COVID-19 Lays Bare the Price of Populism

A raging outbreak in Brazil threatens gains against the virus.

Crowd holding crosses at a protest
Protesters rally against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (Mauro Pimentel / AFP / Getty)

About the author: Uri Friedman is the managing editor at the Atlantic Council and a contributing writer at The Atlantic. He was previously a staff writer and the Global editor at The Atlantic, and the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

As populism has experienced a resurgence in recent years, many have focused on the hazards the ideology poses to democratic systems. But today’s complex and highly technical global threats—pandemics, climate change, cyberattacks, financial crises—that demand technocratic solutions have driven home a grim reality: Populism can place us all at risk.

In 2018, a burst of anger over government corruption propelled a populist politician named Jair Bolsonaro to Brazil’s presidency. Brazil, which is currently suffering from one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, is a prime example of how populist governance in one country can threaten the whole world. If the way out of the pandemic is through science, in the form of mass vaccination and other containment measures, the corollary is also true: The way we remain mired in it is, in large part, through the kind of anti-science worldview that populists frequently champion.

The shift to the pandemic’s vaccination phase has prompted many people to dwell at the micro level: When will I be fully vaccinated? When will my family and friends get their shots? When can we all revert to something resembling normal life? But that has lent a false sense of security to the vaccinated and obscured the perils lurking at the macro level, as devastating new waves of COVID-19 crash over countries such as India and Brazil and spread more transmissible variants of the virus beyond their shores.

“The United States may be advancing remarkably [with] the pace of vaccination, but so long as you have uncontrolled pandemics throughout the world, every contagion increases the likelihood of an ‘escape variant’ that eventually, with the level of interconnectedness we have, will find its way even [to] populations that have been vaccinated,” Julio Frenk, a former Mexican health minister and World Health Organization official, told me. “No one is safe until everyone is safe.”

Brazil has now suffered the second-most deaths from COVID-19—more than 400,000—of any country in the world, after the United States, and the third-most cases. In recent weeks, in fact, Brazil has accounted for about a fifth of all COVID-19 deaths worldwide—more than any other country except, of late, India. Home to 2.7 percent of the world’s population, Brazil has suffered 12.8 percent of the world’s deaths. At the present rate, more than a dozen Brazilians will die from COVID-19 in the time it takes to read this article.

In January, the Lowy Institute ranked Brazil last in its survey of 98 countries’ management of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bloomberg’s Resilience Ranking, which aims to measure how 53 governments are handling the crisis, currently ranks Brazil 53rd.

The country’s outbreak has been driven in recent months by the P.1 variant, which emerged in the Amazon region of Manaus last fall. Studies in Brazil indicate that the variant, which particularly afflicts young people in new and alarming ways, may be up to twice as contagious as earlier forms of the virus, and 61 percent more likely to reinfect people, though there is no indication yet that it is deadlier or capable of evading immunity from current vaccines. Brazil’s health-care systems have come under severe strain, reeling from a continuous crush of COVID-19 patients that has produced acute shortages of intensive-care-unit beds and crucial supplies such as oxygen, anesthetics, and intubation drugs.

“The more contagion you have, the higher the likelihood that you will have a mutation and that that mutation will lead to a more contagious variant. And that’s exactly what’s happened,” said Frenk, now the president of the University of Miami.

The huge wave in Brazil has begun to ebb, but it appears to be washing over other South American countries, all but two of which share a land border with Brazil. The P.1 variant is now present in at least 44 countries, including the United States.

Pedro Hallal, the lead investigator for EPICOVID-19, the largest epidemiological study of COVID-19 in Brazil, told me that he’s concerned about new variants popping up in Brazil that could, for example, be more dangerous for children or undermine the effectiveness of existing vaccines. Brazil, he said, has become a “variants factory.”

Brazil’s predicament is particularly striking because it had an earlier warning about COVID-19 than its neighbors; the first case of the virus in Latin America and the Caribbean was reported in Brazil on February 26, 2020. And yet Bolsonaro and his allies in government chose to squander their precious lead time.

Even ahead of the pandemic, the president cut funding for Brazilian universities and the government’s education and science ministries. Those funding cuts now haunt Brazil, depriving its scientists of resources they need to study coronavirus variants.

As the virus spread around the world, Bolsonaro emerged as a leader of, as I put it in March 2020, the global “coronavirus-denial movement.” He trivialized the virus as a “little flu” and ridiculed those expressing concerns about it. He made a point of not wearing a mask and appearing in crowds of supporters, shaking hands and taking selfies. Worried about the damage that efforts to contain the virus would inflict on the Brazilian economy, he actively sought to thwart federal, state, and local officials’ efforts to impose lockdowns and other social-distancing measures early on in the pandemic—presenting Brazilians with a false choice between their physical and economic well-being. He cycled through a series of health ministers, clashing with those who disagreed with him and leaving the post vacant for a spell last year. The country also has the dubious distinction of being perhaps the world’s biggest cauldron of misinformation about COVID-19, often stoked by Bolsonaro and his supporters.

Hallal, whose COVID-19 study lost government funding in July, described rampant “anti-science messages” that surge through WhatsApp and Twitter and are also manifest in the “declarations from the president himself.” He told me, “I get daily messages [on] my phone about ineffective medicines, anti-lockdown messages, anti-vaccine messages, and even anti-mask messages.”

Even as he launched the country’s vaccination campaign, Bolsonaro himself said he had no plans to get vaccinated—quipping that vaccine makers were shielding themselves from responsibility should the vaccines turn people into crocodiles or give women beards and men high voices.

The Brazilian government also failed to stockpile vaccines in a timely manner. It rejected an early offer to buy Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine and acquired only enough doses through the international COVAX Facility to cover a small percentage of its population. Brazil is now scrambling to catch up but grappling with a lengthy lag in obtaining and administering the necessary doses. At its current sluggish pace, Brazil will take another 12 months to vaccinate 75 percent of its population. This despite the fact that Brazil boasts a public-health infrastructure with a demonstrated capacity to conduct rapid vaccination campaigns at scale.

Maria Laura Canineu, the Brazil director for Human Rights Watch, told me that Bolsonaro’s “sabotage [of] efforts by others to slow the spread of the virus” extends beyond the country’s borders: “Brazil is the only developing country openly opposing a proposal by India and South Africa to waive some patent rules to allow wider production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines,” she noted.

Populist leaders were not necessarily doomed to botch their pandemic response. In an August 2020 assessment of 17 populist leaders, Brett Meyer of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change found that 12 took the coronavirus crisis seriously—including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, though more recent evidence indicates that Modi’s government dismissed scientific advisers’ warnings about new variants and the risks of permitting large political and religious gatherings in the lead-up to the country’s current surge of infections. But Meyer also concluded that several populist leaders—including Bolsonaro in Brazil, Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, and Donald Trump in the United States—downplayed the crisis. Those same leaders have presided over some of the world’s worst outbreaks.

“There is an overrepresentation of governments led by populist leaders among the worst performers” against COVID-19, Frenk told me, also citing the examples of Bolsonaro, López Obrador, and Trump. “I’m not saying it’s a cause-and-effect relationship,” he added, “but it’s hard to [find] any example of a country with a populist leader that has done well.”

Frenk listed four common attributes of various populist leaders who have mishandled the pandemic: First, “the tendency to underestimate or dismiss expertise,” because “experts are considered part of the corrupt elites that the populist leader is going to defend people from”; second, “the distrust of science” and of the sort of “independent, critical thinking” that populist leaders with authoritarian inclinations dislike; third, the impulse to divide citizens between the “good people embodied by the populist leader” and “the corrupt elites,” even going so far as to politicize public-health measures such as mask wearing, rather than instilling in the public “a sense of shared destiny”; and fourth, the instinct to “trap themselves in a narrative” and then “refuse to acknowledge that they were wrong” and correct course, blaming others instead. The governments that have performed best against COVID-19, by contrast, have implemented policies “informed by science and by expertise and by political leaders who unify the country.”

“We used to say, when I worked at the World Health Organization, that there are communicable diseases and then there are communicated diseases,” Frenk told me. “If you fail to communicate clearly, based on science, that itself is a source of further contagion. Because in a pandemic, it’s not just the viruses that get spread, it’s the messages that get spread … And those messages then drive [public] behavior and adherence to public-health measures.”

Bolsonaro is finally, fitfully, changing his tone amid the undeniable gravity of Brazil’s latest COVID-19 outbreak and, perhaps more pertinent, pressure from a strengthening political opposition ahead of a presidential election next year. But his initial trivialization of the crisis set the country far back as the virus spread exponentially, which now makes matching and outpacing the threat with effective government policies all the more difficult.

A recent study by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that “while no single narrative explains” the spread of COVID-19 in Brazil, it was driven by a “failure of implementing prompt, coordinated, and equitable responses” to the virus, and particularly by a federal government response that amounted to “a dangerous combination of inaction and wrongdoing,” in the context of the country’s preexisting health and socioeconomic inequities. The Brazilian Senate has just launched an investigation into the government’s handling of the pandemic; this week, one of Bolsonaro’s former health ministers testified that he had repeatedly tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the president “not to go down this extremely perilous path” of dismissing scientific recommendations.

“This is really a story about failed government leadership,” one of the authors of the Harvard study, Marcia Castro, recently told PRI’s The World. “And it’s failed leadership because it neglected science, it minimized the importance of the virus, it did not use the key advantage Brazil had—a universal health-care system and a large and organized network of primary care in Brazil. It’s also failed leadership because the government itself disseminated wrong information,” which “had an effect on compliance and trust in science from the population.”

The role played by anti-science movements around the world in fueling the pandemic has prompted Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine, to propose building “new infrastructure” through institutions such as the United Nations, the WHO, and NATO to “combat antiscience, just as we have for ... other more widely recognized and established threats” to global security.

“The brightest side of this pandemic has been the level of collaboration among scientists from all over the world—from academia, industry, and government—working to deliver those vaccines,” Frenk said. “I am hoping that the pandemic has made the fruits of science so visible, and the dismal performance of populist leaders so obvious, that it will lead to a new era where we dismiss both the populist leaders and the anti-scientific” movement.

Then he paused. “But it could go the other way.”