Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, the World’s Most Powerful Coronavirus Denier, Just Fired the Health Minister Who Disagreed With Him

It’s becoming more and more obvious who the world’s worst leader in the fight against coronavirus is.

BRASILIA, BRAZIL - MARCH 20: Jair Bolsonaro President of Brazil takes off his protective mask to speak to journalists during a press conference about outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID - 19) at the Planalto Palace on March 20, 2020 in Brasilia, Brazil. (Photo by Andressa Anholete/Getty Images)
Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil, takes off his protective mask to speak to journalists during a press conference about outbreak of the coronavirus at the Planalto Palace on March 20, 2020 in Brasília, Brazil. Photo: Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

Brazilians “don’t know if they should listen to the health minister or if they should listen to the president,” said Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta in an interview with TV Globo on Sunday, referring to far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, one of the world’s leading coronavirus deniers.

Mandetta had repeatedly advocated a science-based approach that includes social-distancing measures and quarantines, as well as shutting down much of Brazil. The positions weren’t in accord with Bolsonaro’s. On the same day Mandetta said that the worst is yet to come and that the coronavirus peak should hit in May and June, Bolsonaro told religious leaders, “It seems like this issue of the virus is starting to go away.”

Bolsonaro has gone out of his way to make highly publicized visits to supermarkets and bakeries, shaking hands and taking selfies without gloves or a mask. “Due to my history as an athlete, if I was infected by the virus, I wouldn’t have to worry,” said the 65-year-old Bolsonaro in a nationally televised address late last month. He has repeatedly referred to Covid-19 as “a little cold.”

Bolsonaro’s health minister has become the most prominent public voice to contradict the president’s full-throated denialism, but Mandetta speaks for an overwhelming majority of governors and health experts, as well as the public. In a recent survey, 76 percent of respondents approved of the health minister’s handling of the crisis, compared to 39 percent for Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro, however, found a tidy solution to this problem: Fire the health minister. Bolsonaro chafed at having to share the spotlight with a subordinate who openly disagreed with his statements and had repeatedly threatened to remove the minister from his role. On Thursday, Mandetta was out.

It’s not clear that Bolsonaro’s new health minister will be any better for the far-right president. On Thursday afternoon, Bolsonaro replaced Mandetta with Nelson Teich, an oncologist and health care executive who apparently also does not share the president’s vision of how to handle the crisis. In recently published articles, Teich has endorsed wide-scale social isolation measures and lamented the polarized nature of the debate. Teich wrote, “It is as if there is a group focused on people and health and another on the market, companies and money, but this divided, antagonistic and perhaps radical approach is not the one that will most help society to get through this problem.”

Teich, however, also knows that the way to Bolsonaro’s heart is flattery, and the incoming health minister has not come up short in this regard. In an essay published on April 2, Teich wrote, “Fortunately, despite all the problems, the handling [of the coronavirus crisis] has been perfect so far.”

Quarantine and Health Systems Breaking Down

With Bolsonaro burrowing his head deeper into the sand, facts on the ground continue to grow more dire. According to official statistics, 30,425 Brazilians have been diagnosed with the coronavirus and 1,924 have died from the disease, but those numbers grossly underrepresent the true likely tolls. Rio Health Secretary Edmar Santos has said that for every case reported, there are likely another 50 to 100 infected people who have not been tested. Mandetta has also acknowledged that the official statistics undercount total deaths from the disease.

Tests have been in woefully short supply and even those who are lucky enough to get tested face long waits for results, as the laboratory backlogs pile up. The Health Ministry does not know how many tests have been administered nationwide.

In São Paulo, the wealthiest and largest metropolis in the country, 62 percent of public health workers did not have access to personal protective equipment, known as PPE, according to a study reviewed exclusively by The Intercept.

Other regions are even worse off. Half of Amazonas state’s 4 million people live in the capital city of Manaus, a blip of concrete and asphalt in the middle of the endless Amazon rainforest. In a state nearly as big as Alaska, where most long-distance travel is by boat, every single one of the 293 intensive care unit beds is located in the capital; 95 percent of them were already full as of last Monday. As of Wednesday, the state had 1,554 confirmed cases and 106 confirmed deaths, including on isolated Indigenous reserves.

This March, Brazil registered 2,239 more deaths due to respiratory failure and pneumonia than in the year before, many of which, specialists believe, are likely unconfirmed Covid-19 victims. More than 41,000 Brazilians were hospitalized as of Tuesday for Covid-19 or suspected or undetermined SARS cases, only 15 percent of which were diagnosed as Covid-19. A recent study projected that Brazil’s universal public health service needs more than 40,000 additional ICU beds to deal with the crisis, a 273 percent increase over its current capacity.

The crisis is also reaching high into Brazil’s power structures. The governors of Rio de Janeiro and Pará, a northern state that borders Amazonas, both announced on Tuesday that they have tested positive for Covid-19. Almost two dozen people who traveled with Bolsonaro to the United States last month, included top aides, contracted the disease as well. The president claimed he tested negative but would not publish his results.

Despite these terrifying indicators of a growing health crisis, quarantine measures have not been strictly adhered to across the nation of 211 million. Cellphone data showed that 41 percent of São Paulo’s population did not isolate at home over the Easter holiday weekend.

In every major city studied, researchers found that only 53 percent of people nationwide had stayed at home in the first days of April, a 2 to 3 percent decrease compared to mid- to late-March, when social-distancing measures were first put in place in most areas.

The Bolsonaro Effect

Bolsonaro has repeatedly attempted to undermine quarantine efforts. He tried to invalidate parts of various governors’ quarantine orders, but was blocked by federal judges. He has found other ways to influence the public, for instance, using the bully pulpit of his office.

On March 24, Bolsonaro gave a nationally televised address attacking social distancing as “scorched earth” tactics; hyping chloroquine as a promising treatment; blaming the press for creating “hysteria”; and insisting that Brazil “should go back to normal.” The Intercept’s Bruno Sousa wrote about the impact that the address had on his working-class Rio de Janeiro neighborhood the following morning, describing scenes where some people began to go about their lives as normal following the remarks; many nonessential businesses even opened back up. “Everyone talked about coronavirus and the president’s speech. Until yesterday, few stores opened here,” Sousa wrote.

The day after his speech, Bolsonaro doubled down: “What they are doing in Brazil, a few governors and a few mayors, is a crime. They are breaking up with Brazil, they are destroying jobs. And those guys who say, ‘Oh, the economy is less important than life.'”

Small street protests by Bolsonaro supporters who oppose the quarantine have broken out in multiple cities and, in some cases, have been shut down by state police and the courts.

Paulo Guedes, the Minister of Austerity

The World Bank estimates that Brazil’s economy will retract by 5 percent this year, according to new estimates released on Sunday, putting South America’s largest economy behind Mexico, Ecuador, and Argentina on the list of countries in the region that are expected to be the hardest hit. “To help the vulnerable face the loss of earnings from the lockdown, existing social protection and social assistance programs should be rapidly scaled up and their coverage extended,” the World Bank argued.

Yet Bolsonaro’s Economic Minister Paulo Guedes has resisted such measures and instead wants to continue his agenda of neoliberal reforms, which have gutted social services, labor protections, and pension benefits since the administration took office last year. “The best response to the crisis is the reforms,” Guedes told reporters last week, referring to pending proposals to privatize state-owned companies, reduce government spending, restructure the tax code, and incentivize private business.

It’s not that Congress isn’t trying. The legislature quickly passed a much-celebrated plan to provide low-wage informal sector workers with between $114 and $228 per month for three months. But the bill sat on the president’s desk for three days until it was finally signed and enacted. Guedes had initially proposed only a third of the amount and fought the measure, but publicly backed it after it became clear that the bill would pass. The administration blamed the delay on “bureaucratic issues,” but in the meantime, Guedes was attempting to hold back the president’s signature to negotiate other legislation from his list of reforms.

After the emergency relief package was finally approved, The Intercept reported that Caixa, a large, government-owned bank, planned to keep the federal relief payments of account holders with debts or negative account balances. Government officials said that an agreement had been reached with banks to avoid this outcome, but could not produce any evidence to corroborate the deal.

Guedes then went on to fight against a federal aid package to state and local governments, a plan that was approved by the lower house on Monday. The government has signaled that it would veto the final bill.

Of the $227.7 billion in coronavirus-related economic relief measures projected by the government, only $40 billion is new spending, which is roughly 3 percent of national gross domestic product. By comparison, the $2 trillion U.S. stimulus package represents 10 percent of GDP.

“The central issue is that the entire economic team is in conflict,” Antonio Corrêa de Lacerda, president of Brazil’s Federal Economic Counsel, told the Valor Econômico newspaper. “They have always preached austerity as an instrument to restore confidence that would take us out of the crisis. Now that the most relevant countries have adopted policies of strong state intervention, they are forced to do so. Although in a timid, late, and wavering way.”

The public, however, along with some of the president’s allies, are increasingly losing faith in Bolsonaro’s leadership. The shifts are not because of his timidity or tardiness, but largely because Bolsonaro’s response to the crisis lacks any coherent rhyme or reason. For example, Bolsonaro has emphasized the importance of the economy, and yet his sons and education minister have launched repeated — and sometimes racist — attacks on China, the country’s largest trading partner and principal source for essential medical supplies.

For weeks, at 8:30 p.m. nearly every night, neighborhoods across Brazil come alive to the sounds of pots and pans banging, punctuated by shouts of “Bolsonaro out!” peppered with an increasingly creative array of epithets. Another round of cacophonous protest rang out across Brazil as Bolsonaro announced Mandetta’s firing.

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