As Brazil’s Covid Crisis Eases, Bolsonaro Sees Rising Popularity

RIO DE JANEIRO — President Jair Bolsonaro seemed to be on a political suicide mission during the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis in Brazil.

As the daily death toll turned Brazil into one of the epicenters of the pandemic, he openly dismissed the loss of life as inevitable and lashed out against social distancing. A judge ordered the president to wear a mask, a measure Mr. Bolsonaro was reluctant to follow, claiming that his “athletic background” would guarantee a prompt recovery.

With the economy in a tailspin, the far-right president picked fights with Congress, powerful governors and even some of his most popular ministers.

His cavalier conduct generated talk of impeachment, of an institutional breakdown and even of an eventual prosecution at The Hague.

Now, with Brazil’s caseload and death toll down significantly since peaking in July, Mr. Bolsonaro’s popularity is starting to rise. Yet the easing of the pandemic came largely because Brazilians did not follow his lead.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s strengthened standing among the electorate stands in contrast to other leaders in the region who heeded the scientific consensus about lockdowns, social distancing and masks, and have seen their popularity decline.

Feeling emboldened, Mr. Bolsonaro chided the press last week for continuing to focus on the pandemic, which has killed more than 163,000 people in Brazil.

“I regret the deaths, but we need to be done with this thing,” an exasperated Mr. Bolsonaro said during a Nov. 10 event at the presidential palace. “We need to stop being a country of sissies.”

Far from facing impeachment, Mr. Bolsonaro — who has always been a deeply polarizing figure in Brazil — now has his highest approval rates since taking office in January 2019. While roughly a third of Brazil’s electorate sided with him back in May, that figure rose to 40 percent in September.

In neighboring Argentina, by comparison, President Alberto Fernández, who imposed among the strictest lockdowns in the world, saw his approval rate crash from 57 percent in March to 37 percent last month. President Sebastián Piñera of Chile and Iván Duque of Colombia have also faced falling approval ratings after bumps of support early in the pandemic.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s rising political fortunes came as Brazilians adhered to mask wearing guidelines and quarantine measures — despite his open hostility to them — that eased the severity of the virus. Warmer weather, which allowed people to spend less time indoors, further reduced the contagion.

The effects of business shutdowns and quarantines were softened by a generous cash assistance program Congress had passed. Mr. Bolsonaro also has claimed credit for that outcome, even though he had initially favored significantly smaller handouts.

Jairo Nicolau, a political scientist who recently published a book about Brazil’s political rightward shift, said Mr. Bolsonaro appeared to be hopelessly isolated when the virus was ripping through the country starting in March.

But his political instincts and tactics have often been underestimated, Mr. Nicolau argued. And like President Trump, he said, Mr. Bolsonaro has managed to bypass mainstream press outlets to reach his base of supporters.

“Bolsonaro has a very loyal electorate, quite similar to Trump’s, and has forged a strong emotional bond with them,” he said. “I don’t think that Bolsonaro is a great strategic thinker, but he has demonstrated a kind of intelligence, an ability to capture people’s mood in any given moment, and play it right. He is no fool.”

As Mr. Bolsonaro was arguing that quarantines would do more harm than good, promoting an anti-malaria pill as a miracle cure for the coronavirus and running around the capital without wearing a mask, lawmakers in Congress were debating the size of an emergency assistance package.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration initially took the position that the government should provide no more than about $37 per month in cash payments. Lawmakers across the political spectrum called that sum woefully insufficient for Brazilians who were dealing with business shutdowns amid quarantine measures imposed by governors.

But when Congress approved a cash benefit three times higher than the sum Mr. Bolsonaro had proposed, the president presented it as a gesture from his government and hailed it as “the biggest aid program for the neediest in the world!”

Djamila Ribeiro, a political philosopher, said Mr. Bolsonaro did not deserve credit for the popular assistance program, which led to a significant reduction in poverty.

“Yet people think it was the president’s doing, not that it was the result of a fight that was waged in Congress,” she said. “Many people don’t understand who has prerogative over what.”

Mr. Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to questions for this article. In a recent interview, Vice President Hamilton Mourão said the government could have done a better job providing guidelines on prevention measures early in the pandemic. But he argued that much of the criticism the government received for its handling of the pandemic was “politicized” and that some of the most dire predictions did not come to pass.

“The health system was able to cope efficiently,” he said. “There were fears that people would end up dying in hospital hallways and that people would die on the streets and that never happened.”

Experts said Mr. Bolsonaro’s surprising political strength might be temporary. In municipal elections held Sunday, several of the candidates he backed did poorly. He faces formidable challenges, including a corruption investigation targeting one of his sons and other relatives, the looming end of cash payments that have kept Brazilians afloat as the economy contracts, and the pandemic continues to kill hundreds of Brazilians per day.

Dr. Fátima Marinho, an epidemiologist at Vital Strategies, a global public health organization, said that while Brazil had so far avoided a new wave of cases, a smattering of upticks in certain states were cause for concern.

“All the models point to a reduction,” she said. “But we’re anticipating problems in certain cases as we start to see very concrete signs” of a resurgence.

Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas in the north, is among the regions where the virus appeared to be under control, but hospitals are seeing a new influx of patients.

Dr. Marinho said the trouble spots were in parts of the country where many people resumed their normal routines and began throwing weddings and birthday parties again.

“The virus began circulating again and that led to new hospitalizations,” she said.

Eager to change the subject, Mr. Bolsonaro this week turned his attention to the American presidential election. Mr. Bolsonaro, who openly rooted for Mr. Trump, whom he idolizes, is among the few leaders in the region that has not congratulated President-elect Joseph. R. Biden Jr. or even acknowledged his victory.

The Brazilian president and Mr. Biden have traded barbs over Brazil’s environmental policy and the future of the Amazon, which has experienced a rise in deforestation on Mr. Bolsonaro’s watch. During a debate, Mr. Biden warned that Brazil would face economic consequences if it doesn’t rein in the destruction of the rainforest. His campaign plan on climate change promised to “name and shame global climate outlaws.”

Mr. Bolsonaro has signaled little interest in striking a more cordial tone with the incoming American president. During a speech, he said his country would give diplomacy a try to fend off American plans for the Amazon. But failing that, he said, Brazil would respond with “gunpowder.”

Amy Erica Smith, a political scientist at Iowa State University who studies Brazil, said that at first glance Mr. Bolsonaro’s saber rattling against Mr. Biden might seem ludicrous. But suspicion about foreign conspiracies to control the Amazon have deep roots in Brazil, and Mr. Bolsonaro’s call to arms may resonate with many of his countrymen, she said.

“Over time, he has managed to sway public opinion in his favor,” Ms Smith said. “His confrontation with Biden could work, especially if Biden manages it badly.”

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