The coronavirus crisis is proving critical across the globe, with mandatory lockdowns in most major countries and a cascade of public health, social and economic problems unfolding as a consequence. But in Brazil, something else is also brewing: a political crisis with President Jair Bolsonaro at the center.
Bolsonaro’s response to the crisis has been seen as verging close to denialism, losing him support from political allies, sparking protests among the middle class and raising concerns as far as China and the United States.
The President has been under fire since returning from his visit to US President Donald Trump on March 7, on the weekend before the latter banned domestic flights from Europe and the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus crisis as a pandemic. Many of the officials that joined Bolsonaro in the trip tested positive for COVID-19 since their return, raising fears that both Trump and Bolsonaro might also be infected, although both leaders have reported negative tests since then.
Still, Bolsonaro’s insistence in downplaying the risk of the virus has sparked conflicts with his own Health Ministry, governors and others in the ruling coalition, who favor drastic measures to stop the spread including nationwide lockdowns. The country’s stocks have dropped by 38 percent since the start of the month, more than neighboring Chile, Argentina or Peru.
As of March 24, one month after the first case was detected in the country, the Ministry of Health has confirmed 2,433 cases and 57 deaths caused by Covid-19 in Brazil, with community transmission now evident in several regions.
Many in Brazil’s political elite, including Press Secretary Fabio Wajgarten, top security adviser Augusto Heleno, Mines and Energy Minister Bento Albuquerque, Senate head Davi Alcolumbre and several others, including a dozen who traveled with the President to the US, tested positive for the virus.
As for Bolsonaro, media outlets like Fox News initially reported he tested positive too, citing his son Eduardo as the source of the scoop. The news was relevant for both Brazil and the US at the time, as Bolsonaro had met Donald Trump at the Mar-a-Lago resort only days before, and it was picked up by Brazilian media.
But Bolsonaro’s son was quick to denounce those reports as false, saying tests were actually negative. The President’s son went on to add that the conservative Fox News is usually trustworthy but Brazilian outlets are happy to use anything to try to bring his father down, even if the country’s economy has to come down with him.
Shortly after, on March 15, Jair Bolsonaro performed a stunt that would also cause public outrage. During a rally in support of his government that he insisted on holding despite concerns over mass gatherings, the President came out of the Government palace in Brasilia and approached his supporters, shook their hands and took pictures with them without any protection despite recommendations to keep distance.
In later public appearances, Bolsonaro and his cabinet have more often than not been wearing protective masks.
Conflict with China
It is not the first time Eduardo Bolsonaro is at the center of a controversy. As a national lawmaker and the son of the President, Eduardo often gives voice to some of the most extreme views of the Bolsonaro movement on Twitter, where he is very active.
Conspiracy theories about the Chinese government engineering or playing up the coronavirus crisis are popular among hard-line bolsonaristas. But the trend of blaming China turned into a diplomatic conflict last week when Eduardo Bolsonaro accused the Chinese of covering up the situation, comparing the role of the country’s Communist Party with that of the Soviet Union during the Chernobyl nuclear accident, saying both “dictatorships” were to blame and that “freedom” would be the solution.
The incendiary remark didn’t go unnoticed, sparking a back and forth between high level officials. The Chinese Embassy in Brasilia published a strong worded statement expressing outrage at his declarations. Rodrigo Maia and Davi Alcolumbre, Presidents of the Chamber of Deputies and Senators respectively, expressed their regrets to the Chinese Ambassador Yan Wanming. The Minister of Foreign Relations Ernesto Araújo however, while distancing his government from Eduardo Bolsonaro, accused the Chinese Embassy of overreacting.
The government has focused its attention on the economic effects of the crisis. Since the beginning of the year, Brazil’s stock market has plunged by 50 percent, with the real dropping from 4 to 5 per US dollar, raising concerns that the pro-market reforms promoted by Economy Minister Paulo Guedes are not enough to stop capital from flowing out of the country.
In a bid to protect the country’s businesses amid the coronavirus slowdown, Economy Minister Paulo Guedes decreed that companies would be able to cut working hours and salaries up to 50%, allowed the anticipation of holidays for workers (except for those in essential services), relaxed administrative requirements and even allowed firms to suspend salary payments for up to four months. This last decision was met with such public outrage that it was revoked just a few hours later.
The President repeated several times his main worry was to keep jobs and avoid an economic downturn stemming from a lockdown paralysis. “Other viruses have killed many more than this one and there wasn’t all this commotion,” Bolsonaro told journalists. “What a few mayors and governors are doing is a crime. They’re destroying Brazil.”
Governors on their own
With Bolsonaro rejecting the need for a full lockdown and urging people back to work, Governors decided to act on their own by declaring different types of general quarantines and other measures.
One of the most disrupting decisions was taken by the States of Bahia, Paraná, Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul, and Santa Catarina, when they severely restricted the inter-State bus services. This move was questioned by the President, who claimed governors didn’t have the authority to do so since it was a federal competence.
Senators also acted swiftly. In an unprecedented remote voting session, the Senate declared the “state of public calamity” and lifted key fiscal caps for the Executive power to face the situation.
Some underlying political trends can be read regarding the management of the crisis. Opposition parties push for more active policies, while Government supporters opt for a more gradual approach, accusing the former of overreacting. And governors, regardless of their political affiliation, see the government’s attitude as a threat to their own survival.
São Paulo, the most populous State in the country, is governed by João Doria, a man of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB). His party was the traditional opposition to Lula’s Workers’ Party, a fact that could have put him closer to Bolsonaro. Instead, the tensions between the two are high, with Doria taking on Bolsonaro for his lack of leadership during the crisis. This is representative of how the Bolsonaro phenomena pierced through the traditional party system, once as an advantage in his rise to the Presidency, now as a hurdle to govern.
In Goias, meanwhile, Governor Ronaldo Caiado said he was breaking with the national government over the coronavirus crisis. As a doctor, he argued, the position of Bolsonaro’s Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta seemed like more reasonable than that of Bolsonaro.
The turmoil has not only been felt at the gubernatorial level, but also within ordinary citizens, who have held protests for several days in a row by banging pots and pans from their houses and balconies, calling for stricter measures from the national administration.
For now, Bolsonaro remains defiant, but the crisis could be rapidly escalating.