As Brazil’s COVID crisis eases, Bolsonaro sees rising popularity

By Ernesto Londoño, Manuela Andreoni and Leticia Casado

President Jair Bolsonaro seemed to be on a political suicide mission during the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis in Brazil.

As the daily death toll turned Brazil into one of the epicenters of the pandemic, he openly dismissed the loss of life as inevitable and lashed out against social distancing. A judge ordered the president to wear a mask, a measure Bolsonaro was reluctant to follow, claiming that his “athletic background” would guarantee a prompt recovery.

With the economy in a tailspin, the far-right president picked fights with Congress, powerful governors and even some of his most popular ministers.

His cavalier conduct generated talk of impeachment, of an institutional breakdown and even of an eventual prosecution at The Hague.

Now, with Brazil’s caseload and death toll down significantly since peaking in July, Bolsonaro’s popularity is starting to rise. Yet the easing of the pandemic came largely because Brazilians did not follow his lead.

Bolsonaro’s strengthened standing among the electorate stands in contrast to other leaders in the region who heeded the scientific consensus about lockdowns, social distancing and masks, and have seen their popularity decline.

Feeling emboldened, Bolsonaro chided the press last week for continuing to focus on the pandemic, which has killed more than 163,000 people in Brazil.

“I regret the deaths, but we need to be done with this thing,” an exasperated Bolsonaro said during a Nov. 10 event at the presidential palace. “We need to stop being a country of sissies.”

Far from facing impeachment, Bolsonaro — who has always been a deeply polarizing figure in Brazil — now has his highest approval rates since taking office in January 2019. While roughly a third of Brazil’s electorate sided with him back in May, that figure rose to 40% in September.

In neighboring Argentina, by comparison, President Alberto Fernández, who imposed among the strictest lockdowns in the world, saw his approval rate crash from 57% in March to 37% last month. President Sebastián Piñera of Chile and Iván Duque of Colombia have also faced falling approval ratings after bumps of support early in the pandemic.

Bolsonaro’s rising political fortunes came as Brazilians adhered to mask wearing guidelines and quarantine measures — despite his open hostility to them — that eased the severity of the virus. Warmer weather, which allowed people to spend less time indoors, further reduced the contagion.

The effects of business shutdowns and quarantines were softened by a generous cash assistance program Congress had passed. Bolsonaro also has claimed credit for that outcome, even though he had initially favored significantly smaller handouts.

Jairo Nicolau, a political scientist who recently published a book about Brazil’s political rightward shift, said Bolsonaro appeared to be hopelessly isolated when the virus was ripping through the country starting in March.

But his political instincts and tactics have often been underestimated, Nicolau argued. And like President Donald Trump, he said, Bolsonaro has managed to bypass mainstream press outlets to reach his base of supporters.

“Bolsonaro has a very loyal electorate, quite similar to Trump’s, and has forged a strong emotional bond with them,” he said. “I don’t think that Bolsonaro is a great strategic thinker, but he has demonstrated a kind of intelligence, an ability to capture people’s mood in any given moment, and play it right. He is no fool.”

Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to questions for this article. In a recent interview, Vice President Hamilton Mourão said the government could have done a better job providing guidelines on prevention measures early in the pandemic. But he argued that much of the criticism the government received for its handling of the pandemic was “politicized” and that some of the most dire predictions did not come to pass.

“The health system was able to cope efficiently,” he said. “There were fears that people would end up dying in hospital hallways and that people would die on the streets and that never happened.”

Experts said Bolsonaro’s surprising political strength might be temporary. In municipal elections held Sunday, several of the candidates he backed did poorly. He faces formidable challenges, including a corruption investigation targeting one of his sons and other relatives, the looming end of cash payments that have kept Brazilians afloat as the economy contracts, and the pandemic that continues to kill hundreds of Brazilians per day.

Dr. Fátima Marinho, a public health researcher at Vital Strategies, a global public health organization, said that while Brazil had so far avoided a new wave of cases, a smattering of upticks in certain states were cause for concern.

“All the models point to a reduction,” she said. “But we’re anticipating problems in certain cases as we start to see very concrete signs” of a resurgence.

Eager to change the subject, Bolsonaro this week turned his attention to the U.S. presidential election. Bolsonaro, who openly rooted for Trump, whom he idolizes, is among the few leaders in the region that has not congratulated President-elect Joe Biden or even acknowledged his victory.

The Brazilian president and Biden have traded barbs over Brazil’s environmental policy and the future of the Amazon, which has experienced a rise in deforestation on Bolsonaro’s watch. During a debate, Biden warned that Brazil would face economic consequences if it doesn’t rein in the destruction of the rainforest. His campaign plan on climate change promised to “name and shame global climate outlaws.”

Bolsonaro has signaled little interest in striking a more cordial tone with the incoming U.S. president. During a speech, he said his country would give diplomacy a try to fend off American plans for the Amazon. But failing that, he said, Brazil would respond with “gunpowder.”

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