Is Bolsonaro’s Botched COVID-19 Response Dragging Brazil Downhill?

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil president. Foto credit: Palácio do Planalto.

Brazil has been in the news for all the wrong reasons since the coronavirus began to ravage Latin America’s largest country.

At the heart of the controversy is President Jair Bolsonaro who has provoked a hail of criticism from health experts for his opposition to measures aimed at stifling the spread of the virus.

Dismissing the deadly disease as just a “little flu”, he has pressured local officials for months to reverse lockdowns and reopen the economy.

Nicknamed “Trump of the Tropics” for his anti-science views and populist zeal, the far-right politician has obviously set his country of 210 million on a dangerous path.

Read more: Brazil Political Infighting Slows the Battle Against Coronavirus

Brazil’s inadequate healthcare infrastructure and tightly-packed favelas make it the ideal host for disease disaster, and Bolsonaro’s stance has led Brazil to swiftly climb the grim leaderboard of coronavirus statistics.

In late June, the country became the second country in the world to confirm more than one million cases of COVID-19.

According to AFP, the World Health Organization has expressed concern about the president’s approach in a country that is now second to the United States in terms of total cases and deaths from the virus.

Death Toll, Infections

Based on the latest data released by the Johns Hopkins University, it has so far recorded over 1.6 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus as well as 64,867 deaths. The dark milestone came as large cities reopened restaurants, gyms, and bars.

COVID-19 global cases as of July 6 (Photo credit: Johns Hopkins University)
COVID-19 global cases as of July 6 (Photo credit: Johns Hopkins University)

In the U.S., the novel virus has infected more than 2.9 million people and killed 130,080. India is currently the world’s third-worst affected, with 19,693 deaths and around 700,000 infections.

Al Jazeera recently quoted the WHO as saying that the number of coronavirus infections in Brazil could be much higher than is being reported due to insufficient testing.

In June, Bolsonaro told CNN that he will consider pulling his country out of the global health watchdog once the coronavirus pandemic has passed.

He said the WHO has not acted responsibly and has lost a lot of credibility due to “ideological bias”.

In late June, Brazil became the second country in the world to confirm more than one million cases of COVID-19.

Growing Controversy

Bolsonaro’s long list of controversial remarks and actions that grab the headlines continues to grow.

When the coronavirus was taking root in Latin America, he startled the medical community by embracing unproven “remedies” for the virus that has wreaked havoc on the world.

The New York Times reported in June that Bolsonaro’s administration had stopped releasing comprehensive coronavirus statistics. The data was restored after the Supreme Court ordered the Health Ministry to resume publishing it.

He has encouraged mass rallies and has taken part in street demonstrations despite guidelines for social distancing advised by health authorities. He has also repeatedly appeared in public without a mask.

The scene in Brazil has been chaotic in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by sergio souza on Unsplash)
The scene in Brazil has been chaotic in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Sergio Souza on Unsplash)

According to Reuters, the 65-year-old president has vetoed parts of a law that would have made wearing a face mask obligatory in enclosed spaces such as schools and churches.

Bolsonaro—who says his “athletic background” makes him immune to the worst symptoms of the virus—attended a U.S. Independence Day celebration in capital Brasilia without wearing a mask.

AP says the president shared photos on social media of himself, several Cabinet ministers, top aides, and U.S. Ambassador Todd Chapman, all of whom shunned masks despite being in close quarters.

Experts point to these measures as some of the factors that helped tilt the country into its current health crisis, which is damaging the fragile Brazilian economy.

Economic Outlook

Economists are forecasting a historic recession in the world’s sixth most populous nation.

CNN has quoted the Brazilian Central Bank as estimating a 6.4% drop in GDP for this year.

This is while the International Monetary Fund is more pessimistic and sees the economy shrinking 9.1% in 2020.

Bolsonaro has said on multiple occasions that hunger and unemployment could kill more people than the pandemic.

Read more: Divided Latin America Scrambles to Survive Coronavirus Onslaught

A wide majority of Brazilians initially supported closing non-essential businesses, but it seems the president’s message has increasingly resonated.

Figures released by the Brazilian statistics agency IBGE and cited by CNN show that some 7.8 million Brazilians lost work between March and May.

The agency said that for the first time since it started tracking the data, less than half the working-age population, i.e. 49.5%, was actually working.  

The International Monetary Fund sees the Brazilian economy shrinking by 9.1% in 2020.


Despite all the controversy and the political battles that the Brazilian president is wrapped up in, his popularity has apparently remained unchanged.

According to AFP, a poll by Datafolha at the end of June found that 32 percent of Brazilians think Bolsonaro’s administration was “good or very good,” a number that has not dropped since the beginning of the unfolding health crisis.

Draped in the nation’s flag, his supports have kept hitting the streets to show their appreciation for his stance.

Some analysts say the people supporting Bolsonaro are not the same as those before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Their observations indicate that he has lost some points among his electoral supporters and has gained popularity among the lower social classes thanks to the emergency support offered to almost 60 million Brazilians.

Nobody knows where Brazil is headed, but what is obvious is that if the country continues on this trajectory, its coronavirus death toll will likely surpass that of its northern neighbor in the immediate future.

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