Obsessed by the economic situation and the business community, the Brazilian president continues to minimize the effects of the pandemic.
It was a Sunday, early evening, March 22. Some of Brazil’s wealthiest businessmen are chatting by teleconference. This virtual meeting is organized by XP Investments, a large investment fund in the country. Objective: to debate the dark economic consequences of the pandemic. Benjamin Steinbruch, boss of CSN, one of the largest steel groups in the world, suggests that public banks facilitate lending to businesses during the first 90 days of the crisis. It has only been a week since the governors of the Brazilian states have decreed the closure of businesses, authorizing only the operation of essential services, supermarkets, pharmacies, security services. But already, these businessmen are desperate. For them, it’s obvious.
In Brasilia, President Jair Bolsonaro has been lost for several days … He is very sensitive to the concern of these businessmen. First, he downplayed the importance of the pandemic, saying it was a simple flu and that the economy could not stop. Before the containment actions decreed by the governors, he had two possible ways: to admit his error and change the discourse, or to sink into denial. He chose the second.
This same Sunday, a column by Thomas Friedman in the “New York Times” circulates on WhatsApp groups of Brazilian entrepreneurs and lawyers, detailing an alternative to the strategy of social isolation adopted by most of the European countries affected. The editorialist mentions the path of “vertical isolation”, advocating that only the elderly and at-risk groups remain confined, and that the rest of the population resume normal activities. It did not take long for this text to spread from the loops of discussions of business leaders, to the office of the President of the Republic, who found in this tribune the rhetorical salute he was looking for.
This “vertical isolation” justified his position of denial inspired by Donald Trump.
Satisfying the business community
Thus, he no longer needed to recognize his error in judgment, he could offer a less penalizing path for the economy, while satisfying the business community. Since the first day of his mandate, Bolsonaro has had a mantra in mind: no president is re-elected in the midst of an economic crisis.
The surge in coronavirus cases around the world in the following weeks did not reverse his rhetoric that the problem was less serious than previously claimed. Bolsonaro used to go out on the street and talk to passersby to ask if they were ready to go back to work. Everywhere he went, a crowd formed – grotesque images with regard to the distancing measures imposed by the epidemic. During one of these outings, he said he was convinced that the dead and sick were much less than what was believed and he accused the governors of inflating the figures for political reasons.
But the governors renewed the restrictive measures; construction work on field hospitals has continued, especially in Sao Paulo, where nearly 8 million people are infected and more than 90% of the beds are already occupied. According to official figures, as of April 8, 18 million people were affected in Brazil and 941 dead, but the Ministry of Health is working with projections 10 to 15 times higher, due to the lack of tests in hospitals.
A resolutely optimistic presidential communication
In his denial speech, Bolsonaro proposed the confinement of risk groups, the elderly and the sick, and the return to a normal life for most Brazilians. He also advocated the use of chloroquine in the treatment of patients, not to mention the fact that there is no definitive research on its effectiveness. Presidential communication has squarely adopted this optimistic bias, claiming that chloroquine will save the sick, that soon everyone will work and resume a normal life.
Following this speech repeated every day by Bolsonaro, the streets gradually filled up again, the Brazilians being less and less frightened by the pandemic and less and less respecting the decrees of containment.
A survey carried out by the Ideia Big Data polling institute between March 25 and April 8 shows that Brazilians very concerned about Covid-19 are today 57% against 62% two weeks before. Mauricio Moura, founder of the company, establishes a direct link between the loosening of confinement and the discourse of Jair Bolsonaro:
“They are hopeful that everything will get better and tend to focus on the good news. If there is no sudden spike in the death toll, people will tend to no longer be affected by the pandemic”.
In the favela of Rocinha, in Rio de Janeiro, a real city within the city, where 100,000 people live in makeshift dwellings, the manicure Adma Oliveira had not left the house for two weeks, until Wednesday 8 when she decided to go to a client. “I haven’t been out for a long time. But there, I decided to answer. However, I did not take public transport, which is very busy. I went on a mototaxi, ”she says. In Rocinha, there are so far only four deaths. But with the promiscuity and the topology of the places, which prevent families from maintaining the required distances between them, the projections, for this slum as for the others, are catastrophic. There is little left but the President not to believe it.