Bolsonaro’s Behavior Amid a Pandemic is Appallingly Bad

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Issue 17, Volume 110

By Aya Alryyes 

A week ago, Brazil’s total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases surpassed Russia’s: the number is now second only to that of the United States. And the key word there is “confirmed”—in all likelihood, the actual number is much higher; Brazil tests at a rate 32 times lower than the United States does.

The favelas, Brazil’s slums, have been hit particularly hard. The virus has been spreading rampantly in these neighborhoods, as their residents lack access to basic sanitation and must keep going to work in order to keep food on the table.

It’s suffice to say that Brazil is in an awful state right now. One would expect Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, to be doing whatever possible to stop the steady rise and spread of coronavirus in Brazil. Yet consistently, all he has done has been to belittle the virus and downplay how bad Brazil’s current situation is. During a meeting with Bolsonaro, a reporter made a comment about how high the death toll was. His response, a sullen “So what? What do you want me to do?” is a perfect reflection of how comically bad his leadership has been during the coronavirus pandemic.

Bolsonaro’s “so what?” sparked outrage across Brazil, and rightly so. At a time when he should be stepping up and being the leader he supposedly is, his surliness and dismissiveness highlight his incredible detachment and lack of empathy. He calls the virus a “little flu” while bodies are being buried in mass graves just miles away.

His indifference is dangerous. Being that Bolsonaro has an enormous platform of supporters, his attitude has the potential to spread. Coronavirus must be taken seriously, and if anything less than all precautions are taken, Brazil will pay the price in lives.

But it goes further than insensitive comments. Bolsonaro has been engaged in active suppression of any attempts to put measures in place. Two weeks ago, he ordered salons and gyms nationwide to reopen, something with potentially disastrous consequences. Workers will be forced to go back to work, putting themselves, their families, and entire communities in danger; otherwise, they risk getting fired. Several governors have refused to comply with the order, for which Bolsonaro claims they will face legal action. It’s not only governors who have clashed with Bolsonaro over this incredibly poor judgment of an order. It led Nelson Teich, Brazil’s health minister, to resign, making him the second person to leave the post in under a month—his predecessor, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, was fired in April for encouraging Brazilians to follow social distancing rules. It’s beyond twisted that a president should punish statesmen simply for trying to prevent deaths.

At its core, Bolsonaro’s inaction is about preserving what is most important to him: the economy. His argument is that the damage to the economy from closing businesses is worse than the damage from coronavirus. But who is to take part in that economy if everyone is dead?

By some accounts, it goes even further than simple negligence. Solange Vieira, the leader of the Superintendence of Private Insurance, allegedly said, “It’s good that deaths are concentrated among the old. That will improve our economic performance, as it will reduce our pension deficit.” Two separate officials have corroborated her having made that statement. The unbelievable callousness in that statement should be appalling to absolutely everyone, regardless of whatever economic theory or political ideology one subscribes to. There is no excuse for this completely unabashed disregard for human life.

Of course, it is important to note that this specific opinion is not just Bolsonaro’s. It seems to be the consensus of his administration that there is no problem with sacrificing human lives in the name of the economy.

Bolsonaro has the privilege of being removed from any suffering. No one in his family is sick. João Doria, the governor of São Paulo, a city that has been hit particularly hard by the virus, has urged Bolsonaro to get out of his “Brasilia bubble” and to visit hospitals in which people are dying. Perhaps the sight of a child sobbing because of the death of his mother would make him change his tune, though after everything I have learned about him, I doubt anything can give him the human ability to understand and share the pain of others.

It is my sincerest wish that Bolsonaro emerges from this virus internationally disgraced and discredited. His behavior has been negligent to the point of criminality. Miriam Leitao, an established op-ed writer at O Globo, one of Brazil’s biggest newspapers, put it best: "Anyone who shows such contempt for his own people can no longer be president."

It is important not to forget that Bolsonaro’s incompetence reflects poorly on him, not on Brazil as a whole. Some state leaders have quietly resisted his orders, making the autonomous decision to enforce lockdowns. Those states, unsurprisingly, have some of the lowest coronavirus rates in the country. As Renata Alves, a healthcare volunteer with the G10 Favela aid group, so succinctly put it when asked about Bolsonaro’s “little flu” comment: “Irrelevant.” No matter what Bolsonaro says, brave healthcare workers and private benefactors will continue to give anything and everything to save lives. Because that’s what humans do.