Jair Bolsonaro's Positive Test Will Only Escalate His Coronavirus Culture War

The virus he has sloughed off has killed more than 65,000 Brazilians. And even after he tested positive, Bolsonaro treated it as no big deal.

As far-right Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro finished announcing on Tuesday that he had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, he backed away from a small group of reporters and removed the mask covering his face.

“Look at my face,” Bolsonaro said. “There is no need to panic.”

And with that, it was clear that one of the world’s chief coronavirus skeptics ― a man whose inaction and ineptitude have helped foster the planet’s second-worst COVID-19 outbreak ― would not change course. Not even his own infection could inspire empathy for the more than 65,000 Brazilians who have already succumbed to the disease.

Any such hope was always faint, bordering on impossible. Bolsonaro is not an empathetic man, and he does not change tune. The desperate calls for him to act like a normal president, like someone he isn’t and has never been, are as futile as the similar pleas directed at U.S. President Donald Trump, the man on whom Bolsonaro has modeled himself, his administration, and his response to the pandemic.

Confusion, chaos and violence ― be it from the state’s actions or, in the case of the pandemic, its total lack thereof ― are central to the Bolsonarismo movement. So the president’s positive test will do little to slow the spread of the virus. Rather, his reaction seems likely only to make the situation worse on every front, as he and his supporters bunker down and the response becomes more politicized and chaotic than it already was.

The Brazilian leader has spent the last four months downplaying the virus at every turn, dismissing it as a media conspiracy and a “little flu,” forcing dissenters, including two health ministers, out of his government, and publicly feuding with governors and other public officials who advocated an aggressive response as COVID-19 spread across the country.

He did not change his tune when nearly two dozen members of the Brazilian government tested positive for the virus after he headed a contingent traveling to Florida in March to meet with Trump. He refused to wear a mask until a judge forced him to, and vetoed a push to mandate facial coverings among the Brazilian public. He has flouted social distancing measures to meet with crowds of supporters and right-wing protesters outside the presidential palace in Brasilia; this weekend, he met with U.S. ambassador to Brazil Todd Chapman to celebrate the Fourth of July, with nary a mask in sight. (Chapman has no symptoms but will be tested, the U.S. embassy said.)

Much as in the U.S. ― the only country with more infections and deaths than Brazil ― Bolsonaro’s response to the pandemic (or utter lack thereof) has created a climate of confusion and polarization around the virus. States and cities have enacted a broad array of social distancing measures and business lockdowns that he has largely undermined. Public health officials have made recommendations that he has ignored.

Many Brazilians who want to take the pandemic seriously don’t know how to; many others cannot afford to. Many of the rest, particularly those who count themselves as Bolsonaro’s most ardent supporters, have no desire to, and at his urging, they have helped turn COVID-19 into just another front in the country’s ongoing culture war.

Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro has rivaled U.S. President Donald Trump in downplaying the seriousness to the coronavirus pandemic. He has scorned a strong public response to the crisis. And his now-positive test for COVID-19 is unlikely to cause any change in his attitude.
Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro has rivaled U.S. President Donald Trump in downplaying the seriousness to the coronavirus pandemic. He has scorned a strong public response to the crisis. And his now-positive test for COVID-19 is unlikely to cause any change in his attitude.
Adriano Machado / Reuters

Even when he announced that he tested positive, Bolsonaro treated the disease with disdain.

“This virus is almost like rain, it will hit you,” he said, as if to suggest there was nothing one could do to stop it. His insistence that everyone “relax” as he tore off his mask was a return to the same machismo-laden playbook that he and fellow right-winger Trump have relied on in their dismissive approach to the virus.

Bolsonaro’s insistence that he was already feeling better thanks to a treatment regime that included hydroxychloroquine was a thinly-veiled attempt to continue advocating for the anti-malarial drug that he and Trump have touted as an effective therapeutic for COVID-19 ― despite no conclusive proof of that and amid concerns that it could harm some users.

His supporters took the cue: Already many have insisted that his positive test is no big deal. Bolsonaro will recover from the gripezinha the little flu ― with ease, several said on social media. His “history as an athlete,” which Bolsonaro previously has suggested would help him should he test positive, will carry him through now, some said. If his condition worsens from the mild symptoms, there will be no problem, they argue: Hydroxychloroquine will fix it.

And were he to die, some may see that as just his unavoidable destiny ― Bolsonaro himself proclaimed last month, “Sorry for all the dead, but that’s everyone’s destiny.”

Bolsonaro’s infection, like those of the other 1.6 million Brazilians who have come down with the virus, is inseparable from the larger tragedy that has befallen the nation, one his recklessness and willful incompetence have only worsened.

“I am sorry for the more than 1.6 million infected and the fact that we have the worst crisis manager in the world among us,” Fernando Haddad, the former Sao Paulo mayor who lost the 2018 election to Bolsonaro, tweeted Tuesday. “I want everyone to recover, including Bolsonaro. To the relatives of those who left amid the neglect of the government, my sincere feelings.”

Bolsonaro insisted Tuesday that he would follow social isolation protocols, suggesting, if only momentarily, that the positive result has at least forced some change of habit from a leader who broke quarantine while waiting for the results of his last test.

But so much of the damage is already done, and so much more seems still to come.

Bolsonaro’s bad example gave ammunition for the population to follow him. His traipsing around Brasilia to eat hot dogs last month drew crowds of adoring supporters and made doing so seem safe (and at the least made warnings that Brazilians should not do so seem hysterical). His appearances at right-wing demonstrations to shake hands and greet what seems a dwindling base of supporters gave license to other Brazilians to ignore pleas that they socially distance and stay at home. His belief in the ability of unproven drugs to make up for his own refusal to act, and his suggestion that only the elderly and the sick were truly at risk, helped sell the idea that most had nothing to fear.

Bolsonaro’s efforts to undermine social distancing and economic lockdowns have worked: Across the country, cities and states have started to reopen bars and restaurants and other businesses, as well. So have his attempts to turn the pandemic into a political battle rather than a public health problem: His most ardent supporters long ago made it clear they would never take the virus seriously, and they will surely continue to echo Bolsonaro’s insistence that it is no big deal. Worse, many of them have already decided it is their job to fight back against those who do take it seriously. Last weekend in Rio de Janeiro, a couple angrily confronted public health workers who were conducting virus surveillance efforts in the city.

Bolsonaro told the supporters who regard him as a mythic, heroic figure that the coronavirus panic was just the latest conspiracy to bring him down. So they treat it that way.

It’s a familiar story for anyone watching from the U.S.. Together, the two nations led by right-wing authoritarians who refuse to take the virus seriously are now responsible for roughly half of the world’s new cases each day. In Brazil, there are still likely months to go before the outbreak reaches its peak.

But as Bolsonaro’s latest decision not to keep his mask on prove, little seems set to change. It is impossible to humble a movement that views its lack of empathy and humility as their defining qualities.

“Even with coronavirus, Bolsonaro sets a bad example!” federal deputy Alessandro Molon, the opposition leader in Brazil’s lower legislative chamber, tweeted Tuesday. “There are 65 thousand dead. IRRESPONSIBLE.”

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