Brazil has reached Covid-19 global epicenter status, but it is unlikely that President Jair Bolsonaro will change his denialist rhetoric on the importance of mask-wearing, social isolation, or lockdowns. It was hoped that following the re-emergence of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as a plausible 2022 presidential contender the president would soften his approach to the health crisis and attenuate his rage against governors, the media, and the pandemic itself. Hours after Lula’s first press conference on 10 March, the president appeared wearing a mask for the first time during the pandemic. Last weekend he seemed all set to replace General Eduardo Pazuello as health minister, which would seemingly complete a full volte face in his ways towards the Covid-19 tragedy.
That did not happen, however. After interviewing Ludmilla Hajjar, a prominent cardiologist who has been a staunch defender of masks, lockdowns, and vaccines, Bolsonaro gave in to his militant base on social media who strongly opposed her appointment to the ministry. Hajjar was reported to have suffered threats, including the invasion of her hotel room, and has since been driving an armored car along with her own private security. The president opted for another cardiologist, a supporter since the 2018 campaign days, Marcelo Quiroga, whose first public intervention was to say that he was going to follow the directives of “the popularly elected president.” Bolsonaro has since said that no country in the world is dealing well with the crisis and has questioned whether fast-growing ICU occupancies derive exclusively from Covid-19 cases.
The pandemic has never been so grave. Infections have reached more than 90,000 per day and the weekly variable death average has been increasing for the last 19 days, having overtaken the US. Deaths have been above 2,000 per day since 10 March and are expected to reach 3,000 before the end of the month. Twenty-four states and Brasilia, of twenty-seven federal units, have ICU occupancies above 80% and fifteen above 90% in the national health system (SUS). Only 5% of the population has been vaccinated but vaccines are already scarce. For the first time, lockdowns are being enforced through total movement control and the imposition of fines. Brazil’s situation should not improve until further vaccine imports and local production combine to decrease the pressure on containment measures – which is likely to be months away.
As for Bolsonaro, the episode of the change at the helm of the health ministry confirmed that the president continues to put ego before expediency as a way of governing – even in a national emergency. His rejection of Hajjar – who favors empirically demonstrable prevention measures against Covid-19 – was serious in its own right. The fact that Hajjar was publicly favored by new House Speaker Arthur Lira, the allied governor of Goias Ronaldo Caiado and Supreme Court judges Dias Toffoli and Gilmar Mendes, however, made the rejection politically unwise at a time when 54% of the population disapprove of Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic (six percentage points above the January mark). The pandemic will not stop haunting the president, but his bullheadedness is likely to produce a further meltdown in popularity before he reacts in his own best electoral interests.