Bolsonaro’s War on the War on the Coronavirus

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. Photo: Andre Borges/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For the last few weeks Brazilians have had to watch a torturous soap opera, starring two politicians bickering endlessly as a deadly pandemic spreads across the country. One protagonist was the most right-wing major leader in the democratic world, and now perhaps the loudest coronavirus skeptic on the planet. His nemesis was another crusading conservative, but one that believes in science and had gained the confidence of the country by taking COVID-19 seriously. It finally came to an end on Thursday, when President Jair Bolsonaro fired his health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, plunging the government into another crisis.

Around the country, citizens took to their porches and balconies to bang pots and pans in protest of Bolsonaro, as they have almost every single day since he began encouraging his supporters to flout social-distancing rules, imposed by governors and other officials, last month. An important Senate leader in his government resigned, calling the president’s decision “absurd.” The new health minister, Nelson Teich, will have to learn how to run one of the world’s largest public-health systems overnight, and somehow deal with the chaotic Bolsonaro as well.

“Medically speaking, Brazil is more or less in the same situation that the United States was three to four weeks ago, which means that a lot of people have the virus but do not know it yet,” says Paulo Buss, director of Global Health at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a leading scientific institute in Rio de Janeiro. There are 30,000 officially registered cases in the country, but Buss believes there may be eight to 12 times that many infected Brazilians. “Because of the poverty and desperate living conditions affecting so many Brazilians, we face serious risks that the United States does not. If the new minister gives in to pressure from the president, who has been an entirely uninformed and irresponsible leader, we could see an explosion of infections.”

Like many extreme-right leaders throughout history, Bolsonaro is constantly in conflict with somebody. His movement cannot survive without an enemy, analysts and insiders say. Before the virus arrived in the country, he was at war with Congress and the Supreme Court, which have acted as independent centers of power and checked his influence. His son, congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, has threatened that both could be shut down. As former allies in populated states like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro began to implement flatten-the-curve precautions, ordering nonessential businesses closed and asking citizens to stay at home, Bolsonaro turned his ire — and tweets — on those governors, minimizing the pandemic and claiming that social-distancing measures would do more harm than good.

Then Mandetta, a member of his own cabinet, became the enemy of the day. As a congressman, he was part of an ultimately successful campaign to expel Cuban doctors from the country, and voted to impeach the center-left president Dilma Rousseff. A medical doctor, his approach to the virus began to diverge visibly from the president’s rhetoric and actions. Mandetta told the country to avoid crowds and physical contact, but Bolsonaro made a habit of going out for strolls, greeting and touching throngs of supporters, seemingly to prove that he can. They began sniping at each other in the press, with both of them predicting that Mandetta would be fired, leaving the country without a clear plan as the spat dragged on. The last straw was probably his appearance on primetime TV last Sunday, when he criticized Bolsonaro and said that Brazilians didn’t know “if they should listen to the health minister, or to the president.”

So far, approximately 2,000 Brazilians have died from the virus, though cause has not yet been established for every recent death. Gleisi Hoffman, leader of the left-leaning Workers’ Party — still the largest party in Congress — said that “Bolsonaro is playing with people’s lives.”

Mandetta did not just butt heads with Bolsonaro. He also became more popular. According to a recent poll, 76 percent of the country approved of the way he was doing his job, while only 33 percent support the way the president is handling the pandemic. That very popularity may have been another reason for his dismissal, says Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University.

“Bolsonaro is a very insecure leader,” Santoro said. “He feels he is under pressure, and he always feels there is betrayal and enemies all around him.” Bolsonaro himself said last month that he could fire people that “become stars” or “are full of themselves.”

There is a hard core of committed Bolsonaristas who are never likely to abandon the president, but Bolsonaro also made a set of alliances — with the business class, with the military hierarchy, with more moderate forces in Congress — that will be tested by the public-health and economic crisis facing the country. In theory, Bolsonaro could eventually be impeached like Rousseff, or simply end up isolated, tweeting with his sons in the presidential palace as other branches of government actually run the country. But it is also true that the Bolsonaro family has often bet on escalating conflict with the political Establishment, and have usually come out the winners.

After Mandetta left the office, Bolsonaro immediately went to battle with different enemies. Without offering proof, he accused congressional leader Rodrigo Maia and São Paulo governor João Dória of a secret plot to remove him from power.

Bolsonaro’s War on the War on the Coronavirus