Brazil's President Downplays Pandemic Despite Rising Cases In His Hometown

Dec 27, 2020
Originally published on December 27, 2020 12:54 pm

A second wave of COVID-19 is rippling across Brazil. The latest hot spot is Rio de Janeiro, hometown of President Jair Bolsonaro. Even so, he is continuing to subvert efforts to control the pandemic.

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Whether he acknowledges this or not, President Trump leaves office next month with an awful statistic attached to the last year of his administration - the number of Americans who have died from the coronavirus. The U.S. has led the world for months in COVID-19 deaths. Behind the U.S. is Brazil. But so far, the pandemic has done little damage to the standing of its president, Jair Bolsonaro. The latest coronavirus hot spot is his hometown, Rio de Janeiro. NPR's Philip Reeves is there and sends this report.

(CROSSTALK)

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: We're outside a bar below the Sugarloaf Mountain. These drinkers don't seem worried by the city's new surge in deaths or the growing waiting lists for beds. Hundreds of mask-less people crowd together. The only bubbles here are in beer glasses.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

REEVES: When the pandemic began, most people in this part of Rio tried to follow the rules. They closed businesses and stayed home. Medical experts approved. Brazil's president did not.

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PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Jair Bolsonaro downplayed the coronavirus from the start. He's chastised governors and mayors for closing local economies. He's urged Brazilians not to be sissies. Everyone has to die sometime, he says. When Brazil's death count rose above 5,000 back in April, Bolsonaro was asked to comment.

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BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Portuguese).

BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "So what," the president replied. "Sorry. What you want me to do about it?" That number is now above 190,000.

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BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

(CHEERING)

REEVES: The other day, Bolsonaro addressed a packed crowd of supporters. He didn't wear a mask, nor did most of them. In Rio, Jota Marques watches Bolsonaro's conduct with alarm.

JOTA MARQUES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Marques is a community leader here in Cidade de Deus, or City of God. It's one of Rio's many favelas. About 1.5 million people live in them. They're often poor and overcrowded neighborhoods, neglected by government. When COVID arrived, Marques and his fellow activists decided the City of God must protect itself.

MARQUES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "We launched a social media information campaign," explains Marques. He handed out masks and went door to door, urging residents to socially distance.

MARQUES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Marques says his mission became harder after Bolsonaro called the coronavirus a little flu.

THERESA WILLIAMSON: Bolsonaro's stance since the beginning absolutely pushed people to think there was nothing going on, it wasn't serious or they didn't need to do anything.

REEVES: Theresa Williamson is from Catalytic Communities, a nonprofit that supports community development in favelas. She says when someone who must work to survive hears Bolsonaro's messaging...

WILLIAMSON: She just thinks, OK, well, if the direction from the top is that there's no big deal, then I can go back to business as usual.

REEVES: Williamson's organization runs a project tracking COVID cases in the favelas. It's logged several thousand deaths. But conditions are tough, and getting reliable data is difficult.

WILLIAMSON: I don't trust the numbers at all. I just don't.

REEVES: The true picture is likely much worse.

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WILLIAMSON: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Williamson recently chaired an online conference in which people from favelas talked about what they're going through.

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ANNA PAULA SALES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "People are dying at home because they can't get health care," says a woman called Anna Paula Sales.

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ANA LEILA GONCALVES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Another, Ana Leila Goncalves, says she lost five friends to COVID in one week. When Bolsonaro took office, many commentators derided him as a know-nothing retired army captain from the far-right. That's wrong, says Marcus Nobre.

MARCOS NOBRE: He is clever. Of course he's clever. He's clever, and he's cunning.

REEVES: Nobre has written a book about Bolsonaro and is one of his fiercest critics.

NOBRE: Let's get rid of this discourse that Bolsonaro is dumb, that Bolsonaro is crazy. He has a strategy. You think that he's stupid. He's not.

REEVES: Bolsonaro's popularity has actually gone up since the pandemic began.

OLIVER STUENKEL: He made a bet that despite the thousands of deaths, at the end of it, Brazilians will care about their jobs.

REEVES: Oliver Stuenkel is professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo.

STUENKEL: Even though his strategy can be considered to be morally reprehensible, you know, from an electoral point of view, it's actually quite effective.

REEVES: Bolsonaro's unexpected popularity also has a lot to do with money. Worried about soaring unemployment, his government's funding the most costly welfare program in Brazil's history. It's making emergency payments to 65 million of the poorest Brazilians.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: The plan was, in fact, approved by Congress, yet the president's getting the credit.

GILVAN DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: It was a brilliant idea, says Gilvan da Silva. Da Silva sells coconuts and cocktails on a beach in Rio called Praia Vermelha. He was stuck at home for several months because his beach was closed by COVID.

DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "That was really tough," he says. The emergency payments, about $120 a month, helped his family survive. Da Silva used to be a leftist.

DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: He says at the next election, Bolsonaro gets his vote.

Rio de Janeiro is now gearing up for the new year in an unusually subdued mood. Normally, there's this to look forward to.

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REEVES: A massive New Year's Eve party for more than a million people on Copacabana Beach. That's canceled. Most here are waiting for the vaccine. Even that is a source of friction with Bolsonaro. Medical experts want as many Brazilians as possible to be vaccinated. The president's critics say he seems to want the opposite. Bolsonaro has said mandatory vaccinations are for dogs.

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BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: He says he won't be having one.

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BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: And that's that.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF TWO LANES SONG, "FEEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.