Governing COVID in Brazil:
Dissecting the Ableist and Reluctant Authoritarian*
Francisco Ortega and Michael Orsini
Brazilians, says President Jair Bolsonaro, are so tough they can fend off this pesky COVID-19 virus, the same virus that has killed more than 147,000+ people worldwide and counting.
Likening COVID-19 to a “little flu”, the Brazilian leader has exposed, once again, how he governs this South American country with a toxic mix of populist mistrust of science, ableism, and a dose of toxic masculinity, all of which he whips into a nationalist fervor.
First, Bolsonaro has been reluctant to use the iron fist of the state to enforce lockdowns to stem the spread of COVID-19, as leaders in many countries, far less authoritarian, have done. Lest he be mistaken for a leader concerned about the threat to civil liberties occasioned by the imposition of social distancing measures, Bolsonaro has laughed off the need for extreme measures, arguing that “vertical isolation” of seniors or other vulnerable people is sufficient.
Some commentators fear that authoritarian leaders are using the COVID-19 crisis to enforce draconian measures, silence critics and secure their power base. They warn that once this public health crisis has subsided, the consolidation of power will be the pandemic’s main lasting legacy. Notorious examples include Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán, who declared a state of emergency that has enabled him to seize power and rule by decree, and the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte, who bestowed upon himself emergency powers to silence purveyors of “fake” news. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cited the coronavirus to suspend the courts, effectively delaying his own trial on corruption charges, other governments, such as those of Algeria and India, are relying on the pandemic threat to clamp down on political demonstrations. And others like China, South Korea and Russia have used the COVID-19 pandemic to strengthen digital surveillance (Roth, 2020). Their style of pandemic politicization does not deny science; instead, it mobilizes scientific evidence to justify and enforce punitive approaches to policing the pandemic.
Bolsonaro’s politicization of the pandemic, by contrast, is curiously different. He is, then, a reluctant authoritarian of sorts. While he would like to be a dictator, he cannot use pandemic fear as his authoritarian ‘friends’ have in other countries because he fears the political consequences of the economic crisis. He has not used the coronavirus to seize power and clamp down on society and his critics. To be clear, Bolsonaro has no appreciation for democracy, nor for checks and balances on his power. He firmly believes a military coup would solve the country’s problems, but is also aware that he lacks the military’s support to transform Brazil into a dictatorship in the image of Hungary’s Orbán.
Consumed with his own political survival, Bolsonaro has forged a false dichotomy between quarantine and the economy. The rationale for this is clear: a collapse of the economy following social distancing would hamper his political future. His attempts to concentrate power in the federal government and use it to fight social distancing and other policies to control the spread of COVID-19 have so far been unsuccessful. Policies to limit the circulation of people have been enacted by state and municipal authorities and have been endorsed by the House of Representatives and the Senate. Even some members of Bolsonaro’s own cabinet have expressed concern about his opposition to lockdown policies, including his Health minister, who was abruptly fired on April 16 by the President.
The global spread of COVID-19 has introduced an important shift in the position of the legislative branch regarding Bolsonaro’s authoritarian discourse, which had been tolerated so long as neoliberal economic policies remained in place. Now Bolsonaro is isolated in his defense of vertical quarantine and his dissemination of lies about the pandemic. The current chaotic scenario is intentional for somebody who relies on ‘chaos as method’ to maintain his followers’ loyalty and spread disinformation (Meyer and Bustamante, 2020). It is difficult to ignore the necropolitical features of this grotesque exercise of power. As philosopher Achille Mbembe explains (2003, 40) in his critique of the notion of biopower and elaboration of the notion of necropolitics and necropower, “in our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead.” The countries that ignored or delayed calls for social isolation must now contend with mounting deaths. As one Brazilian journalist writes, “this is how adherents of necropolitics act: negotiating over the number of corpses to sustain a political narrative made against science” (Filho, 2020).
To avoid the chaotic spread of the virus and a mounting death toll across the densely populated country, Bolsonaro’s own Army reportedly decided to circumvent him in all important decisions, turning the president into a ‘monarch without effective power’ and General Braga Netto into the ‘operational president’ (Rocha, 2020).
More a messianic leader with a penchant for explosive pronouncements that generate media shock and awe, Bolsonaro has tapped into a nationalist, populist desire to position him and his countrymen (misogynists are not interested in women as political subjects) as rugged, self-made individualists. Brazil has even witnessed a spate of “pro pandemic” demonstrations from his supporters proclaiming a new version of “red scare”, with claims that the virus is part of an evil Communist plot to destabilize the world, and spur political regime change.
Second, Bolsonaro has taken a step beyond the exploitation of a deep mistrust/distrust of science that has been the stock and trade of leaders such as U.S. President Donald Trump. While it is not surprising that Bolsonaro would question the legitimacy of expert advice to maintain a lockdown and social distancing, he has surrounded himself with a range of characters whose own views are extreme–the equivalent of creationists and flat-earth proponents. His own political calculus might be cunningly rational: being focused squarely on his own political survival, Bolsonaro may be appropriately concerned with how a lockdown might hasten an economic collapse of the country, something from which he might struggle to (politically and socially) ‘distance’ himself. Maintaining a form of “strategic ignorance” (see McGoey 2012) about the public health disaster unfolding in his country can be politically expedient, albeit morally reprehensible. This includes Bolsonaro’s puzzling declaration that the end of the pandemic was on the horizon, when the consensus among public health experts is that Brazil has yet to experience the worst that this pandemic has in store. As McGoey rightly remarks (2012, 3), “the denial of unsettling facts, the realization that knowing the least amount possible is often the most indispensable tool for managing risks and exonerating oneself from blame in the aftermath of catastrophic events.”
Bolsonaro’s political discourse has been described as an all-out ‘war on truth’ by Oscar-nominated Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa, who has been called a “scumbag” by one of Bolsonaro’s sons. The denial of climate change underlying his environmental policy, his revisionist view of history, a cultural politics based on conservative, religious and family values and opposition to gender equality are some of the elements of this post-truth view. He has also worked tirelessly, and somewhat paradoxically given his position, to undermine public institutions. For instance, he appointed a creationist to head Brazil’s largest research funding agency, named someone who denies the existence of racism to take charge of defending Black Rights in Brazil, and appointed a representative of agrobusiness who is hostile to Indigenous rights to head the National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples (Bustamante and Meyer, 2020).
If that were not enough, key members of his inner circle identify with the flat earth movement, which renounces much of the scientific consensus on which our world is based. Flat earthers are bolstered in their beliefs by evangelical Christians. This ideological tent accommodates a veritable grab bag that includes communist conspiracy theorists, anti-vaccination proponents, opponents of freedom of gender expression, to name a few.
Bolsonaro’s anti-science stance should not be confused with a critical posture toward science, which is a necessary feature of democratic governance. He and members of his government have deliberately disseminated fake news about COVID-19 such as the promotion of hydroxychloroquine as a possible treatment or the idea of vertical isolation to promote herd immunity as opposed to social distancing. Bolsonaro even distorted a statement by WHO director to defend the idea that workers can return to normality.
Part of the challenge with interpreting Bolsonaro’s handling of COVID-19 is that while his opposition to social distancing is fueled by a rejection of science and expertise, countries such as Sweden have also been reluctant to impose a lockdown. How then should we characterize Bolsonaro’s governance style, and what does this mean for Brazil’s response to this overwhelming public health crisis, which many observers agree is most likely more significant than the official data are communicating?
Finally, we assert that Bolsonaro’s governance style rests on a blend of ableism and toxic masculinity. Ableism refers to a “network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, species-typical and therefore essential and fully human. Disability then is cast as a diminished state of being human” (Campbell, 2001, 44 quoted in Campbell 2009, 5).
Bolsonaro’s rhetoric is heavily invested in his moral and physical fitness, which can purportedly build a wall against this “little flu’. Ableism, of course, is not expressed simply at the level of the individual. It radiates beyond, and in this case, carries with it symbolic force as a proxy for the health and vitality of Brazilian people. After all, as Bolsonaro proclaimed, Brazilians are the personification of pandemic preparedness: “They never catch anything. You see some bloke jumping into the sewage, he gets out, has a dive, right? And nothing happens to him.”
Ableism has been a prominent reality of this pandemic in many countries. The initial suggestions that the pandemic would “only” affect the elderly or people with underlying conditions sends a painful message that some lives matter more than those of others. As disability activists were at pains to explain, hearing that their lives are disposable or expendable, or might not fare well in the triage lottery, provided further evidence of the value attached to lives of individuals deemed lesser than. As philosopher Shelley Tremain explains (2020), while it is common to mobilize the language of vulnerability vis-à-vis disability, in our compassion for “vulnerable” others, we should avoid naturalizing the term “vulnerability”. Individuals, she explains, are “rendered vulnerable” by systems and institutions: “Vulnerability isn’t a characteristic that certain individuals possess or embody. Like disability, vulnerability is a naturalized apparatus of power that differentially produces subjects, materially, socially, politically, and relationally.”
Bolsonaro has a shameful history with regard to disability rights. During his election campaign, he classified policies created specifically for vulnerable groups as ‘coitadismo’ (or self-pity). His pronouncements are translated into sign language, but he scrapped the Secretariat in charge of Deaf education. His government presented a bill that no longer requires that companies fulfill their obligation to hire employees with disabilities. In addition, he vetoed the expansion of a program that would have provided emergency income to the elderly and low-income, disabled people during the period of quarantine. The program was originally designed to support informal and self-employed workers during the pandemic.
Bolsonaro’s brand of toxic masculinity is intense, even rivalling that of his blood brother, Donald Trump. “Face the virus like a man, dammit, not a boy,” he said recently. Real men can withstand a lot, apparently, and would not let a mere virus interfere with their important lives. Bolsonaro, who says the virus is no match for his virulent self, has been tested twice for COVID-19. He has, however, declined to reveal the test results. Because real men have privacy rights!
Ultimately, it appears that the toxic male traits of leaders such as Bolsonaro and Trump are the last thing we need in managing a pandemic as complex and multi-faceted as COVID-19. As has been pointed out, countries led by women, including New Zealand’s Jacinta Ardern and Germany’s Angela Merkel are leading the way in coordinated responses that are not only evidence-based but also grounded in empathy and a collective ethic of care.
Bustamante, Thomas da Rosa & Meyer, Emilio Peluso Neder (2020), “Bolsonarism & Covid-19: Truth Strikes Back”, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Mar. 24.http://www.iconnectblog.com/2020/03/bolsonarism-and-covid-19-truth-strikes-back/
Campbell, Fiona Kumari (2009), Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Ableness. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Filho, Joao (2020), “Coronavírus: mentiras fabricadas pelo ‘gabinete do ódio’ ditam ações do presidente no combate à pandemia”, The Intercept Brasil. April 12. https://theintercept.com/2020/04/12/gabinete-odio-coronavirus-bolsonaro/
Mbembe, Achille (2003), (translated by Libby Meintjes) “Necropolitics”, Public Culture, (15) 1: 11-40.
McGoey, Linsey (2012), “Strategic unknowns: towards a sociology of ignorance”, Economy and Society, 41:1, 1-16.
Meyer, Emilio Peluso Neder and Bustamante, Thomas (2020), “Authoritarianism Without Emergency Powers: Brazil Under COVID-19”, VerfBlog, April 8, https://verfassungsblog.de/authoritarianism-without-emergency-powers-brazil-under-covid-19/.
Rocha, Lucas (2020), “Does Brazil already have a new “acting President”?” Brasil Wire. April 4. https://www.brasilwire.com/does-brazil-already-have-a-new-acting-president/
Tremain, Shelley (2020), “COVID-19 and the Naturalization of Vulnerability”, April 1. https://biopoliticalphilosophy.com/2020/04/01/covid-19-and-the-naturalization-of-vulnerability/?fbclid=IwAR0KdKRjoeCkO_jMPlAokKTdvxrA1YFmc6D1KVZOVJYJa7BJFmk_dkXugSA
*This essay originally appeared at Somatosphere.