Monday, March 4, 2024

LATIN AMERICA | 17-03-2021 10:26

Under fire, Brazil's Bolsonaro tones down on Covid

With Brazil registering record daily death tolls from Covid-19, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is changing his traditionally pandemic-sceptic tune.

Gone are the days when Covid-19 was a "little flu" – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has changed his pandemic-sceptic tune lately, sacking his widely criticised health minister, ordering millions of vaccines and even wearing a mask.

But while a surge in coronavirus deaths in hard-hit Brazil has put the far-right leader on the defensive, analysts doubt he will change his hardline stance on some key issues anytime soon – including his vitriolic opposition to stay-at-home measures.

"I don't see him making a definitive change. His beliefs are still the same," said political scientist Geraldo Monteiro of Rio de Janeiro State University.

"This is a strategic retreat. He's being pressured by his allies, especially in Congress, because the pandemic is out of control," he told AFP.

The political pressure increased a few notches last week, when a Supreme Court justice annulled former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's corruption convictions. The surprise ruling cleared the way for the popular-if-tarnished left-wing heavyweight to launch a potential run against Bolsonaro in presidential elections next year.

Lula, who led the country from 2003 to 2010, wasted no time condemning Bolsonaro's "imbecile" handling of the pandemic and getting vaccinated before the cameras.

That is something Bolsonaro has pointedly refused to do, once joking the vaccine might "turn you into an alligator." The politician dubbed the "Tropical Trump" has also flouted expert advice on social distancing and face masks.

A recent poll found 61 percent of people disapprove of his response to the pandemic, which has claimed some 280,000 lives in Brazil – second only to the United States.

The country saw yet another day of record deaths Tuesday, with 2,841 people dying in 24 hours – an increase of more than 550 over the previous record last week. There were 83,926 new infections in the same period, the second-highest 24-hour case count since the pandemic began. 

"At this point, the only hope for a change in direction is a fear of losing votes – the one thing Bolsonaro reacts to," the Estado de São Paulo newspaper said in an editorial.

'More aggressive phase'

With hospitals across much of Brazil approaching breaking point, Bolsonaro gave in Monday to pressure to fire health minister Eduardo Pazuello, an Army general with no medical experience. He replaced him with Marcelo Queiroga, a respected cardiologist.

Bolsonaro is now on his fourth health minister of the pandemic, after falling out with the previous two when they insisted on science-based policy responses.

Pazuello, who stayed in the job 10 months, "only lasted as long as he did because he did everything the president wanted," said commentator Andreia Sadi of TV Globo. "Now the president's been advised to change because the pandemic is getting worse. He understood he had to make a U-turn. People want vaccines."

Brazil has so far struggled to secure enough vaccine doses for its 212 million people. But Pazuello announced a change in course on his way out: orders for 100 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and another 38 million of Johnson & Johnson's.

"We are going to a more aggressive phase in the fight against the virus," said Bolsonaro.

Machine-gun syringe

The "aggressivity" extends to the realm where Bolsonaro thrives best: social media.

His son Flavio, a senator, urged the president's fans online to share a picture of a syringe mounted on a machine gun, with the caption "the vaccine is our weapon."

The message appeared to cause some head-scratching among hardline supporters, more used to their leader touting actual guns and railing against Covid-19 vaccines.

"It's a positive change," said epidemiologist Julio Croda of the University of Mato Grosso do Sul. "But we hope more changes are on the way, like backing mask use and restrictive measures. That's essential to avoid the total collapse of the health system."

He added that he was doubtful, however. "Bolsonaro can't stand those things," he said.

The president's initial choice for health minister, Dr Ludhmila Hajjar, declined the job after meeting with Bolsonaro on Sunday, citing "divergent" views.

News site Poder 360 reported that the president told her she would "screw" his re-election chances if she insisted on a lockdown in the impoverished northeast, where Bolsonaro has been courting votes.

Opponents would like to see just that.

"It's no use changing ministers if the policies stay the same," said left-wing Governor Flavio Dino of the northeastern state of Maranhão. "If the president keeps mucking things up, it's going to be hard for any minister to get the job done."

by Louis Genot, AFP


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