In response to the personal offenses and criticism of her critically acclaimed documentary “The Edge of Democracy”, in comments by President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa published an opinion article in the New York Times in January 2019 describing the president’s political discourse as a “war on truth”. There are multiple examples that seem to support this point. His environmental policy is based on the denial of climate change, ignoring the warnings from some of the leading scientists in the country (in fact, he fired the director of Brazil’s National Space Research Institute, Ricardo Galvão, because of his disclosure of data showing that deforestation in 2019 was 88% larger than the previous year); his account of history is based on a revisionist claim that Nazism was actually a left-wing movement because it used the name of “national socialism” – which provoked an emphatic response by the German embassy in Brazil –; his policy to avoid sexually transmissible diseases and juvenile pregnancy is based on sexual abstinence and the enforcement of moral and religious values; his public policies on culture and arts are based on a failed attempt to promote a cultural revolution that promises to impose a “content filter” to prevent the emergence of productions that threaten “family values” (in an extreme case, one of his trusted assistants on cultural matters paraphrased and emulated Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda, in a video with an identical setting and a melody of Wagner on the background).
A constitutive element of the new forms of illiberal populism is a carefully planned attempt to undermine Rawlsian public reason by changing the forms of action of liberal institutions. One need not dismantle liberal institutions such as parliaments, universities, courts, professional associations, and so on, since the price for traditional coups d’état is too high and the payback is uncertain. One can achieve more efficient results, according to the illiberal strategy, by undermining the political institutions from within, i.e. by making them unresponsive to their own justifying purposes. In a typically illiberal move, Bolsonaro appointed: (i) a creationist as the head of CAPES Foundation, which is Brazil’s most important agency for regulation and funding of science and high education; (ii) a racism denier as the head of Brazil’s most important agency to protect black people’s rights; (iii) a representative of agrobusiness as head of the National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples, who promises to suppress indigenous rights; and (iv) a minister of agriculture described by the major press in Brazil as a “poison muse”, given her unrestricted support to the pesticides industry (the number of pesticides banned in the rest of the world released into the Brazilian market, as a result of this policy, is considered alarming by the most serious environmental watchers).
The biggest attack on truth emerged, however, when the world learned about the risk of pandemic infection with COVID-19, beginning in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The Brazilian president never took seriously the risk of a global epidemic of COVID-19, despite the warnings of the scientific community and the speed of the spread of the virus in European countries.
In an interview during a trip to Miami, on March 9, 2020, Bolsonaro claimed that the risk associated with the SARS – Cov-2 had been “overstated”, probably because of “economic matters”. In the following day, when Italy alone had already recorded more than 10,000 cases of infection, the President said that “much of what we got is no more than a fantasy”, since the virus “is not everything that the mass media diffuses”. It turned out, however, that the Presidential airplane was itself one of the most dangerous agents of transmission of the virus in Brazil. As of March 20, 2020, 23 persons who travelled with the President on this mission to the United States had been confirmed with the disease, including two of his closest ministers. Bolsonaro himself tested positive for COVID-19, as his son, Representative Eduardo Bolsonaro, confirmed to Fox News and in a later moment lied about it. Although Bolsonaro’s second test was negative, a third one was taken and he has refused to disclose the results. Given the uncertainty about this test, a court order was issued on March 20 against the hospital where Bolsonaro took the test, to determine the disclosure of the full list of persons infected with COVID-19.
We referred to Bolsonarism in the title of this article, instead of simply to Bolsonaro, because the suspicion against science has become a mark not only of Bolsonaro, but of an ideology that has vastly spread in Brazil. One of the most representative evangelical churches, for instance, maintained religious services for thousands of people despite the confirmation of local transmission of COVID-19 in the city of Rio de Janeiro. The prosecutorial office in the state filed a claim to suspend these services, but a state court rejected it on the grounds that it is an exclusive competence of the executive branch to decide which emergency measures should be taken to contain the disease. The Bolsonarist preacher Silas Malafaia, who won this legal dispute against the state prosecutor’s office, received this decision as a victory of religion against liberal institutions, and argued that political authorities cannot stop the religious services, because his church is an “emotional hospital” for Christian believers. No concern about the safety of his followers has been expressed.
We believe that the epidemiology of COVID-19 may provide the decisive test to stress Bolsonarism to its limits. Official statistics show that the virus has observed in Brazil exactly the same pattern that it has shown in Italy. The spread of the disease and the acceleration of the dissemination is actually moving at a faster pace in Brazil, when the two countries are compared. A joint-study of seven major universities show that the virus is behaving in the same way in the two countries. Scientific evidence seems to allow us to predict that the death rate in Brazil is likely to be just as bad as in Italy, considering the time that the virus is taking to double the infected population. Even Bolsonaro’s Minister of Health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, has declared that Brazil’s health system (including not only public but also private providers of health care) will come to a collapse by mid-April.
Yet Bolsonarism seems to resist the facts. It is based on a denial of scientific evidence. For Bolsonarism to survive, the ideology of its supporters must be erected to the same level as scientific truths. Legitimacy comes from a correspondence with the preferences and sentiments of the people, not from a reasoned judgment. Processes matter less than consensus, even when this consensus defies common sense. Bolsonarism only survives for as long as its mystical justification is perceived as a reliable foundation for practical decisions. What made Bolsonarism a powerful political ideology was the promise to authorize action without responsibility. This promise has a liberating effect: you can simply choose to believe what you want. Whatever stands in the way of Bolsonaro’s ideological preferences is considered a threat. Artists, universities, the press (including Pulizer-Award winner Glen Greenwald, who is now facing criminal charges), international law institutions (including the UN), the president of France, schoolteachers (who Bolsonaro wants to be filmed by students to prove their communist bias), Greenpeace, the scientific community, Pope Francis, the entire Catholic Church, and so on, are all dismissed as “corrupted” or manipulated by “communist ideals”.
Bolsonarism is so committed to his anti-establishment views that not even the rise in the death rates of COVID-19 makes his supporters retreat from their ideological commitments. Bolsonarism comes close to self-destruction, as we can see in a recent pronouncement of President Jair Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, a Congressmen who presides the Commission of International Affairs of the House of Representatives. Eduardo Bolsonaro has recently blamed China for the global spread of the virus. He claimed that the Chinese government is a “dictatorship” that, as it happened in the USSR with regards to the Chernobyl accident, “has chosen to hide something serious over exposing itself, but saving innumerable lives”. In fact, several analysts criticized the Chinese government for delayed recognition of the health crisis. But the Bolsonarist method is to try to find an enemy with a view to making the Brazilian executive unaccountable for its mistakes—even if this creates a diplomatic crisis. To blame COVID-19 on the Chinese was, however, an extreme form of this ideology. The Chinese ambassador in Brazil reacted with “vehement repulsion to these words”, and demanded “that he withdraws them immediately and apologizes to the Chinese people”, while the website of the Chinese Embassy in Brasília classified them as “extremely irresponsible” and claimed that Eduardo Bolsonaro “unfortunately contracted a mental virus in Miami, which is infecting the friendship between our peoples”. The Ambassador also wrote that Eduardo Bolsonaro’s words are “a malevolent insult against China and its people”.
After the Chinese answer, President Jair Bolsonaro’s Chancellor, Ernesto Araújo, doubled the bet. While the Chairman of the House of Representatives (Rodrigo Maia) heavily censured Bolsonaro’s son and expressly apologized to the Chinese people, Araújo replied with further offenses, classifying the Chinese reaction as “disproportionate” and demanding a reconsideration from the Chinese government.
So Bolsonaro’s government not only under-reacted against the threat of COVID-19 but also blamed it on Brazil’s most important business partner, to create a distraction and satisfy the committed supporters of Bolsonarism. The response of the Chancellor has led to a tremendous loss of prestige even among the supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro. An editorial of Bandeirantes TV Journal classified Eduardo Bolsonaro as “irresponsible” and Ernesto Araújo as “an idiot”. By the same token, the Parliamentary front of Agricultural businesses, one of Brazil’s most important economic and political forces, reacted with severe criticism against the Bolsonaro Government, given the centrality of China to the Brazilian economy. Bolsonarism seems to have displeased, thus, one of his strongest financial supporters.
Is it a sign of the end of Bolsonarism? It is hard to give a considerate answer to this question. But one thing seems to be true: Bolsonarism has not backed up when contrasted with facts. In effect, President Jair Bolsonaro not only under-reacted against COVID-19, neglecting the alerts from scientists from all over the world, but also took legal action to override the decisions of the state governors who determined the suspension of international flights, interstate travel by buses, circulation of trains and entrance by cars or buses in the city and the state of Rio de Janeiro. He claimed that “it seems that Rio de Janeiro is another country” and enacted an executive order to halt the restrictions that are highly recommended by the scientific community. In other states and municipalities, similar measures have been adopted, and they were equally criticized by President Jair Bolsonaro. In the past few days, he declared that “other flus killed more than this” (March 12th, 2020); that although “many will catch it regardless of the precautions they take”, we “cannot enter into a neurosis, as if it were the end of the world” (March 15th, 2020); that “we are in the midst of a struggle for power and I am going to abide by the Brazilian people; It’s not possible to make me responsible for a possible spread of the virus”.
Instead of adopting measures to restrain the circulation of people and contain the virus, Jair Bolsonaro chose to join a small group of his supporters in a rally in front of the Presidential palace, taking pictures, shaking hands, borrowing mobile phones and posing face-to-face with his voters, in a protest which explicitly demanded a military self-coup, with the closure of National Congress and the Federal Supreme Court. Even though he was being medically investigated for COVID-19, he exposed his supporters to the risk of being infected and endorsed the content of the protests, generating a conflict between branches and several requests for his own impeachment. Recently, we argued that these are enough grounds for Bolsonaro’s impeachment. At the same time, Bolsonaro is asking his political aides to give opinions on an unconstitutional possibility of declaring a state of siege, something that the Bar Association quickly and publicly rejected. Although the future is unknown, one thing becomes clear: the gist of illiberal populism is an explicit denial of modernity and public reason. It is a claim that it is legitimate to rule without responsibility, with little regards for the consequences of this radical strategy. Liberalism’s only hope is that truth strikes back, painful as it might be.
Suggested citation: Thomas da Rosa de Bustamante & Emilio Peluso Neder Meyer, Bolsonarism & Covid-19: Truth Strikes Back, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Mar. 24, 2020, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2020/03/bolsonarism-and-covid-19-truth-strikes-back/