Right-wing populism

Divisive pandemic response

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro’s disrespect for science is now evident in his response to Covid-19. It fits his pattern of climate denial and aggressive disinformation. The resignation of Sergio Moro, who served as his justice minister, has weakened Bolsonaro’s grip on power.
President Bolsonaro (right) grew tired of Health Minister Mandetta’s expert advice. This picture was taken before Covid-19, in summer 2019. Eraldo Peres/picture-alliance/AP Photo President Bolsonaro (right) grew tired of Health Minister Mandetta’s expert advice. This picture was taken before Covid-19, in summer 2019.

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Bolsonaro has a track record of rejecting reports of human action heating up the climate and refusing to accept that deforestation in the Amazon region is one of the causes. Now he is taking a similar stance in view of one of the worst pandemics seen by humankind in a century. The nefarious consequence is that disinformation can kill.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Bolsonaro has been moving in the opposite direction of what scientific authorities are recommending. In the eyes of the president, who has likened the illness to a “cold sore” or “little flu”, keeping the economy going is the top priority. He is disregarding the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO), which calls for social distancing and staying at home because health-care systems lack the capacities to treat millions of infected people at the same time. His rhetoric suggests that caution in view of an infectious disease is somehow unmanly.

Bolsonaro has made several statements in which he sought to minimise the impacts of the pandemic. People are speaking of his “misinfodemic”. The good news is that Brazil is a federal republic like the USA or Germany. The state governors have considerable power, and they are responding more responsibly than the president. Moreover, their lockdown policies were endorsed by Luiz Henrique Mandetta, the federal health minister – until Bolsonaro fired him on 16 April. Mandetta and the state governors have seen their popularity surge in opinion polls, but Bolsonaro’s has dropped. To a large extent, Brazilians prefer scientific advice to populist agitation in the midst of a global pandemic.  

Mandetta is not the only cabinet member Bolsonaro has lost. At the end of April, Sergio Moro, the minister of justice and public security, resigned, accusing the president of wanting to manipulate police work in an unconstitutional way. The background was that Bolsonaro intended to appoint a new police chief. Instead, the police is now running corruption investigations against Bolsonaro’s family. Moro was perhaps the most important cabinet member. Serving as a judge before joining the cabinet, he had sentenced former President Lula da Silva to jail because of bribery. While the Lula case is controversial, Moro has a strong rule-of-law reputation from which Bolsonaro benefited. To avoid impeachment, the president now must find new allies in Brazil’s Congress.

Medical officials from Brazil and abroad have expressed disapproval of the president’s misinfodemic. Political scientists are bewildered too. Steven Levitsky, a co-author of the bestseller “How democracies die” has stated: “I cannot say whether Bolsonaro’s decision not to hear what the world scientific community is saying almost unanimously is a political calculation or a tremendous error. But it is amazing to see a leader endanger the lives of what may be, in the worst case scenario, thousands of his citizens”.

Around the world, right-wing populists in positions of power are currently taking one of two approaches. Some, like Narendra Modi of India or Victor Orbán of Hungary are leveraging the pandemic to boost their power. Others, like Bolsonaro or US President Donald Trump are belittling this public health crisis. Neither approach serves their respective nations well. What is needed now is not the stoking divisions. We need effective and constructive cooperation across party lines to save as many lives as possible.

Gilberto Scofield Jr. is the business and strategy director at Agência Lupa, the largest fact-checking newswire in Brazil. gilberto.scofield@lupa.news

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