The Coronavirus-Denial Movement Now Has a Leader

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has lashed out against local officials who have implemented severe lockdowns, accusing them of destroying the country.

President Bolsonaro is pictured against a yellow backdrop with red dots around him.
Andressa Anholete / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

He’s described the illness as a “little flu,” a trifling “cold.” He’s accused the media of manufacturing “hysteria”—even as confirmed cases of the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, soar to well over half a million and deaths to roughly 25,000 worldwide. The coronavirus-denial movement officially has a leader, and it’s Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Nicknamed the “Trump of the Tropics,” Bolsonaro has sought to emulate the American president’s right-wing populist-nationalism since launching his bid for the presidency in 2018. But compared with Bolsonaro’s position on the coronavirus pandemic, Donald Trump’s approach looks sober and scientifically grounded.

If there’s one lesson from the global responses to COVID-19, it’s this: The countries that have had the most success “flattening the curve” acted quickly and aggressively to contain the virus, rather than downplaying the threat it posed. Bolsonaro has had months to absorb this lesson, yet has chosen to take the opposite tack.

Bolsonaro, who leads one of the world’s most populous and economically dynamic countries, has described COVID-19 as a symptom-free nuisance for “90 percent” of infected Brazilians. He’s argued that while he may be 65, he wouldn’t be at serious risk even if he were to become infected, because of his “history as an athlete.” (The athletes who have contracted COVID-19 might be surprised to learn that their talents grant them special powers against the virus.) He has proposed isolating only the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. As recently as yesterday, Bolsonaro asserted that Brazilians “never catch anything,” even when they dive into “sewage,” and that they may have already developed the “antibodies” to stop the virus’s spread.

He has, moreover, railed against lockdowns; closures of businesses, schools, and public transport; anything that strays far from normalcy. He has lashed out at governors and mayors who have implemented these policies, alleging that they’re committing crimes and “destroying Brazil,” and actively sought to block some of these measures.

Bolsonaro’s stance has emboldened some of his advisers and prominent supporters to engage in the same denialism, but it has also left him isolated and besieged. Local officials, along with many pot-and-pan-banging, self-quarantining protesters, have condemned him for not supporting emergency actions. One former supporter, the governor of Rio de Janeiro, just won a court battle against Bolsonaro that will allow him to proceed with shutting airports and interstate roads. The governor of São Paulo, another ex-ally, has threatened to sue the federal government if it obstructs his efforts to contain the virus.

Bolsonaro has done all this even as top officials around him, including cabinet ministers, have fallen ill with COVID-19. On the evening of March 7, in a scene that now seems from a bygone era, Trump met Bolsonaro at his Mar-a-Lago resort, warmly shook his hand, and dismissed a reporter’s question about whether he was concerned that the virus was “getting closer to the White House.” In the three weeks since, more than 20 members of Bolsonaro’s U.S. delegation have tested positive for the coronavirus. (Bolsonaro and Trump both say they’ve tested negative.) Bolsonaro ignored his own health ministry’s advice to self-isolate for a couple of weeks and to discourage large gatherings. He made a defiant show of shaking hands and taking selfies at a rally that attracted hundreds of his supporters.

“We could be sitting on a time bomb here,” especially for the country’s most vulnerable citizens, Paulo Sotero, an expert on Brazil at the Wilson Center, told me. “It is amazing that [Bolsonaro is maintaining] this ignorant attitude toward a public-health emergency … It is lunacy what this man is doing.” The president “is a bomb thrower” by nature, Sotero argued, when what the nation needs right now is a bomb defuser.

Indeed, while Brazil has roughly 3,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and 77 deaths, far less than the countries most afflicted by the virus at the moment, it has the most cases in Latin America, and its growth of cases is on a worrying trajectory. Bolsonaro’s health minister, whom the president appears to be freezing out of his deliberations, warned last week that the country’s health-care system “will collapse” by the end of April from a surge of COVID-19 patients.

Sotero noted that Brazil celebrated its famously raucous Carnival only a month ago, a concerning fact given that a major coronavirus outbreak in New Orleans has been linked to Mardi Gras festivities. He pointed out that many of Brazil’s poor don’t even have access to clean, running water to wash their hands. That problem could become particularly acute in rural areas and the dense urban slums known as favelas, where coronavirus cases have already been reported.

“If in New York City, the most important city in the richest country in the world, they’re facing the calamity that they’re facing right now, you can imagine what could happen in much more vulnerable countries and their very large cities, like São Paulo, like Rio,” Sotero said. “We have many talented doctors in Brazil, but we don’t have an NIH with a Doctor Fauci counterpunching on television.”

“Bolsonaro is genuinely concerned about the impact a long quarantine would have on the economy, especially in a country like Brazil where so many people just barely get by on a day-to-day basis,” Brian Winter, the editor in chief of Americas Quarterly, told me in an email. “Street vendors can’t work from home.” That’s a tough balance to strike for any policy maker, Winter noted. About a quarter of the country’s population of more than 200 million live in poverty. “We know that deep recessions can kill people too,” he wrote.

As Bolsonaro has put it, “If we cower, opt for the easy discourse, everyone stays home, it will be chaos. No one will produce anything, there will be unemployment, refrigerators will go empty, no one will be able to pay bills.” Bolsonaro may also be seeking to dissociate himself from the stringent social-distancing measures that his government will have to adopt, so as to escape blame for the inevitable damage they’ll cause to Brazil’s already-troubled economy.

But Winter added that Bolsonaro’s motivations are probably ideological as well, and a function of his populism: “a refusal to take science seriously, to disregard whatever ‘the media’ says as a hostile elitist conspiracy, to reject the establishment generally.” Populists tend to bet that they can “create their own reality,” but “Bolsonaro is simply not going to stop a virus by insisting on Facebook that it’s no worse than a ‘little flu.’”

Trump has declined to criticize Bolsonaro for his coronavirus skepticism, but has not gone nearly as far as his Brazilian counterpart. In fact, Bolsonaro has been more extreme in his denialism than any world leader. Even Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, another right-wing populist-nationalist, has ordered the largest lockdown in human history.*

For now, Trump seems torn between the guidance of advisers seeking to avert a public-health catastrophe, and his own instincts to buck the experts in order to revive the economy, whose performance is central to his reelection. “The LameStream Media is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success,” the president tweeted this week. “The real people want to get back to work ASAP.”

Bolsonaro’s handling of the outbreak illustrates what the United States could look like if Trump were to go all in on his argument that the cure is worse than the disease.

“I personally hope that Trump and Bolsonaro get to stand on a stage two months from now and have a big Make Brazil Great Again rally where they mock all the haters and snowflakes for blowing the virus out of proportion,” Winter told me. “Because that will mean we all got through this without tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths. But unfortunately I have my doubts.”

*This article originally misstated Narendra Modi's position. He is the prime minister of India, not the president.