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'A little flu': Brazil's Bolsonaro playing down coronavirus crisis

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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has criticized some state governors for imposing lockdown measures
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has criticized some state governors for imposing lockdown measures   -   Copyright  Andre Borges/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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While half of the world’s population remains on lockdown, Jair Bolsonaro is advocating for Brazilians to go back to work.

Just like the rest of the world, the country has registered thousands of cases of COVID-19, and the number of deaths is on the rise.

With a faulty public healthcare system, the country could be hit hard by coronavirus.

But Bolsonaro, Brazil's president, has consistently downplayed the crisis, saying the new coronavirus is nothing but a "little flu" that has to be faced “realistically”.

“That's life," he said. "We're all going to die someday."

The far-right leader condemns social distancing measures on the grounds they will wreck the economy and lead to “misery, hunger and chaos" and has called state governors issuing lockdowns, “job-killers”.

Now he’s warning he could issue a decree to force business to reopen next week.

'Will people die? People will die'

In the past week, Bolsonaro did acknowledge the virus was responsible for a serious disease – saying “will people die? People will die”.

But that’s how far he was willing to step back: unemployment and poverty also kill, he added.

"We have a mission: to save lives without leaving jobs behind," Bolsonaro said in one of his recent television speeches.

"On the one hand, we must be cautious and cautious with everyone, especially with the elderly and those with pre-existing diseases.

"On the other hand, we must combat unemployment, which is growing rapidly, especially among the poorest."

But not everyone in the country agrees – state governors and city mayors have, for the most part, followed recommendations to lockdown.

And many criticise the president’s position.

"There is no leadership. President Jair Bolsonaro is not leading Brazil at such a serious and difficult time,” said Joao Doria, governor of the state of Sao Paulo, who believes the president is “acting as an army captain who has no knowledge, no scientific experience in health or public health, who works according to what he thinks, on assumptions, and personal desires on a subject very serious because it has to do with people's lives".

Doria said that "no governor will accept President Jair Bolsonaro's recommendation not to isolate or interrupt the isolation. All governors understand that the measure is necessary and that the coronavirus crisis is serious."

'Unprecedented political war'

Bolsonaro's – and his supporters' – preferred response to the pandemic is "vertical isolation": confining those at highest risk and letting the rest of society get on with life.

But experts cautioned against this approach.

"Isolating only the elderly and leaving out the rest, without knowing how the virus is behaving and spreading in Brazil, is not the right approach," according to infectious disease specialist Eliana Bicudo.

"We don't know if the virus will spread slower among the young in Brazil. They might get infected more and die at higher rates. We would have to test a large proportion of the population to be able to infer anything about it."

For Bolsonaro supporters, however, what’s happening in Brazil has very little to do with medicine or science.

“We’re facing an unprecedented political war,” explains Carina Belome Lemes, a former public service worker whose (five) Facebook profiles all feature photos of her with Bolsonaro logos or messages such as “Bolsonaro: for real change in Brazil”.

“Just like the president said, he’s not going to dictate the rules, he’s going to adopt measures and each state governor and municipal authority must do their part. He is trying… but we’re asking too much from only one person.”

Lemes says “horizontal (total) isolation doesn’t work for a population like ours that works during in the morning and afternoon to eat at night” and says what’s behind the strategy is a dark plan (she didn’t mention by whom) to spread socialism: “They are using this pandemic to bring about socialist measures... the people stop their activities, stay at home, don’t kiss, don’t hug, don’t leave your house, don’t work, take the government pack and figure it out”.

Euronews asked whether her theory also applied to the United States – a country that doesn’t seem to have socialist aspirations – where similar measures were being adopted. Was Donald Trump that easy to fool?

“The United States has an abysmal per capita income in relation to Brazil," she responded. "It doesn’t compare,” she

She didn’t go any further in answering the question. Instead she suggested thinking about another theory.

“Why is this happening now?" she asked. "Why are authorities uniting against the president that is alerting that the economy will collapse?”

For Lemes, ‘they’ (other political authorities who don’t agree with Bolsonaro) simply want his downfall.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
“Today, we don't have enough hospitals for everyone” Marcelo Crivella, mayor of Rio de Janeiro.Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.Leo Correa

Bolsonaro’s method

“There’s a lot of confusion, but this confusion has a method,” said Marcio Coimbra, who has known Bolsonaro for years and was a member of his government.

“He (Bolsonaro) is using this as a strategy to sell himself to two very different sides of the political spectrum,” he said.

Even before this crisis hit “Bolsonaro acted through populist mechanisms. Instead of creating a basis in congress to approve measures, what does he do? He says ‘we need motorcades in the country’ to put pressure on the congress to approve his projects. He doesn’t work in an institutional and constitutional manner.”

“Now he knows his government ends if the economy collapses. And so he is using the economy to say he’s by the people’s side. Like that he creates a direct connection to the people. So while he maintains the health ministry taking all measures and communicating with state governments adopting social distancing measures etc, just like in all other countries, he also acts as a populist leader. He’s trying to cover both sides of opinion.”

Coimbra also explained this is part of a strategy to feed a debate which invariably revolves around the president and is more polarised than ever before:

“Those who are anti-Bolsonaro, are in favor of social distancing rules etc and identity in this group. But if you support Bolsonaro, you must talk about the economy and jobs that will be lost etc. Political divisions now involve a different vision of the facts - and of the consequences of this crisis. Sensible people, doctors for example, who should be speaking in favour of confinement, if they support Bolsonaro they will talk about the economy and say this disease is not all that serious. So politics are mixed with science. It’s quite sad and reveals the very low level of the political debate in Brazil today.”