For a man who had just been diagnosed with Covid-19, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was surprisingly cheerful when he stepped up to the microphones of some select journalists on Tuesday afternoon in sneakers and a wide blue shirt. “It’s like rain,” he said, “eventually he’ll catch you.” Then he took off his mask, took a step back and grinned: “Look at my face. I’m fine.”
It was a provocation, even at this moment, but it was in keeping with the behavior of this man who, since the pandemic, has dismissed Covid-19 as “mild flu” that cannot harm a person like him. In the past months, in which the number of victims in Brazil rose to over 60,000Bolsonaro repeated against the isolation measures ordered by governors or mayors, which in his eyes only cause unnecessary economic damage. Again and again he mingled with the people without a mask, shook hands, put his hand on his face, so that it was basically only a matter of time before it would catch him.
On Saturday, after visiting his American friends’ embassy to celebrate Independence Day, Bolsonaro complained of muscle aches, fever, and general malaise. On Sunday evening, he was taken to a military hospital where doctors examined his lungs. “Everything clean,” he said Monday after returning to his palace. He was not afraid, he confirmed on Tuesday after the test result was announced. “The panic is killing people.”
This appearance makes it clear how the populist Bolsonaro intends to deal with his illness: If the symptoms are mild, he will find his opinion confirmed that Covid-19 is “mild flu”. Then there is fear that in the future even more Brazilians will follow their president’s example and ignore the danger of the pandemic.
In this case, the Exploding chloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that Bolsonaro has been praising as a miracle cure for the virus for months. He had been taking the drug, which most specialists and the WHO advised against the use of Covid-19 because of the serious side effects, for prophylaxis for some time and had thrown in a few more pills after the first symptoms, he announced. After that, the complaints resolved immediately.
The confusion among the already insecure population is also likely to increase in the question of masks. The governors of some states had imposed a general mask requirement on the public, but Bolsonaro had vetoed it: churches and shops should be exempt from the regulation – which would largely dissipate the effect.
Now Congress wants to seize the moment and topple the veto. Conflicts are inevitable: if even the sick Bolsonaro does not abide by the rules, many of his followers will also disregard the rules. Bolsonaro proved that he didn’t care about the risk of infection while he was announcing his illness. In the interview, he disregarded all distance rules and spoke directly into the unprotected microphones of the journalists who were so close to him that they could touch him.
But even if the illness should go badly and Bolsonaro has to go to the hospital, it is unlikely that, like Boris Johnson, he would return to the government palace as a repentant and purified statesman. He has already had the experience that a life-threatening threat can subsequently prove to be politically useful: A knife attack in the election campaign, who almost cost him his life, cleverly butchered his sons and followers politically. The compassionate effect and the admiration for his perseverance played an important role in his victory two years ago. If he survives a second life-threatening attack on his health, the worship of his followers should increase immeasurably.
You don’t have to be a cynic if you conclude that Bolsonaro has Covid-19 at the best possible time for him: it distracts from the judicial investigation into his family, which has politically troubled him. His eldest son is said to be involved in a corruption scandal during his time as a MP in Rio, and more and more are coming at the same time Details about his links with right-wing militias that many poor areas in Rio control. Another son maintains close contacts with Bolsonaro followers who are being investigated for the spread of fake news. However, Brazilian news in the coming months is likely to be dominated by daily reports on the president’s health.
This offers him and his sons a wonderful opportunity to influence reporting by video from the Presidential Palace and in interviews with hand-picked journalists.
While the Corona dead could soon fill a stadium the size of the Maracanã, there are fears that the pandemic in Brazil will finally become the presidential YouTube telenovela.