While the coronavirus crisis necessitates informed and clear political direction, Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has embarked on a course of reckless misinformation that is turning allies against him.
Brazil’s unpopular populist is losing friends fast as he places hundreds of thousands of lives at risk. His anti-science approach to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic has alarmed his political friends as well as his opponents.
Bolsonaro has always had a problem with the truth. He was elected President of Brazil in late 2018 by proclaiming himself an anti-corruption outsider, despite his 30 years in politics and his family’s alleged links with organised crime. When under fire for allowing record deforestation of the Amazon, he blamed NGOs for deliberately setting the fires, and sacked the head of his space agency for defending climate science.
Now he has been guilty of dismissing the coronavirus pandemic as ‘just a fantasy’ and ‘a little flu.’
A danger to Brazilians
But although he received plenty of criticism over the destruction of the Amazon, it’s Covid-19 that finally appears to have persuaded some of his political allies – and the world’s media – that Bolsonaro is a danger to Brazilians.
Many in Brazil already knew this. Bolsonaro’s rampant hate speech, filled with homophobic, misogynist and racist abuse, has created a climate of fear for some Brazilians, stripped protections from minority groups and seen a surge of hate crime .
Workers, too, have seen vital protections stripped away, with the president supporting ‘reforms’ that would potentially reduce workers’ rights to a minimum allowed by the constitution and – for example – allow employers to make pregnant women work with dangerous chemicals.
‘Confront it like a man’
But the president’s current erratic behaviour undermining the national effort against Covid-19 – including a spree of glad-handing a crowd of his supporters while he was supposed to be self-isolating with suspected coronavirus – has knocked the scales off the eyes of even some dogged allies.
Even has he appears to have finally accepted the dangers of Covid-19, rather than recommending social distancing and other internationally accepted methods of disease control, he declared that Brazilians should just ‘confront it like a man, not a boy.’
Losing friends, fast
This has sparked a surge of opposition from within his own ranks. The country’s health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, had to be warned by the president not to speak out in contradiction of Bolsonaro’s ludicrous stance or be fired.
But Justice Minister Sergio Moro, the man responsible for clearing Bolsonaro’s path to power by persecuting popular former President Lula Da Silva with trumped up corruption charges, has warned that security issues could deteriorate if the disease spread quickly, and told politicians he backed Mandetta’s stance.
Even Paulo Guedes, Bolsonaro’s economic guru and supporter of the country’s damaging twenty-year austerity programme, said: ‘I, as an economist, would like us to be able to keep production and come back faster. I as a citizen, following the knowledge of the health personnel, on the contrary, want to stay at home and maintain the isolation’.
Meanwhile, the global media, some of which have given the rise of the Brazilian right an easy ride since the illegitimate impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, has expressed great concern over this latest show of presidential idiocy.
The Guardian, increasingly critical since last summer’s fires, called Bolsonaro ‘a danger to Brazilians’ and wrote that ‘his response to coronavirus has plumbed new depths’.
Even the Telegraph and the Financial Times have weighed in, writing that ‘[he] has lost support from important groups that put him in the presidency, some of the richest and also some of the oldest people.’
Finally, Twitter and even Facebook removed posts from the president under their rules against spreading misinformation, after Bolsonaro called for an end to social distancing and recommended the use of anti-malarials against Covid-19, which remain completely unproven as a method of fighting the virus.
Friends and foes unite
The Left have put aside their own differences to unite against him, issuing a joint manifesto for how Brazil should react to Covid-19, including protections for workers and following scientific advice.
And friends and enemies alike in the country’s states are taking the wise course to ignore or condemn the president. Only three out of 27 state governors have followed Bolsonaro’s terrible advice. The governor of São Paulo state, which alone has an economy bigger than that of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia combined, was clear, saying to his people : ‘Do not follow the guidance of the president.’
But with the conflicting messages only sixty per cent of Brazilians are practicing social distancing, and Covid-19 cases have passed 7,000. A political crisis that started with Dilma’s removal in 2016 is reaching its deadliest phase.
This article was originally published by the Trades Union Congress.