Political cost of coronavirus? For Brazil’s Bolsonaro, not much.

Why We Wrote This

COVID-19 seemed poised to dwindle support for Brazil’s President Bolsonaro, who called the pandemic a “little flu” and refused to wear a mask. Instead, he’s thriving. What’s going on?

Andre Borges/AP
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro greets supporters at an Independence Day celebration event in Brasilia, Brazil, Sept. 7, 2020.

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When COVID-19 reached Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro didn’t look like he’d weather the crisis.

The far-right populist is presiding over the world’s third-largest outbreak of COVID-19, which has so far infected more than 4 million Brazilians and claimed the lives of 125,000. For weeks, Brazilians banged pots and pans at their windows, angry over the president’s handling of the pandemic. Two health ministers left his administration and motions for Mr. Bolsonaro’s impeachment began to pile up. Since the start of the pandemic, he has dismissed the threat of the virus, calling it a “little flu,” and lambasted governors who try to shut down states. Other leaders who have taken a similar approach – from the United States to Mexico – have been punished in the polls for dismissing the pandemic’s severity.

Yet Mr. Bolsonaro appears to be weathering the storm and emerging politically unscathed. A voucher program launched in April won him support from the nation’s poorest, historically a group associated with Brazil’s political left. The president now has his highest level of approval, at 37%, since taking office in early 2019.

“Many of those receiving this help see Bolsonaro as the only thing standing between them and hunger,” says Brian Winter, vice president for policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. “The downplaying of the virus, his appearances at public rallies, his refusal to wear a mask – all of that cost untold lives. And he may not pay a political price.”

Ana Valeria Braga was just getting back on her feet after five months of unemployment when the coronavirus hit Brazil.

She landed a gig selling SIM cards on the street. But when the pandemic shuttered her central Brazilian city, Goiás, the single mother lost her new job, too. What saved her was a monthly government voucher of 600 reals – the equivalent of $110.

“It was a ray of light at the end of a tunnel,” Ms. Braga says over the phone. “It made all the difference. It meant I could pay the rent. It meant my son wouldn’t have to go hungry.”

This emergency funding – which amounts to a little over half of a minimum monthly salary – has proved a lifeline for the nearly 63.5 million Brazilians who received it after having their livelihoods brought to a halt by the pandemic.

But the program, which launched in April, has also boosted the popularity of President Jair Bolsonaro to new heights. He now has his highest level of approval since taking office in early 2019, despite what many deem a catastrophic handling of the pandemic. The far-right populist is presiding over the world’s third-largest outbreak of COVID-19, which has so far infected more than 4 million Brazilians and claimed the lives of 125,000. Since the start of the pandemic, he has dismissed the threat of the virus, calling it a “little flu,” and lambasted governors who try to shut down states.

Whereas other leaders who have taken a similar approach – from the United States to Mexico – have been punished in the polls for dismissing the pandemic’s severity, Mr. Bolsonaro appears to be weathering the storm and emerging politically unscathed. 

“Many of those receiving this help see Bolsonaro as the only thing standing between them and hunger,” says Brian Winter, vice president for policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. He says the voucher program has given Mr. Bolsonaro a boost among the country’s poorest citizens, a group that has historically supported Brazil’s leftist parties.

But downplaying the virus has “cost untold lives,” Mr. Winter adds. “And he may not pay a political price” for those actions.

A poll last month showed Mr. Bolsonaro’s approval rose to 37%, from 32% in June. The number of Brazilians who disapprove of the president slumped to 34% from 44%. Almost half of the population, meanwhile, says he isn’t to blame for the toll of the pandemic.

Still, his newfound popularity has come at a hefty cost. The emergency voucher program has ballooned Brazil’s eye-watering public spending bill and deepened worries about the country’s already faltering economy, which has struggled to recover from a painful recession in 2015-16. Now, experts warn the country may be edging ever closer to a fiscal crisis.

This month, the government extended the program until the end of the year. But under pressure to trim costs, they slashed the amount of each handout by half, which could put his ratings at risk.

“There has been a huge impact, a huge rise in the incomes of these families,” says Ecio Costa, an economics professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Brazil’s northeast. “Does this policy bear fruit politically? Of course it does. Whoever brought these families out of the misery they were living in will have political support,” he says.

“But there’s also a huge fiscal concern behind it.”

Silvia Izquierdo/AP
Demonstrators are reflected on a building as they protest against Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, featured at right, during a march coined "Scream of the Excluded," which occurs on the sidelines of annual Independence Day celebrations, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sept. 7, 2020. Activists called for a more democratic nation and an end to economic inequality.

Surge in popularity

When COVID-19 reached Brazil, the pandemic seemed poised to dwindle support for Mr. Bolsonaro. For weeks, Brazilians banged pots and pans at their windows each night, angry over the president’s handling of the pandemic. Two health ministers left his administration and motions for the president’s impeachment began to pile up.

But through each crisis, Mr. Bolsonaro’s core supporters – typically conservative, wealthier Brazilians preoccupied with issues like crime, corruption, and “traditional family values” – have remained steadfast. He has kept their focus on the issues that got him elected: crime, the economy, and culture wars.

“It has kept his base very loyal and engaged. ... That base has stood by him all along,” Mr. Winter says.

But the president’s repeated lambasting of quarantine measures has also resonated with frustrated informal workers, who make up 40% of the labor market in Brazil. Social distancing and quarantines dealt devastating financial blows to those who clean homes, drive taxis, or sell fruit on the street.

“This is the public that benefits the most from a reopening of the economy – people working in service jobs, in informal work,” says Cecilia Machado, an economist and professor at the Fundação Getulio Vargas. “He is talking to an audience that is sympathetic to his ideas.”

Meanwhile, the emergency aid – which Mr. Bolsonaro did not spearhead, and initially criticized as too generous – won the president new fans in regions badly hit by the pandemic’s economic toll.

Brazil’s poorest regions, “where there was strong rejection of Bolsonaro,” according to Professor Costa, benefited most from the aid. He recently analyzed the program’s reach and found that in the northeastern municipality of Central do Maranhão – in one of Brazil’s poorest states – the area’s economic output surged by a quarter following the implementation of the voucher program.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s popularity soared in the poorer north of the country, where social welfare programs like Bolsa Familia once fueled fierce loyalty to the leftist Workers’ Party ousted in 2016.

Jose Daniel Lima da Silva doesn’t like the president’s “arrogant” comments about the virus or his refusal to wear a mask. He doesn’t credit the president fully for the emergency aid, but the locksmith from Recife – a city on Brazil’s northeastern coast – says Mr. Bolsonaro has done more good than harm during the pandemic.

“The truth is that he has helped people,” says Mr. Lima da Silva, whose wife received emergency aid early on in the pandemic. “Finally, a politician who is giving to the people instead of robbing them.”

Political opportunity

The emergency aid was initially supposed to last only a few months. But with the pandemic still ravaging Brazil nearly six months on, it was extended until December – at an estimated cost of $16.8 billion.

The government has tried to tackle the bill by slashing the monthly payments by half. But the move has angered many of those who rely on it.

Before the crisis, Camilla Gomes received $30 in government assistance through the Bolsa Familia welfare program, which delivers cash transfers to poor Brazilians who send their children to school. But she also had income from her job as an office clerk at a university. When she lost her work due to the pandemic, the new emergency voucher became her family’s only source of income.

“Bolsonaro wants to lower the [pandemic] payment” to $56, says Ms. Gomes, who lives just outside Rio de Janeiro. “How far is that going to go with three kids? Do I pay the bills or do I buy food?” she asks.

“Can he survive on that much?”

Mr. Bolsonaro appears to be scrambling to keep cash in the wallets of needy Brazilians. The government is now mulling a plan to create a permanent voucher program, effectively rebranding and replacing the Bolsa Familia project that’s become synonymous with the country’s left.

Finding a way to continue the program may help him maintain support among the country’s poorest, but it could alienate his more traditional supporters, as demands grow to get the economy back on track.

“If he is seen as steering the economy in the wrong direction, it could cost him the reelection,” says Professor Costa.

For Ms. Gomes, the former university clerk, the financial aid is not enough to put her support behind the president.

“This is all just to gain votes in the next election,” Ms. Gomes says. “We will see him as a good president only when he starts caring about the Brazilian people.”

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