Jair Bolsonaro coronavirus response causes controversy

Sao Paulo: Road traffic in the city is 62% lower than in March 2019. Source: Francisco Anzola (via Wikimedia Commons)
Brazil’s president attends anti-lockdown protest having previously dismissed the virus as a “cold”

By Hallum Cowell | Deputy Editor

Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, has caused controversy after attending a rally calling for an end to the country’s lockdown. This comes after Brazil’s 27 states, like many regions across the globe, have imposed social distancing measures on their population as COVID-19 continues to sweep across the world.

Although Brazil currently has no countrywide lockdown in place, the country’s 26 individual state governors do have the power to implement lockdown measures and have been doing so, including in Brazil’s capital of Sao Paulo.

As of April 22, Brazil had over 43,500 confirmed cases and over 2,700 deaths linked to COVID-19. These figures make Brazil the worst affected country in Latin America and the 11th most infected country around the world. Meanwhile, the cumulative number of worldwide coronavirus infections has also reached well over two and a half million. 

President Bolsonaro has previously labelled the lockdown as “dictatorial” and has argued that any lockdown is hurting the country’s economy. Bolsonaro has been documented calling the Coronavirus “a little cold” and “no worse than the flu”. His presence at an anti-lockdown rally follows earlier clashes in government as the President recently fired his Health Minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who had supported the implementation of lockdown. 

The President described the group, comprising a few hundred people attending the rally outside army headquarters in the capital, as “patriots”. Some protesters held signs calling for increased military powers and the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court. This is a contentious issue in Brazil as the country spent nearly two decades under military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985.

While Bolsonaro did not comment on these calls at the time, he later told journalists that Brazil would remain a democratic country and that both Congress and the Supreme Court would remain open. He added that “in any given march there are people who infiltrate. People have the right to freedom of speech.” At the protest, the President wore no face mask or gloves and was seen coughing.

His critics have labelled his actions “provocative” while Rodrigo Maia, President of Brazil’s lower house tweeted that the “whole world is working together in the fight against coronavirus. In Brazil, we have to fight against coronavirus and authoritarianism. It’s harder work, but we will prevail.”

“In Brazil, we have to fight against coronavirus and authoritarianism.”

In terms of dealing with the pandemic in his country, Bolsonaro favours a system where only high-risk people, such as the elderly or those with pre-existing health conditions, would be quarantined until the end of the outbreak. Those that do not fall within this group would be free to continue their daily routines. However, on April 18, a poll demonstrated that according to public opinion, most people in the country seem to favour a formal lockdown despite the effects it would have on individuals’ daily lives and the country’s economy.

Jair Bolsonaro has been no stranger to controversy since he became president on New Year’s Day 2019. A former military officer during the tail end of the military dictatorship, during his political career he has made a number of misogynistic, racist and anti-LGBTQ remarks. This has led some to label the president “Trump of the Tropics”. Undoubtedly, his contentious response to the coronavirus in Brazil will forward this narrative. 

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