At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro told the public without evidence that the now-disproven treatment hydroxychloroquine could “cure COVID-19.” That misinformation, delivered definitively by the country’s leader, provoked the Brazlian public to try to gain access to the medicine. People with critical diseases like lupus, who need the drug for scientifically-backed treatment purposes were hospitalized after being unable to access the medication, due to hoarding by misinformed citizens.
On July 9, 2020 Bolsonaro appeared in public claiming he had contracted the disease, and said that he would take hydroxychloroquine as a treatment. The president then falsely sold the medicine, again, as a “savior.” When Bolsonaro’s Minister of Health Henrique Mandetta rejected hydroxychloroquine as a drug for the virus, Bolsonaro replaced him with another Minister, who left the portfolio for similar reasons.
This is just one example of the Brazilian president’s failings amid our current international crisis. He has opposed national and international health agencies, hampered the actions of state governors and worries primarily about the economy, taking a strong stand against isolation and distancing measures that are known to prevent the disease. The head of the nation told the public he was going to have a barbecue, and paraded through crowds unmasked.
Brazil’s population banged pots on windows in protest of their government. The country’s leadership is now considered one of the worst in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. Bolsonaro has also downplayed the severity of COVID-19, and questioned the work of scientific experts. When the number of deaths reached records of more than 1,000 a day, Bolsonaro doubted the case counts, and removed months of data from an official website. A consortium of traditional Brazilian newspapers formed to make the count independent of the national government, through a task force that updated the statistics with the Brazilian state agencies.
Débora D’Ávila, director of Scientific Dissemination at the University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) in Belo Horizonte, said, “People cannot trust anything that he (Bolsonaro) talks about. His inconsistency … the speech changes depending on the interest.”
These issues are exacerbated by an online environment in which governments compete with online content creators for the attention of their citizens. “We have influencers and Youtubers expressing their opinion, gaining attention that investigative journalists do not have,” said Janine Miranda Cardoso, professor of the graduate program of ICICT - Institute of Communication and Scientific Information and Health Technology Foundation of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz). “Combating misinformation is necessary, but insufficient. For an epidemic, the path is to strengthen health services, which are without resources,” Cardoso added.
Bolsonaro has in fact criticized the way state governors reacted to the pandemic, saying the people were being deceived by them and the media. He spoke of allegedly excessive measures, which he called “hysteria,” that “would hurt the economy.”
Bolsonaro’s inability to strategize an effective COVID-19 response led to major Latin America partners closing borders with Brazil. Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, French Guiana and Venezuela ceased travel to and from Brazil, with multiple leaders explicitly pointing to Brazil’s COVID-19 response as a major contributing factor.
The president’s response to COVID-19 impacts the entire global market. Brazil has the ninth largest GDP in the world, is the second largest producer of soybeans, is among the 30 countries that export the most products, including beef, corn and oil.
A stalled Brazillian economy will indeed have supply chain impacts far beyond its borders, but as the disease progresses in the country it has become clear that in the Bolsonaro administration, economic consequences take priority over the health of the population.
Brazilians live feeling that they don’t know the real state of COVID-19 in their country, don’t know what information to trust, and aren’t sure that leaders are taking all necessary measures to prevent and reduce damage.