By Anthony Pereira (*) – The most surprising thing about Jair Bolsonaro’s positive test for coronavirus, announced on Jul 7, was how long it took to happen. The Brazilian president was first suspected of having the virus in March, when several members of his entourage came down with it after visiting US President Donald Trump in Florida.
When Brazil’s Supreme Court ordered him to release his medical results in May, the results were negative. However, on Mar 24 the president called the coronavirus a “little flu” (gripezinha) and said if he were infected, “I would not need to worry.”
Bolsonaro enjoyed strolling around Brasilia without a mask and physically interacting with supporters in April, May and June, in defiance of advice from public health experts. He seemed secure in the belief that nobody had the right to tell him what to do.
So the news that Bolsonaro has finally contracted COVID-19 hardly comes as a shock. But this development might raise difficult political questions about the president’s personal behavior during the crisis, his government’s response to the pandemic and his ties to Trump.
In the press interview in which he announced he had tested positive, Bolsonaro wore a mask – despite having vetoed the obligatory use of masks in shops and public buildings a few days earlier. He said he had only taken the test because he was worried about passing on the virus to others.
This concern for others was in contrast to the insouciance of some of his most infamous recent comments on COVID-19, such as the dismissive: “We’re all going to die one day.”
It would be wrong to expect him to adhere wholesale to the advice of the World Health Organization (WHO), but in the same interview he said he would isolate himself in his office and added that he had cancelled two scheduled trips outside of Brasilia. It could be that the president has a newfound respect for the virus.
That raises the question of his government’s response to the wider crisis it has caused. Brazil’s pandemic response has been one of the worst in the world.
The president has opposed broad lockdowns, arguing that only the old and the vulnerable should stay at home and that everyone else should return to school and work immediately.
However, in April, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that mayors and governors had the authority to impose their own rules in response to the health emergency, a decision that Bolsonaro was forced to accept.
Brazil’s two largest cities, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, are in the middle of phased loosening of their lockdowns, but if the number of cases were to shoot up, they have the autonomy to reimpose stricter stay-at-home measures.
In April, 20 of the 27 governors signed an open letter to Bolsonaro criticising his handling of the coronavirus.
Before the pandemic, Bolsonaro had already broken with some of Brazil’s governors – some his former allies – including the governor of Sao Paulo, Joao Doria, who is seen as a potential political rival.
Bolsonaro also broke with Wilson Witzel, governor of Rio, who he saw as being behind anti-corruption investigations into his son Flavio. Witzel himself is now being investigated by the federal police for alleged misuse of public funds in the health system.
Bolsonaro said he first felt symptoms of the coronavirus on Jul 5, a day after a barbecue with Todd Chapman, the US ambassador to Brazil. Photographs of the event, which included Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo and the president’s, son Eduardo Bolsonaro, showed that no one wore a mask or practiced social distancing.
On Twitter, Bolsonaro was fulsome in his praise of Trump’s speech on Jul 4 at Mount Rushmore, describing it as “the words of a great statesman”. Bolsonaro has definitely borrowed from the Trump playbook in dealing with the coronavirus. He has minimized the severity of the virus and pushed for re-opening in Brazil’s states.
He has also taken the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine – including since testing positive – and tried to push the drug on state health services, despite concerns over its uses to treat COVID-19. Like Trump, he has also criticized the WHO.
Bolsonaro’s devotion to Trump has not halted the slide in his approval ratings, which are even lower than Trump’s, at around 32% in a recent CNI/Ibope poll.
Approval for Bolsonaro appears to have fallen in all segments of the population except among those in the poorest households, possibly because some poor families in this category are benefiting from government support measures.
The death toll from the coronavirus in Brazil – almost certainly an under-count – is over 72,000 as of Jul 13.
If Trump does not succeed in winning re-election in November, his friend in Brazil, who hopes to be re-elected in 2022, may begin to feel rather lonely.
(*) Anthony Pereira is Director, King's Brazil Institute and Professor, Department of International Development, King's College London. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.