Bolsonaro’s Brazil: a win or lose for populism?

Brazil is one of the countries hit hardest by Covid-19. With a rising death toll currently surpassing 160,000, the lessons to be learnt from the country’s handling of the pandemic is few and far between and all lie exclusively in the category of what not to do.

The right-wing President, Jair Bolsonaro, has repeatedly ignored international advice and defied what have now become global norms; taking a more than relaxed stance in his response to the virus.

Bolsonaro’s tenure hasn’t been without a fair amount of criticism even prior to the pandemic. Elected in 2019, his populist campaign secured him with 55.1% of the popular vote. However, his right-wing ideological stance has been met with backlash from both citizens and the international community alike. 

Now, with deaths figures in Brazil outperforming much of the rest of the world, this criticism has (rightly) intensified across the board. Bolsonaro has continued to denounce and deny the severity of Covid-19. Whilst countries across the globe were locking down, stockpiling medical provisions and preparing for the worst, Jair Bolsonaro was reducing the deadliest disease for generations to the “sniffles”.

The President even went as far as to fire his Minister for Health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, for disagreements over the need to introduce social distancing. He seemed to have no qualms about eliminating any voice of opposition from within his party: he was adamant that his anti-coronavirus rhetoric would prevail. 

Playing into his already established misogynistic discourse Bolsonaro stated that “We (the Brazilian people) now have to face it like a man”, adding that “we will all die one day”. His attitude towards a virus that has killed nearly 1.5 million people worldwide, was staggering to the international community. It was as if he was vying against his northern counterpart, Donald Trump, for the crown of most laissez-faire approach to the pandemic.

Unsurprisingly, as Brazil’s death toll rose, Bolsonaro’s popularity rating plummeted. In a country already struggling with widespread poverty and inequality, added economic uncertainty – made worse by the President’s handling of the pandemic –  was the last thing its already vulnerable citizens needed. It is not only the senseless loss of human life that the Brazilian population are reeling from, but they are also being knocked down again by needlessly severe economic damage, that will place Brazil behind the remainder of the rest of the world in terms of monetary recovery.

However, despite Jair Bolsonaro’s catastrophic and devastating mishandling of the pandemic, he has recently seen his popularity ratings recover, much to the shock of the outside world. Bolsonaro’s rankings have seen their most dramatic turn in Brazil’s North-East region, an area that was once fiercely leftist.

But why is this? And how has such a controversial and divisive character managed to unite a population when his legacy has caused them so much harm?

Bolsonaro has capitalised on the country’s precarious economic position, and by garnering support from the vulnerable rural population through Covid-19 handouts. Implementing this scheme at a point in time when many of the citizens were reaching a crisis point, Bolsonaro has managed to change the country’s perception of him. He has gone from sinner to saviour.

Coupled with the generous cash handouts, the President has also focused his efforts more broadly on the North-East region, promising to complete unfinished and long-overdue infrastructural projects. One such project involves a large-scale plan to bring water to over 12 million people in the region. By coming through with these promises at a time where all hope was nearly lost, Bolsonaro has managed to champion himself as a ‘rescuer’ of the people.

It is undeniably positive that these forgotten citizens are now getting the basic provisions they deserve. However, the strategic nature of this implementation has come at the expense of revitalised for the racist, homophobic and sexist President.

It comes down to a toss-up between the motivations behind the provision of these services, and the benefits the country’s citizens will receive as a result. Will the long-term harm of continued support for Bolsonaro be more or less damaging then the lack of short-term economic bailouts coupled with infrastructural projects?

There is a real possibility that these seemingly positive policies are simply a guise to make people forget about the horrific loss of life by at Bolsonaro: a Covid-19 destruction cover-up. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the President has constructed a ‘win-win’ situation for himself, whereby he has (re)gained the support of his people, but stuck to his destructive Covid-agenda, with seemingly few political consequences.

However, does a victory for President Jair Bolsonaro, constitute yet another loss for the people of Brazil?

Image credit: Sergio Souza via Unsplash

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