COVID-19: Trump and Bolsonaro’s Response

April 8, 2020

Coronavirus or COVID-19 has taken over in the past months as a disease that is easily transmittable and has infected and killed many globally. The rapid spread of COVID-19 has caused governments and leaders to be at the forefront of the pandemic, implementing measures to try to slow the spread of the virus. Some countries, like China, have implemented travel restrictions and have quarantined cities that are predominantly affected. Other countries have had a more relaxed response. United States President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, had a similar slow-moving response to COVID-19. Their reluctance to accept the current pandemic is a danger to many lives; as the longer we wait to act, the more people will become infected. 

Presidents Trump and Bolsonaro came to power through a similar background. Many people say that it was Trump’s presidency that emboldened Bolsonaro and justified his racist rhetoric.Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign included anti-immigrant rhetoric, that was often characterized as racist. The campaign was full of racist remarks and policies, including a travel-ban from six Muslim majority countries and when he claimed a judge was biased because he’s Mexican (Marans 2017). Bolsonaro had similar themes in his presidential campaign, which came two years later in 2018. During his time as a politician, Bolsonaro has targeted and lambasted the LBTQ+ community. According to the Guardian, he once warned against Brazil becoming a “gay tourism paradise” and he is a self-proclaimed homophobe (Kaiser 2019). However, Bolsonaro’s intolerance isn’t limited to the LGBTQ+ community, he has also dehumanized indigenous people, afro-brazilians, women, and other marginalized groups. The two leaders representing right-wing parties have been linked together due to the timing of the elections and similarities in rhetoric and policy, which has stimulated favorable U.S.-Brazil political and economic relations. Bolsonaro has many times followed in Trump's footsteps, which is why the two presidents having similar reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic is not so surprising. 

Since the Coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, the disease has spread to at least 166 countries (Taylor 2020). Although there were many warnings, some leaders refused to accept the daunting reality of a global pandemic. In January, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the U.S.,  and Trump responded to a question asking about concerns surrounding the pandemic with, “No. Not at all. And-- we’re-- we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s—going to be just fine” (CNBC, 2020). Trump dismissed the increase in cases in the U.S. by claiming, sometimes falsely, that the number was fewer in the U.S. than in many other countries (Qiu 2020). He has also downplayed the effects of the coronavirus, calling it a “germ” and a “flu” (Qiu 2020). His phase of dismissal also included calling the Coronavirus the Chinese virus, a racist method to project the blame onto China. By calling it the Chinese virus, many are afraid that it adds to an already growing anti-Asian-American sentiment in the United States (Jakes 2020). Trump has continued his optimistic approach to the coronavirus by proclaiming he wants the U.S. economy and people to be up and running by Easter. President Trump’s attitude comes in contradiction to public health officials who state “the worst effects of the coronavirus are still weeks away and that lifting the restrictions now in place would result in unnecessary deaths” (Karni 2020). Trump’s statement is potentially very dangerous as it could make many think that returning to their normal social, active lives is okay, while in reality, it could put many in risk.

Similarly, Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, has also had a relaxed response to the Coronavirus pandemic, calling it a “fantasy” (Marcello 2020). Bolsonaro has gone far enough to even criticize quarantine methods and shutdowns, claiming that they create a “climate of terror” (Phillips 2020). Bolsonaro has seemed to ignore warnings of public health officials, who asked him to self-quarantine after he was potentially exposed to COVID-19 during a trip to the U.S. where he met Donald Trump. During this trip, 20 members of his delegation became infected, however, Bolsonaro has reported that he tested negative, but has yet to provide proof (Phillip 2020). The lack of response by Bolsonaro sparked a consecutive five-night protest through the form of pan banging, called panelaço. This form of protest allows the people to be heard without having to gather in large groups or interact, which could potentially worsen the already dire situation. Governors in Brazil have continued to shut down businesses and promote self-distancing in order to slow the virus, which Bolsonaro has disagreed with (Marcello 2020). “The president described restrictions on public transport, social-distancing measures, and closures of businesses and schools as “scorched-earth” policies” (BBC World 2020). Many people in Brazil are in disagreement with Bolsonaro and are continuing to take the precautions of Coronavirus very seriously. 

So why are Trump and Bolsonaro responding this way? In its entirety, it is hard to grapple with the current reality of a global pandemic. It is probably even harder to recognize this when you are leading a nation and are worried about the consequences. While it is not an excuse, Trump and Bolsonaro’s initial responses of disbelief are in all likelihood because they do not want to believe this is happening. Trump and Bolsonaro are likely to be extremely worried about their national economies, hoping that the COVID-19 won’t last long, so that the people and businesses can resume their normal lives, without major effects on the economy. Especially, because the two presidents both swore on improving their national economies in their presidential campaigns. However, that reality is unlikely, as 3.3 million Americans have already filed for unemployment (Casselman 2020). Government support is necessary in a time like this, where people are unable to work, losing their jobs, and have no income to support their family. 

Trump has begun to switch his tone after Coronavirus cases in the U.S. reached over 100,000 and critics questioned his initial response to the pandemic (Dawsey 2020). He has started to emphasize the need for Americans to social distance and even took back his statement about the U.S. being open by Easter (Hoffman 2020). He has started to take action by invoking the Defense Production Act that “compels General Motors to manufacture ventilators to help handle the surge of coronavirus patients” (Dawsey 2020). This preparation in creating ventilators is a positive response to the large amount of Americans who have exclaimed that the health system does not have enough resources to treat the expected amount of patients that Coronavirus will cause. Hopefully, the Defense Production Act will help increase resources before hospitals become overwhelmed with patients. During a speech on March 28th, 2020, Trump stated that he had been considering a quarantine in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, but later decided against this. He instead asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a Strong Travel Advisory for these areas. Trump’s actions in the past week have shown a newfound effort to address the pandemic, while Bolsonaro has remained firm in his stance.

As Trump has begun to take COVID-19 more seriously, Bolsonaro stands alone in rejecting the current pandemic. According to BBC World Bolsonaro stated, "People are going to die, I'm sorry," he said. "But we can't stop a car factory because there are traffic accidents” (BBC World 2020). The emphasis of not stopping a car factory is in reference to businesses and industries closing down because of the virus. Bolsonaro’s fear of economic downfall could also be related to his approval ratings, as they usually fall when the economy is down. Bolsonaro’s lack of response could be particularly lethal in Brazilian cities like Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, where overcrowding is common. According to BBC World, this has already begun, “It has already started - there are now cases in Rio's shantytowns, known as favelas” (BBC World 2020). The spread of the virus to impoverished communities is likely to be disastrous, as sanitation and medical care are less accessible. We can only hope that sooner, rather than later, that Bolsonaro will have a change of mind and recognize the threat of COVID-19 to Brazilians and not just the Brazilian economy. The dilemma leaders are facing with the Coronavirus pandemic is the protection of their people versus the protection of the domestic economy. In this dilemma, there is an obvious answer.



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About Author(s)

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Mia Bristol
Mia Bristol is a fourth year undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh pursing a double major in Political Science and Spanish with a Certificate in Latin American Studies. During summer 2019, Mia completed research on the use and accessibility of contraception in the University setting in Manizales, Colombia through the Seminar and Field Trip by the Center for Latin American Studies. Mia intends to graduate Spring 2020 and pursue a career in foreign affairs. This is her first year as an intern for Panoramas.