After an electoral campaign based on harsh attacks against a notoriously corrupt political establishment, in late 2018 the far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil. Reasoning that he would not retain popular support unless he stuck to this confrontational strategy, as president Bolsonaro has relentlessly assaulted mainstream political parties, major media outlets, and Brazil’s Congress and Supreme Court. When the coronavirus hit Brazil in earnest in March, Bolsonaro was confident that this same strategy would carry him through. Taking an initial cue from U.S. President Donald Trump, he dismissed the virus as a hoax, refused to consider a national social distancing policy, and went so far as to recommend risky self-medication approaches.
But as mayors in large Brazilian cities and governors in the most affected states began to impose quarantines, using powers constitutionally guaranteed under Brazil’s federal system, the president went on the offensive. He called coronavirus infections “sniffles,” claimed that his background as an athlete would ensure his good health, and refused to release his own test results. (Twenty-three members of his entourage tested positive after returning from a visit to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.) Bolsonaro has repeatedly attacked social distancing measures, saying that deaths are a fact of life and should not stand in the way of restarting the economy.
In March, as the coronavirus began spreading widely throughout the country, overwhelming an already broken healthcare system, Bolsonaro’s popularity began to suffer. Across quarantined Brazil, people regularly banged pots and pans in protest against the president every evening. By mid-April, polls showed that 38 percent of Brazilians regarded the government’s performance as “excellent” or “good,” as opposed to 56 percent who saw it as “regular,” “poor,” or “bad.”
And yet Bolsonaro has stuck to his original plan. Within his inner circle, advisers fear that any policy that associates Bolsonaro with establishment individuals or institutions will come back to haunt him at the ballot box. In one of his riskiest decisions to date, in April Bolsonaro sacked the popular minister of health, a figure who had become a champion of the national health service and social distancing measures.
Key in Bolsonaro’s calculations are the economic consequences of social distancing policies. According to estimates from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, Brazil’s economy could shrink by up to 6 percent over the rest of 2020. For Bolsonaro, such a recession could spell ruin in the upcoming municipal elections this October, in which Brazilians will elect more than 5,000 mayors. Seeking to keep the economy afloat, Bolsonaro has appeared on television daily to ask people to go back to work and reopen the economy, and he has begun to blame mayors and governors for the economic collapse that now seems inevitable.
Bolsonaro’s incendiary response to the pandemic has brought polarization in Brazil to a level not seen in decades. The president has all but declared war on Congress, the courts, the press, and now the mayors and governors who are imposing social distancing policies. In the early days of April alone, the intensifying political struggle saw members of parliament vote down government legislation, courts block administration requests, and the major media outlets cast Bolsonaro as unhinged. Against the president’s wishes, Congress passed legislation to provide poorer Brazilians with monthly stipends (of around $120). Bolsonaro has fought back by mobilizing his base, with many supporters now taking to the streets, even if that means blocking the passage of ambulances. Pro-Bolsonaro bots and social media influencers have launched daily attacks against the speaker of the lower house of Congress, Rodrigo Maia, now a leading voice opposing the president. And in late April, Sergio Moro, a judge with a strong anticorruption record whose popularity rating in polls has over the last year been higher than Bolsonaro’s, clashed with the president and resigned as justice minister.
The spread of the coronavirus will be a watershed moment in Bolsonaro’s presidency. But perhaps more importantly, it also will mark a new, troubling chapter in the trajectory of a country that is becoming ever more polarized.
Matias Spektor is associate professor of international relations at the School of International Relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas in Brazil.