Few world leaders are as often compared to President Donald Trump as Jair Bolsonaro. Like Trump, Brazil’s president is a polarizing right-wing populist prone to demeaning women and minorities, attacking the news media, and using Twitter to fire up his increasingly nationalistic base. Also — like Trump — Bolsonaro got COVID-19.
Now, with just 32 days to go before the US presidential election, those who have observed the parallel careers of the two leaders wonder whether Bolsonaro’s experience with the virus can help inform an understanding of what Trump’s illness could mean for his chances on Nov. 3.
Joshua Clinton, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University who studies the effect of public opinion on elections, said Trump’s diagnosis, like Bolsonaro’s, may end up pushing a topic he’d rather avoid back into the public conversation.
“If President Trump gets extremely sick, which I obviously hope is not the case, what does that mean?” Clinton said. “Are people more sympathetic? Or do people get the impression that he made policy mistakes and this is an example of the result of those mistakes?”
Like Trump, Bolsonaro, who has run Brazil since 2018, downplayed the virus in public, mockingly calling it “a little flu” and urging Brazilians to return to work despite the country having some of the highest infection rates in the world. Then, in early July, Bolsonaro announced he had contracted the disease. He emerged, after three weeks of quarantine, once again downplaying the seriousness of the coronavirus and suddenly enjoying a surge in popularity.
"I knew I was going to catch it someday, as I think unfortunately nearly everyone here is going to catch it eventually,” Bolsonaro said at the end of the month. “I regret the deaths. But people die every day, from lots of things. That's life."
According to Datafolha, a Brazilian polling institute, 37% of the people polled described the Bolsonaro administration as good or great in August, up from 32% in June, with most gains occurring among Brazil’s poor sectors. That was a big turnaround for Bolsonaro, who had been facing calls for impeachment in the face of corruption scandals early in the year.
While some attributed the public opinion bump to his full recovery and vigorous dismissal of the seriousness of a disease that to date has killed more than 144,000 Brazilians — second only to the US — others point instead to a massive government handout initiated by Bolsonaro before he ever got sick.
The emergency assistance program authorized monthly payments equivalent to about $115. Those payments led to a drop in severe poverty rates in Brazil during the global pandemic, according to a study by Fundação Getúlio Vargas, a think tank.
Although Bolsonaro, 65, tried to use his recovery as a sign of his own political strength, the bigger concern for Brazilians appeared to be the economy, which has been devastated by the pandemic. Providing millions of people with a financial lifeline had a far larger impact on public sentiment.
Still, said Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly, if Trump’s case remains mild, the outcome for him might be similar to Bolsonaro’s. “It plays to the same idea: ‘we're going to get through this,'” Winter said. Bolsonaro’s case “helped convince some Brazilians that the pandemic wasn’t that bad and that they could go back to their daily lives,” he added.
Unlike Bolsonaro, Trump, 74, doesn’t currently have a massive public assistance program to bolster his support. Although Congress authorized a $600 weekly federal payment to the unemployed as part of its coronavirus stimulus package in March, that money ran out at the end of July, and Trump has been unable to get a second round of aid through a deadlocked legislature.
Darren Davis, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, downplayed the idea that Trump could benefit from his own bout with the disease given the current economic and social climate.
“While it is possible for President Trump to receive some sympathy for his Covid-19 positive tests, I expect it to be marginal at best,” Davis said. “I would say many people are experiencing more schadenfreude than sympathy.”
A growing number of world leaders have contracted COVID-19 since the disease first emerged in China, including the presidents of Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, the prime ministers of Russia and Armenia, and the second-in-command in Venezuela. None have died, although Prime Minister Boris Johnson was hospitalized and required supplemental oxygen, while the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, was briefly hospitalized as well after contracting the virus. The chief of staff of Nigeria’s president died from the coronavirus in April.
Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, initially called the disease a “psychosis” and claimed drinking vodka and going to the sauna could prevent infections. But in late July he disclosed that he had tested positive for the disease and recovered without serious symptoms
But Bolsonaro is perhaps the world leader who most closely tracks to Trump in terms of his handling of the pandemic, as well as his overall political approach.
Brazil now has the world’s third-worst coronavirus outbreak, with 4,847,092 positive cases, and the total number of deaths in the country is second only to the US.
In response to their massive public health crises, both presidents have minimized the severity of the pandemic, refusing to wear masks, contradicting their own top scientists, and prioritizing the economy. When a reporter asked Bolsonaro about the record number of deaths, he shrugged and asked, “So what?”
“What do you want me to do?” he continued, visibly irritated.
In March, Bolsonaro and Trump shared a dinner at Mar-a-Lago, after which at least 15 people traveling from Brazil, including close presidential aides, subsequently tested positive for the virus. Brazil’s health minister later called the journey home a “Corona Flight.”
Neither leader was infected at the time, but soon thereafter, Bolsonaro began advocating the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat the disease — echoing similar sentiments from Trump — despite the fact that there is very little, if any, scientific evidence to suggest it’s a helpful therapy for COVID-19.
After contracting the virus, Bolsonaro said he was taking the anti-malarial drug and claimed it was aiding his recovery.
During the televised interview in which he announced he had tested positive in July, Bolsonaro removed his mask, prompting the Brazilian Press Association to file a criminal complaint to the Supreme Court for endangering journalists who were present at the news conference. Like Melania Trump, Bolsonaro’s wife also contracted COVID-19.
Many people viewed Bolsonaro’s positive test as inevitable. The former army captain had continued to tour the country, shaking hands with supporters, visiting shops, and dining in restaurants, often without wearing a mask.
Some Brazilians seemed unsurprised by Trump’s positive test as well, given his resistance to wearing masks and dismissal of the disease’s gravity. Some were quick to draw comparisons between him and their own president.
“It’s very symbolic that Trump and Bolsonaro have both been infected with the coronavirus,” the journalist Lucas Pedrosa wrote on Twitter early Friday morning.
Some even conjectured that Trump might be faking the diagnosis to get out of more debates following this week’s chaotic confrontation with Democratic nominee Joe Biden, which was widely viewed as a loss for the incumbent.
“Trump lost the last debate and now he's "got corona" and he won't participate in the next debate. Son of a bitch, I think Bolsonar[o] taught him how to get out of debates,” tweeted one Brazilian user.
Beyond the health issues and political implications of the president’s diagnoses, Clinton, the political science professor at Vanderbilt, noted that it also presented massive logistical issues at the worst possible time.
“This sidelines him at a time when he needs to be out there raising money. If he is lagging behind in the polls and he has to quarantine it makes it hard for him to get out there and change the narrative.”