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As Brazil’s official death toll from the coronavirus surpassed China’s, where the virus first emerged, President Jair Bolsonaro did little more than shrug.
“So what?” he said to reporters who asked him about the day’s record number of deaths on Tuesday night. “What do you want me to do?”
This might seem like a strange response from the man who is in charge of Latin America’s biggest country. Bolsonaro, a right-wing former military officer, has become a global pariah, minimizing the impact of the pandemic even as most world leaders have locked their countries down, warning about the dangers of returning too soon to life as we once knew it.
Bolsonaro’s political strategy is not dissimilar to President Donald Trump’s: undermine governors who are implementing shutdowns while calling to jumpstart the economy.
“It is clearly bad policy, but it might end up being good politics,” said Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly, a magazine about politics in Latin America, noting that Bolsonaro’s base continues to stand by him in large part. His approval rating grew to 33%, up from 30% in December, according to pollster Datafolha.
In Brazil, where 71,886 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 5,017 have died, according to the health ministry, there is no national lockdown. Bolsonaro has repeatedly urged Brazilians to return to work rather than run from the virus “like cowards.” And he has continued to visit public places, like pharmacies and supermarkets, shaking hands with supporters.
Earlier this month, Bolsonaro fired his health minister, who had advocated for social distancing measures.
In a country of 210 million people, health experts predict that contagions will multiply rapidly as the virus begins to hit favelas, or impoverished neighborhoods, hard. There, families crowd together into single, small rooms, often without running water. Isolation is impossible. And already, Brazilians are growing tired of social isolation measures. Approval for these practices fell to 52% from 60% the first week of April.
Still, outrage in the country is reaching a fever pitch, with people frequently banging pots from their windows to protest Bolsonaro. On Wednesday, a local newspaper, Estado de Minas, ran a black front page with the death toll and Bolsonaro’s words from the previous day: “My name’s Messiah, but I can’t work miracles,” a reference to his middle name, Messias.
Calls to impeach Bolsonaro have also been growing. According to Datafolha, 45% of Brazilians support his impeachment.
“Bolsonaro’s disrespect for coronavirus victims and their families shows how much we need to talk about this government’s change,” tweeted former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on Wednesday. “It's serious.”