted COVID-19, which was really expected by virtually everybody, I don't expect to see him change course one iota.

Robert Muggah is the co-founder and director of the Igarapé Institute based in Rio de Janeiro. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

There is even that moment when he was addressing the press, when he announced that his test result was positive, and then he stepped back and sort of took off his mask. What did you think when you saw him do that?

The president delights, like perhaps other pandemic populists around the world, in exciting his base and essentially frustrating his liberal opponents.

And I think that gesture was calculated and planned to set off a firestorm among the media — the liberal media, the fake news, as he calls it — [to] keep another media cycle rolling, focused more on his antics than on the pandemic or the crimes that he is standing accused of committing.

How are most Brazilians feeling about or reacting to the president's behaviour?

It's a really tough question. So right now in Brazil, roughly 30 per cent of the country stands behind him. The majority of the country does not support him.

We've seen his support, especially among the middle and the centre-right, declining. And that decline's accelerated since the pandemic.

So right now, I think people are frustrated. The media, including the more centrist, even the right-leaning media, has turned against him. Parties across the spectrum are increasingly consolidating at one level to try to push him out of power.

There are more than 48 impeachment requests right now for him to be ousted. And there's a general sense of frustration on the street that we're seeing increasingly with protests mounting around the country.

But with that 30 per cent that stands behind him, have they doubled down, or is that support bleeding as well?

No, there's a sense that that support if anything, it's intensifying. This is a base that didn't come out of nowhere. This has been a group, mostly middle class, often white, even some upper class or upper-middle class who have been cultivated over the last decade or so by Bolsonaro and his supporters, and formed a really hardcore and quite united alliance.

They've been fed a systemic and sustained stream of misinformation through something that's been described as the hate cabinet, which is being run and orchestrated by the president's youngest son Carlos for which he now stands accused of committing hate crimes.

View of a wall depicting Bolsonaro, centre left, and his sons congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, left, Sen. Flavio Bolsonaro and councilman Carlos Bolsonaro, right, with the phrase 'familicia,' a combination of the words family and militia, at the Grajau neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro on May 14. (Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images)

So this is a group that has been fed a steady stream of vitriol, including related to COVID-19 and who are even coming onto the streets and, in some cases, invading hospitals at the bequest of the president's sons in defence of the president.

The president understands that he's got this support, many of whom also, by the way, are associated with the police and the military and is seeking to agitate them, to bolster his own support.

Back in May, before we even saw this positive COVID test, you had said that Bolsonaro and his government could be the first to be toppled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Why is that? What do you see there?

You know, I think that this has been building for a while. It's important to recall that Bolsonaro is the democratically elected leader of Brazil. He garnered over 50 per cent of the vote in the second round.

What's happened in the last couple of months is … not just a massive health crisis, making Brazil the second worst affected country in the planet, but it's also facing a really searing economic crisis.

Demonstrators hold signs during a protest against Bolsonaro's managing of the pandemic and also demanding respect for LGBT rights in Rio de Janeiro on June 28. (Silvia Izquierdo/Associated Press)

So while some big businesses have done reasonably well out of this, including the soy industries and the cattle industries in Brazil, most Brazilians are really suffering.

And then finally, you've got a political crisis, which is really embroiling the entire Bolsonaro family. At the centre of it, of course, is the president.

But his three sons, who are also elected officials, are each of them involved in accusations and charges of impropriety and criminal activity.

What is the risk that Bolsonaro's positive COVID test might actually end up distracting from the seriousness of all those other investigations?

I do think that this COVID-19 diagnosis, in a way, marks the beginning of the end of what I think counts as one of the most chaotic administrations in Brazilian history.

I think it underlines, in a way, the recklessness, the incompetence [of the government's response] and in fact, the pervasiveness of this virus. And that's a reality, I think, that's starting to sink in across Brazil.

If you talk to most Brazilians today in the street, especially in the north and northeast, which have been more dramatically hit than the wealthier southern part of the country, virtually everybody has a story of a relative or friend who's contracted the disease and may have come close to dying or has died.

And the fact that their own president is one of just four leaders globally who's contracted it, I think is just essentially driving home the point that this is not something to be taken lightly.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Pedro Sanchez. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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