As the coronavirus pandemic tightened its grip in Brazil early last week, with confirmed cases already numbering in the hundreds, leading officials met to plot out measures to combat the crisis. The lower house speaker, the president of the Senate, the minister of health and even the chief justice were there. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, was not.
“This is not all that people are saying,” he told reporters that day, referring to the deadly virus. “Even in China, it’s practically over.”
Now, less than a month after the coronavirus arrived here, with the country reporting more than 1,000 cases and double-digit deaths, the president is still struggling to adopt an air of urgency. As a consequence, the political establishment seems to be taking steps to isolate Bolsonaro.
“We will vote on the issues that Brazil needs not because of the president, but despite the president,” said Sen. Sergio Olimpio, a Bolsonaro ally who has grown estranged from the president in recent months.
Bolsonaro rose to power in the 2018 election as a far-right candidate, attracting Brazilians tired of being ruled by the leftist Workers’ Party, which had lifted millions out of poverty but also had been embroiled in a massive corruption scandal.
Many hoped the weight of the presidency would moderate Bolsonaro’s divisive visage. But, after more than a year in office, the list of his political enemies keeps growing. And, even as the country looks for leadership to fight the pandemic, many have ceased to believe the president has it in him to unite Brazil.
“Leaving him talking to himself is the best option,” an editorial in Brazil’s largest newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo, said Saturday.
The last straw for some came on March 15, when Bolsonaro joined a controversial demonstration called by his supporters. During that rally, according to a count by local news media, Bolsonaro touched 272 people.
His behavior seemed particularly shocking because more than 20 officials whom he had had contact with in previous days had tested positive for the coronavirus, including two ministers. The president said his own tests came back negative twice, but he has so far refused to share his results with the media.
A day after the demonstration, Janaina Paschoal, a state congresswoman in Sao Paulo who had campaigned with Bolsonaro in 2018, voiced her shock at the president’s attitude.
“I regret my vote,” she said. “The authorities have to unite and ask him to step down.”
In an interview, Paschoal backtracked from that request, saying officials have to concentrate on the crisis and not on toppling the government. But several other conservatives have also voiced their dissatisfaction in recent days — and not just because of his reaction to the pandemic.
So far the president has failed to lift Brazil’s economy, a major campaign pledge in a country that has struggled economically for the last five years. In 2019, the economy grew only 1.1%, and the Brazilian real is among the worst-performing currencies this year.
Bolsonaro has also been criticized for attacking the Supreme Court, which has refused to provide legal backing for some of his measures, and he also has often blamed Congress for his administration’s meager achievements.
Two weeks ago, Francisco Razzo, a popular conservative author, publicly announced regret and shame for having voted for Bolsonaro.
“It’s increasingly explicit that his interest is to attack institutions, to govern like populists do,” he said. “He is interested in power and in identifying and attacking enemies.”
Perhaps none of Bolsonaro’s feuds are more dramatic than the ones he has had with the governors of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the two states worst hit thus far by the pandemic. Both governors campaigned with Bolsonaro in 2018, but now have an eye on the 2022 presidential campaign.
During the last week, the president has given a number of interviews criticizing their decisions to close schools and restrict transportation to combat the coronavirus.
“We are doing what he isn’t, which is to lead the process, lead the fight against the coronavirus, not minimize it,” said Sao Paulo Gov. Joao Doria.
As the number of coronavirus cases has multiplied, congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, one of the president’s three sons, took to Twitter to blame China, the country’s most important trading partner. The Chinese ambassador to Brazil demanded an apology and tweeted that the congressman seemed to have a “mental virus” that was “infecting the friendship” between the two countries.
President Bolsonaro tried to make amends by calling Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, who didn’t answer, according to the newspaper Valor Economico. The Chinese wanted a formal apology from the president’s son.
As many give up on the president for leadership, the medical crisis mounts. Minister of Health Luiz Mandetta said recently that if the government is unable to curb transmission, the country’s health system would collapse by the end of April.
Kept from gathering in the streets, Brazilians have protested against the president by banging pots and pans by their windows for four consecutive days. At the same time, opposition forces have no plans to attempt ousting the president, for fear of making the crisis even worse.
Congressman Alessandro Molon, an opposition leader, said his colleagues’ energy is concentrated on fighting the public health crisis and the economic fallout.
“The president is the only one who hasn’t understood that it’s time to join efforts, to unite,” Molon said. “But if he continues to act irresponsibly, the people will push [for his removal], regardless of Congress’ wishes.”
As Bolsonaro’s troubles increase, conservatives and leftists have begun speaking the same language for the first time in years. On Friday, many stood by their windows to applaud health workers, instead of decrying the president.
“These tragedies always make us remember the values that root our society,” said Razzo, the conservative author, “regardless of what the president does.”
Andreoni is a special correspondent.