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Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro gets coronavirus after months of downplaying the pandemic

The country has more than 1.6 million cases and over 65,000 coronavirus deaths.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on June 30, 2020.
Andre Borges/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has tested positive for the coronavirus, after months of downplaying it as nothing more than a “little flu.”

Bolsonaro confirmed his diagnosis Tuesday to reporters, saying he felt “fine.” The president reportedly got tested Monday after exhibiting symptoms, including a fever and tiredness. He told supporters Monday that he went to the hospital, and that his lungs were “clean.”

Bolsonaro’s announcement comes as Brazil is struggling to contain the pandemic. The country has confirmed more than 1.6 million cases of coronavirus and recorded over 65,000 deaths. It is second only to the United States in both number of confirmed cases and fatalities, though those figures are also likely an undercount.

Bolsonaro’s critics say his cavalier attitude toward the pandemic has undercut attempts to control the virus and stymied any chance at a coordinated federal response, worsening the crisis in Brazil.

From the start, Bolsonaro has dismissed the illness as a “measly cold” and scoffed at social distancing measures intended to slow its spread, proclaiming in late March that “we’ll all die one day.”

He’s opposed state governors’ decisions to impose lockdown measures, attended anti-lockdown protests, met with supporters without wearing a mask, and pushed for businesses to reopen despite the growing outbreak. He’s endorsed the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, the controversial antimalarial drugs, though there’s little good evidence they are effective in treating Covid-19. (Bolsonaro has also said he’s taking hydroxychloroquine now.)

Bolsonaro joins a handful of world leaders who’ve come down with the coronavirus, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández. The Brazilian president, who is 65, has undergone at least four tests for the coronavirus, including in March after members of his inner circle tested positive following a visit with US President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago.

Whether this confirmed positive result changes how Bolsonaro approaches the pandemic, and the unfolding catastrophe in Brazil, is the “$1 million question,” Valentina Sader, assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, told me.

“The political outcome of this depends on how well he’s going to be with this disease,” Sader said. “So it’s 100 percent related to that.”

Bolsonaro tests positive for the coronavirus. Is anyone surprised?

Bolsonaro has had a few coronavirus scares before, but this time, at least, it’s apparently real. He confirmed his diagnosis with reporters on Tuesday, after reportedly coming down with symptoms.

The week before, he’d watered down a rule requiring people to wear masks in certain settings. And the weekend before, he attended a Fourth of July party at the US Embassy, which did not seem to include social distancing or mask-wearing. (The US Embassy in Brazil said the US ambassador had tested negative for Covid-19 but that he would quarantine.)

Bolsonaro is now the highest-profile Covid-19 patient in Brazil, and what that means for the country probably depends largely on one’s politics.

“This is a very sharp catalyst for nothing changing,” Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, the director for the Latin America region at the Greenmantle LLC, a geopolitical advisory firm, and adjunct professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, said of Bolsonaro’s diagnosis. “Whatever your opinion was of Bolsonaro yesterday, you are going to feel validated by this news.”

Bolsonaro has previously said he has little to worry about if he gets the coronavirus, and that his “history as an athlete” will protect him. “I wouldn’t feel anything or at the very worst it would be like a little flu or a bit of a cold,” he said in March.

And if Bolsonaro continues to only experience a mild illness, it would be the ultimate vindication for him and his supporters.

Bolsonaro has also said he’s taking hydroxychloroquine, which he’s touted as a miracle cure, though research findings don’t bear that out. On Twitter, his son Eduardo touted Bolsonaro’s use of the drug as a reason he’d come out of this, because “chloroquine is very effective at the start of the disease.” (Again, there’s no evidence to back this up.)

On the other hand, Bolsonaro’s detractors can find their own source of vindication in Bolsonaro’s diagnosis. The president took an anti-science stance — mask-less outings, rejection of social distancing — and wouldn’t you know, he got the coronavirus. Bolsonaro becomes a symbol of his own botched pandemic response.

His critics will use it to say, “‘Look, even this guy, who dismissed it as nothing but a ‘little flu,’ has caught it,’” Anthony Pereira, professor of Brazilian studies at King’s College London, told me. “And you know, he may well have caught it because of his actions in terms of going out and mingling with people without a mask. I think that it will just reinforce their view that Brazil seems to be competing to be one of the worst country in terms of the way it’s handled the coronavirus.”

At the same time, experts told me there’s a degree of skepticism around Bolsonaro’s announcement. The coronavirus has devastated the country. Thousands continue to die; hospitals are at their breaking points. The shutdowns, while not uniformly enforced, have hurt the economy, though some cities are reopening, even as experts warn the worst is not yet over. Bolsonaro is also facing political scandals, including investigations into his sons.

Now that Bolsonaro has the coronavirus, that headline may replace all the others.

“By one hand, he’s going to change all the subjects from the last week: that we don’t have a health minister, that his sons are really involved in some criminal stuff, and that Brazil is not doing well fighting the epidemic and also economically,” Fernando Brancoli, an associate professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and an associated researcher at the Orfalea Center at the University of California Santa Barbara, told me. “And on the other hand, he’s really going to use this to maintain his initial discourse from the pandemic that it’s not a big deal, he’s going to be fine, he’s taking chloroquine.”

These competing narratives speak to the level of mistrust and polarization in Brazil right now, which Bolsonaro has helped foment. He attacks the media and pretty much all criticism as “fake news.” He also spreads misinformation — think chloroquine — to achieve his political ends. His well-documented lies also mean it’s hard for his detractors to trust what Bolsonaro says, or his motives.

As Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez said, the Bolsonaro news is just solidifying the biases people had yesterday. “Either this is a painfully obvious attempt to try to spin a difficult situation for him politically into a stronger position,” he said, “or it’s, ‘Look at how tough our guy is. He has the virus that everybody is complaining about, and he doesn’t really care. He’s doing just fine.’”

When it comes to Bolsonaro, as Sader said, it’s still quite early to know whether he might change tack, or double down. Sader said she does think it gives the opposition a chance to push for changes, like more restrictive mask measures, or appointing an actual health minister with expertise to help manage the crisis. (Bolsonaro fired one in April who advocated lockdowns, and the other quit about a month later, around the time Bolsonaro was touting chloroquine.)

It seems less likely, right now, that Bolsonaro will do an about-face on the coronavirus emergency. It would be an admission that he’s completely mismanaged the crisis — and that he only saw it as dangerous, and deadly, when he contracted the virus.