“Our lives have to go on. Jobs must be kept… We must, yes, get back to normal,” said Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro on March 24, as the known coronavirus cases in the country nears 3,500 this week with 92 confirmed deaths.
Bolsonaro’s alarming response to the COVID-19 pandemic in many ways parallels the ultra-right leader’s handling of the climate crisis. By refusing to listen to experts in the scientific community and take aggressive action to mitigate the impact, as well as by prioritizing short-term economic growth over everything else, he has proven himself unfit to lead.
Both crises require an aggressive government response and multilateral cooperation to curb the impact. Through his tone-deaf response to COVID-19 and the climate crisis, Bolsonaro has set his country on course for disaster.
A Catastrophic Response to COVID-19
As the coronavirus spreads throughout Latin America, the response has been varied, with many countries taking strong measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Argentina, Bolivia and Colombia have implemented nationwide lockdowns. Cuba has closed schools for one month, banned its citizens from leaving the country and quarantined tourists in hotels. While Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has taken a relaxed approach to the crisis, calling for his people to “live life as usual,” his government has begun ramping up measures to protect its citizens, including closing schools for a month.
Bolsonaro’s response to the crisis has been undeniably reckless, downplaying the virus as a “little flu” and urging his country’s governors to roll back lockdown measures they have taken to fight the virus’ spread and to only isolate high-risk people. He dismissed concerns that Brazil could become the next Italy, citing Brazil’s warmer weather and younger population. This comes even as 23 people from his delegation on a recent trip to visit President Donald Trump have tested positive in recent weeks.
“The livelihoods of families must be safeguarded. We must return to normality,” said Bolsonaro. “There are a few state and municipal authorities that must abandon scorched-earth policies such as a ban on transportation, closing businesses and mass confinement.”
Bolsonaro’s proposals to reopen schools and businesses during the pandemic have been met with resistance by many of Brazil’s governors, who have become increasingly concerned that Bolsonaro’s plans defy the recommendations of public health experts and have strictly limited gatherings . Brazil’s Supreme Court upheld the governors’ measures that were challenged by Bolsonaro, members of both congressional houses have criticized his positions and quarantined Brazilians engage in nightly protests banging pots and pans. Some of Brazil’s drug gangs have even imposed curfews in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas in an attempt to control the virus.
Coronavirus Response Parallels Bolsonaro’s Climate Agenda
Bolsonaro’s minimizing of the coronavirus mirrors his stance on climate change. Claiming environmentalism is a left-wing plot, he has ignored the advice of climate scientists, moving to expand oil and gas development and rolling back environmental protections, which have caused deforestation rates to skyrocket in the Amazon. While he has backed off his campaign promise to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, Brazil will almost certainly fall short of its climate commitments highlighted in its Nationally Determined Contribution.
The rejection of science by far-right leaders such as Bolsonaro and Trump is a worrisome trend as climate scientists and public health experts work to mitigate the impact of climate change and COVID-19. By embracing nationalism and rejecting international cooperation efforts, they are unable to tackle global challenges that require “systemic changes” and bold government responses. By looking only at short-term economic growth, they are putting the populations most vulnerable to climate change and the virus at risk.
Bolsonaro’s tenure as President has been an unmitigated disaster on many levels and his inability to navigate Brazil through these dual crises is further proof that he is an incompetent and extraordinarily dangerous president. His administration presents an existential threat to public health and to the planet.