A journalist asked Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro regarding the 5,000 coronavirus (COVID-19) deaths in the country. In response, Bolsonaro said: “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?”
This response has ignited a firestorm of controversy over the country’s response to the global pandemic.
“My [middle name] is Messiah. But I can’t work miracles,” he added.
Noted personalities all over Brazil voiced their disagreement and anger at Bolsonaro over his comments.
Scriptwriter Mariliz Pereira Jorge said “It’s a mockery. An insult. It is intolerable.” Political commentator Bernardo Mello Franco wrote that Bolsonaro wants to turn the country into the “Republic of So What.”
Wilson Witzel, governor of Rio de Janeiro, said that Bolsonaro’s remarks were “absolutely unacceptable.” Marcelo Freixo, a member of the opposition in the Brazilian congress, called Bolsonaro a “despicable human being.”
— AJ+ (@ajplus) April 30, 2020
The latest in a string of coronavirus denials
The backlash against Bolsonaro’s comments is made even worse given his lackluster response to the coronavirus outbreak. In addition, this isn’t the first time Bolsonaro has attempted to downplay the severity of the crisis.
He has criticized local governments for issuing quarantine measures over “the little flu,” and has indicated that the coronavirus threat is being “overstated.” In late March, he scoffed at the idea of implementing social distancing measures, stating that “we’ll all die one day.” He has even openly contradicted recommendations from his administration’s public health experts and has attempted to overrule quarantine measures instituted by state governors. This has caused the country to experience the worst coronavirus outbreak in South America. (Related: Amid horrifically bad handling of the coronavirus, Brazil’s Bolsonaro government now appears on the verge of political collapse.)
As of press time, Brazil has 101,147 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 7,025 deaths. However, public health experts estimate that the country’s actual coronavirus figures may be up to 20 times higher.
On top of all this, Bolsonaro has personally undermined and disregarded social distancing guidelines. He has met and mingled with supporters on multiple occasions and fired his minister disagreeing with his stance on the effectiveness of lockdowns, quarantines and social distancing.
Bolsonaro’s views that the lockdowns are “wrongheaded” have even led some Brazilian to flout the measures. Support for isolation measures is faltering all over Brazil, and as coronavirus denialism spreads, quarantine measures are falling apart.
In Brazil, far-right Bolsonaro is turning his coronavirus denial into media spectacles and inciting his supporters against journalists
A misunderstood visionary who strives hard to win for Brazil the #CoronavirusDarwinAward, but the competition is fiercepic.twitter.com/jrDaOcfVL7
— Alfons López Tena (@alfonslopeztena) May 2, 2020
Bolsonaro unlikely to change course
Despite the backlash, Bolsonaro is unlikely to change his approach to the outbreak. Currently, his administration is embroiled in several high-profile scandals, including accusations that his son Flavio, a senator, is involved in money laundering, as well as the resignation of his very popular justice minister, Sergio Moro.
All these scandals will likely distract Bolsonaro for weeks to come, leaving Brazilians without any federal government to provide them with aid to deal with the crisis.
Bolsonaro has even weaponized the current pandemic, using both the health crisis and growing political unrest to rally his supporters. He has attended more than one openly anti-democratic protest. In a rally held in April, pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators called for the dissolution of both the Supreme Court and the Brazilian Congress and a return to military-led, authoritarian rule.
Brazil-Bolsonaro supporters blocked the traffic on Paulista Av., São Paulo, to protest the quarantine imposed by the state government. During the protest, people were shouting that the coronavírus is just a “little flu” and that the economy cannot stop.pic.twitter.com/vlX3njHjck
— Nathália Urban (@UrbanNathalia) April 11, 2020
While political leaders have said that a military takeover of the country is highly unlikely due to the power held by Congress, the courts, the press and civil society, Bolsonaro’s participation in these rallies has still been seen as very irresponsible – not only does it undermine the legitimacy of the state, but it also exposes thousands of Brazilians to deadly contagion.
As Brazil’s president continues to ignore pleas from states – and even from his own administration – to take a tougher stance on the coronavirus, there’s no telling how many more of his citizens will become infected and possibly die on his watch.