By Isabel Baldwin
SINCE the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic Brazil has suffered almost 5 million cases and 150,000 deaths, the second highest number after the USA.
The economy has plummeted into a recession and millions have faced job losses.
Yet, its President, Jair Bolsonaro, has consistently downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic since the virus hit the nation.
Surprisingly, this dismissive stance, which has arguably allowed Covid to wreak havoc throughout Brazil, has helped rather than hindered Bolsonaro’s popularity.
In fact, the President’s approval rating is currently the highest since he took office in early 2019.
Whilst other political leaders have struggled to keep their heads above the water, how has the President of a nation that has suffered one of the worst pandemic tolls not only emerged unscathed, but politically empowered?
The biggest explanation for Bolsonaro’s survival is his boom in popularity amongst the poor.
Similarly, to British Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s attempt to rescue the economy and aid workers through the government’s furlough scheme, Bolsonaro implemented an emergency coronavirus payout scheme.
In a complete U-turn from the President’s extremely conservative economic view in favour of austerity, the scheme provided emergency handouts for lost salaries.
The welfare programme has provided 66 million people, around 30 per cent of the population, with financial support of 600 reais per month, the equivalent of £84; a substantial amount even higher than some recipients would normally receive in income.
The handouts struck a chord amongst the poorest of Brazilian society, particularly those of the northeastern regions, traditionally political strongholds for the Brazilian Workers’ Party and Bolsonaro’s rival on the left.
Since the introduction of the relief, the President’s negative ratings in this area have dropped to 35 per cent from 52 per cent and voters could influence his re-election chances in 2022.
The surge in popularity is all good and well for the Brazilian leader in the short term, but Bolsonaro will be looking to sustain it in the long run with the chance of re-election still two years away.
That is perhaps the motive behind his decision to extend the pay-outs until the end of the year and finance minister Paulo Guedes’ suggestion to evolve the coronavirus relief scheme into a permanent basic income programme called Renda Brasil (Brazil Income), which would unite several existing cash transfer programmes into one expanded monthly payment.
Although the scheme has helped Brazil endure a lesser economic fallout than originally forecast, the country is still in meltdown.
Unemployment soared to 12.9, the highest in two years with 8.9 million people out of work and numbers expected to continue increasing.
Furthermore, the payout scheme and other financial aid provided by the government to stop the economy haemorrhaging have caused the budget deficit to soar to $180 billion, 13.7 per cent of GDP.
Whist Bolsonaro’s emergency economic relief may look good on paper for now, Brazil will undoubtedly suffer a dire economic blow from its attempts to survive Covid-19.
Whether it be in a few months, next year or election year, the President will have to adapt to find new measures to support the post-pandemic economy or face losing his newfound support amongst the poor.
Following in the footsteps of his political cousin, Donald Trump, Bolsonaro rejected social distancing and lockdown measures, even referring to the global pandemic as a “sniffle”.
The President regularly attended rallies and conferences without a mask, side lined medical and science experts replacing them with military personnel, took doses of Hydroxychloroquine Sulfate and pushed back against state governors’ desires to implement tighter lockdown restrictions.
Confusingly, these actions once again proved popular amongst Brazil’s working-class, rather than earning Bolsonaro the blame for the world’s second-worst coronavirus outbreak.
The Trump of the tropics’ opposition to quarantine measures has appealed to workers in service jobs, which make up around 40 per cent of the country’s labour market. When first implemented, lockdown restrictions dealt a devastating financial blow to those who could not work from home.
By supporting the reopening of the economy through the easing of restrictions on the country, Bolsonaro secured the support of these workers.
Furthermore, through his dismissive stance on the virus, the former military officer has managed to distance himself from any responsibility relating to the disease.
Whilst it seems unconventional for a world leader to remove themself from the role of leading their country through a crisis, Bolsonaro has politically benefitted from the tactic.
By doing so, the state governors have been in control of the implementation of drastic restrictions, and therefore take the blame for any negative economic or social consequences, whilst Bolsonaro escapes unscathed.
In skirting past the Covid crisis President has not only boosted new approval but also maintained the support that elected him to office. Throughout the pandemic, Bolsonaro has remained focused on the issues that got him elected; namely crime, the economy and culture wars.
He has successfully managed to avoid addressing the challenges and queries on his leadership through Covid-19 and stuck to his tried and tested topics, and in doing so has kept his existing support base loyal and engaged.
Additionally, backed by his authority as a Covid-19 survivor back in July, Bolsonaro’s denial strategy has weathered Brazil’s Coronavirus storm – a fact his US equivalent is no doubt paying attention to following his diagnosis last week.
Initially, upon contracting virus Bolsonaro’s popularity ratings plummeted to the high 20s and his disapproval ratings soared to almost 50 per cent, piercing his strongman persona and exposing his reckless views on the virus.
However, his own predictions that should he fall victim to the virus his history as an athlete would allow him to make a swift recovery were fulfilled.
This recovery provided him the supposed evidence he need to defend his claim that the virus was not as deadly as it had been made out to be.
Therefore, Bolsonaro recovered his health and his politics– an opportunity Trump has also wasted no time capitalising on following his release from hospital.
In other political aspects, the virus has proven to be a blessing. The crisis has served as an opportune distraction from other political scandals that spell more of a threat to his presidency than his inept response to the pandemic.
With his wife and son at the centre of graft investigations into payments of $16,000 from a former aide, Bolsonaro was facing one of his biggest personal and political liabilities. However, the outbreak of the pandemic lifted the focus from the scandal and the pressure off the Bolsonaros.
Not only has the pandemic stolen the attention of the Brazilian people away from the possible corruption of Bolsonaro’s presidency, but it has also rocketed his approval ratings to 40 per cent – a number which history suggests will help him fend off impeachment.
By rejecting any measures to combat the impact of the virus from a medical and social security standpoint, it was hard to see how Bolsonaro could ever politically survive the pandemic crisis.
Instead it seems to have offered the President a lifeline. At least in the short term. Only the economic consequences and final numbers of deaths and cases will tell how bright the light at the end of the Coronavirus tunnel is for Jair Bolsonaro.
Polling data source here.
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Featured Image: J. Batista/Câmara dos Deputados @WikimediaCommons
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