Two tweets removed for “violating rules”, bombastic television appearances and a presidential social media campaign, dubbed “Brazil can’t stop” – quickly banned – illustrate far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s plan to fight the novel coronavirus: Defy international guidelines, encourage Brazilians to get back to work and continue to downplay the threat of the virus.
Like ally and US President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has repeatedly sought to minimise the pandemic, first dismissing it as “fantasy” and then just “a little flu”.
“A Brazilian dives in the sewer and he doesn’t catch anything,” Bolsonaro told viewers of his weekly Facebook Live programme last Thursday.
Earlier last week, he stunned viewers with a five-minute television tirade in which he attacked political rivals, blasted press “hysteria” and even mocked a beloved celebrity doctor.
“A few state and municipal authorities must abandon this scorched earth concept: the transport ban, the closing of businesses, mass confinement,” he seethed and contradicted specialists, including his own health minister, by insisting the virus “will soon pass”.
This Sunday, he toured the capital Brasilia, defying social distancing recommendations, visiting markets and shaking hands with supporters while encouraging them to continue working to keep the economy going.
“I advocate that you work, everyone works. Of course, anyone who is old stays at home,” he told a street vendor of barbequed meat.
His comments came despite recent statistics showing that the majority of Brazil’s elderly population live with family members or someone else who is not their partner.
Videos showing him questioning quarantine methods were recently removed by Twitter for violating the social media company’s new rules on contradicting public health guidance on combating COVID-19.
Bolsonaro’s messaging surrounding the pandemic makes one thing clear: He favours an “economy first” approach to tackling the crisis; calculating that the number of deaths will be less costly than the inevitable recession caused by economic shutdown.
But as the worldwide death toll climbs to more than 35,000, it is an approach that is costing him precious political capital at home among Brazil’s powerful ruling elite, while major cities in lockdown are rocked by “panelaco” – pot banging protests – most evenings. It is also a plan that is putting Brazilian lives at risk, analysts say.