The World

Could the Coronavirus Topple Jair Bolsonaro?

Brazilians aren’t singing songs from their balconies. They’re protesting against their president.

Bolsonaro speaks. An aide behind him wears a surgical mask.
President Jair Bolsonaro speaks to the press in Brasília, Brazil, on Friday. Evaristo Sa/Getty Images

In the past week, moving videos of quarantined Italians on rooftops and balconies singing popular tunes like “Volare” and resistance songs like “Bella Ciao” have made their way across the world. Meanwhile, Brazilians in self-quarantine are also taking to balconies and windows, but instead of playing violins and guitars, they are banging on pots and pans over shouts of “Bolsonaro out!”

This form of pot-banging protest dubbed “panelaço,” while fitting to times of a pandemic, is not new to Brazilians. It was the right’s favorite display of discontent with former President Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached in 2016, and her deeply unpopular successor, Michel Temer. That the far-right President Jair Bolsonaro is now the object of such demonstrations suggests a changing tide—and the coronavirus has everything to do with it.

Last Sunday, Bolsonaro sparked outrage for supporting and encouraging demonstrators to take part in pro-government protests against Congress and the Supreme Court over an ongoing budget dispute. This contradicted his message from just days earlier, when he instructed supporters to stay away. Ignoring recommendations from health agencies, the president shook hands and took selfies with an estimated 272 people in the capital that day. 

He did all this after having been in isolation following a trip to the United States to meet President Donald Trump after which members of his entourage were confirmed to be infected. (Bolsonaro says he has been tested twice, and both tests came back negative.)

“We can’t buy into this neurosis as if it were the end of the world,” Bolsonaro said in an interview to the newly launched CNN affiliate after the protest, speculating that there was an economic incentive to create what he called “hysteria.” In the following days, Bolsonaro said that if he got infected, it was only his responsibility and criticized governors for adopting restrictive measures like limiting public transportation that would hurt the economy.

The Brazilian government has been harshly criticized for its handling of the crisis. While most world leaders have responded to the escalating number of cases and surging death toll by imposing restrictive measures such as closing borders, schools, and restaurants, Bolsonaro seems to be in denial, at least until very recently. In his speech, the president has often minimized the gravity of the pandemic, calling it a fantasy and a media fabrication and comparing it to the flu. He has also compared it to a pregnancy, saying it would eventually pass. His prominent supporter and popular evangelical leader Edir Macedo referred to the coronavirus as a “tactic of Satan” to spread fear. The president’s son, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, recently alluded to the crisis being a Chinese conspiracy, prompting a less than friendly response from the Chinese Embassy.

Brazil currently has 621 confirmed and more than 11,200 suspected cases, with at least seven deaths—far more than other South American countries like Argentina and Colombia that were ahead at taking steps to help “flatten the curve.” At first, Bolsonaro, who recently skipped a teleconference meeting with other leaders to coordinate response efforts in the region, had only moved to partially shut the country’s borders with Venezuela, but has since broadened the restrictions. Until mid-March, while many U.S. cities were closing schools, restaurants, and bars, Brazilians, receiving conflicting messages from the government, continued to crowd beaches in Rio.

Almost 46,000 tests have been conducted through Brazil’s Unified Health System, according to the Ministry of Health. In states like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro that registered community transmission cases, only patients with symptoms requiring hospitalization are being tested in the public system. According to the health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, numbers will continue to grow through June, raising particular concerns about the residents of favelas, who lack basic services and live in cramped spaces.

As cases spike exponentially nationwide, comparisons to Italy are becoming more frequent, and as more members of Bolsonaro’s inner circle get sick, reality seems to be sinking in. Five days after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, the federal government created a crisis committee to monitor the situation in Brazil. The economy minister, Paulo Guedes, also announced a plan to reduce the impact of the pandemic, including about US$3 billion in financial aid to informal and autonomous workers. And this Wednesday, Bolsonaro sent a request to Congress to declare a state of public calamity, a measure to increase public spending that would be valid through December.

The three-day “panelaço” demonstrations, however, signal that it might be too late to reverse a blow to Bolsonaro’s popularity and support, which was already looking shaky. The president has been arm-wrestling with the legislative branch over the control of roughly $3.4 billion in discretionary spending in the federal budget. On Sunday, protesters wore masks comparing congressmen to viruses and carried signs that said “corruption kills more than coronavirus.” Others called for military intervention.

For critics of the government, the protests were just another smoke screen to divert attention from a plunging economy—the Brazilian real has reached a record low of 5 per U.S. dollar, and projections for GDP growth have gone from 2.4 to 2.1 percent, with some anticipating a recession—and resurfacing allegations of Bolsonaro’s family’s involvement with militia groups, which the president denies. “Bolsonaro is desperately testing the resilience of his political base. As support for his policies in Congress ebbs and the economy tanks, expect to see more outrageous behaviour to fuel that base,” Matías Spektor, an analyst with the Getúlio Vargas Foundation told the Financial Times.

Members of Congress have criticized Bolsonaro for attacking the country’s democratic institutions and exposing the population to the threat of the coronavirus. Brazil’s lower house speaker, Rodrigo Maia, characterized Bolsonaro’s participation in the protests as an attack against public health, and the president of the Senate, Davi Alcolumbre, who tested positive for the coronavirus, called it irresponsible.

Even former allies and high-profile strategists behind the impeachment proceedings against Dilma Rousseff have spoken out against the president. “I regret my vote,” state Rep. Janaina Paschoal, who was once considered for the vice presidency, said in a speech at the São Paulo Legislative Assembly. “How does a man who is possibly infected join the crowds? […] Is he kidding? Does he think he can do anything? The authorities have to join forces and ask him to step down. We don’t have time for impeachment proceedings.” Júnior Bozzella, a congressman and former Bolsonaro supporter, called out the president for breach of decorum and said his irresponsibility borders on insanity, according to the conservative newspaper Estado de S. Paulo. This week, the House of Representatives received an impeachment request against Bolsonaro on the basis that the president committed a crime of responsibility in, among other claims, supporting and calling for demonstrations amid the pandemic and stating without evidence that the elections were fraudulent.

Political pundits are talking about an inevitable political isolation. And even the more conservative ones are having a hard time exempting the president. The longtime O Globo commentator Merval Pereira wrote that Bolsonaro “may have somehow interrupted his presidential term due to absolute incapacity, not only in terms of management, but psychology.” He went on: “A president elected by popular vote erodes his legitimacy whenever he shows that he has no moral or psychological conditions to fulfill the role for which he was chosen.”

Ahead of yet another round of “panelaço” protests on Wednesday evening, Bolsonaro urged his supporters to join a different one in his favor. The hashtags #ForaBolsonaro and #PanelaçoProBolsonaro reached the trending topics on Twitter in Brazil. Throughout the day, Bolsonaro adopted a more conciliatory discourse, talking about harmony among the executive, judiciary, and legislative branches to fight the pandemic. The narrative, however, was somewhat undermined by the president and his ministers’ demonstration of how not to wear a face mask—they kept taking it off, and Bolsonaro even left his hanging from one ear before putting it on the table. Bolsonaro also said that people shouldn’t be surprised if he was seen taking the bus or the subway—a sign that he stands by his people “in joy and in sorrow.” He had also already suggested that he wouldn’t cancel his upcoming birthday celebration. The question is whether anyone will want to join him.