In mid-May, Brazil secured a grisly world record: it had the fastest-growing coronavirus infection rate of any country on earth. Within a month, it surpassed a million confirmed cases. This milestone made it second only to the United States in everything related to the pandemic, including total fatalities, with around a thousand people dying every day. By some estimates, Brazil may eventually see as many as thirty-four million infected and three hundred thousand dead.
The country’s far-right President, Jair Bolsonaro, has made no effort to curb the pandemic. Instead, he has belittled the threat of the virus, calling it mere “sniffles,” and responded to reports of sufferers by declaring, “We all have to die someday.” When state governors encouraged social distancing, Bolsonaro joined rallies with supporters to demonstrate against them.
Oliver Stuenkel, an associate professor of international affairs at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, in São Paulo, believes that Bolsonaro’s pandemic response is the result of a brutal calculation. “I think he looked at this and thought, This will cause a profound crisis in the Brazilian economy,” he told me. “He knows it’s hard for a Latin-American leader to remain in office with an economy that gets as bad as it is now. So, in the states where governors imposed social-distancing strictures, he’ll say the coming economic slump wasn’t his fault but theirs. If the numbers level out, he’ll say, ‘Look, it wasn’t that bad after all.’ And even if they are bad, he can easily construe some narrative that actually they really weren’t.” For the moment, Bolsonaro’s P.R. tactics seem to be working; although recent polls show rising disapproval of his performance, about thirty per cent of the population still fervently supports him, as immovable as the fans of his role model Donald Trump.