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29 January 2021updated 29 Jul 2021 2:34pm

Will Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency outlast Brazil’s Covid-19 disaster?

A renewed surge in coronavirus deaths is fuelling calls for impeachment in Latin America’s largest nation.

By Nick Burns

For a while the flood of news from Brazil seemed to slow to a trickle. As a winter surge of coronavirus cases struck Europe and as election-related updates and outrages poured from the US, few noticed as Latin America’s largest country seemed almost to stabilise. The seven-day average of coronavirus deaths in Brazil dropped from 1,000 per day throughout the summer to a low of about 350 in November. A bargain struck between right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro and the patronage-accruing establishment parties of the so-called Big Centre seemed to be holding.

In September, the scheme for giving coronavirus cheques to poor Brazilians was extended to the end of the year, but at half the original rate. This generosity was surprising from a government containing stingy Chicago-trained economy minister Paulo Guedes – whose bid to cut down Brazil’s debt and auction off state-owned enterprises has amounted to little – but it provided relief to a stricken populace and has helped bolster Bolsonaro’s approval ratings. By December, the percentage of Brazilians who described his government as good or excellent had risen to 37 percent from 32 percent in June. Those numbers are not overwhelmingly good, but Bolsonaro still has few serious rivals in public opinion.

This state of affairs – while not ideal – was a marked improvement from a summer defined by overwhelmed hospitals, constitutional clashes between the executive and judicial branches and constant scandals, as Bolsonaro fired health ministers and shrugged off the seriousness of the virus. It seemed that Bolsonaro would make it through his term and, barring some unexpected development, was even the favourite to win another term in 2022.

But matters have worsened considerably, and quickly, over the past two months. Deaths from coronavirus are now back to the levels of the summer. Last weekend (23 January), thousands of Brazilians joined motorcade protests to demand Bolsonaro’s impeachment over his handling of the disaster. Manaus, a city of two million in the remote heart of the Amazon, has fared especially badly. Strain on the city’s health system has been so intense – officials blame a new, more virulent strain of Covid – that oxygen supplies were exhausted. An article in the Wall Street Journal reported horrific accounts of the city’s residents looking on helplessly as their family members suffocated.

The human tragedy in Manaus has created further political awkwardness for Bolsonaro and his foreign minister Ernesto Araújo, who have sought to align Brazil with the United States and are frequent, staunch critics of socialist Venezuela. It took nine days to secure oxygen supplies from the US, as a deal was reportedly reached on 25 January. In the meantime, the hated Venezuela stepped in to resupply Manaus, which is difficult to reach by road and relies heavily on transportation by barge or plane.

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Meanwhile, delays have beset Brazil’s attempt to vaccinate its population against the virus. State governments in São Paulo and elsewhere have clashed with the federal government, including on the question of whether to rely on CoronaVac jabs imported from China, of which Bolsonaro’s government is critical. Shortages of material to produce vaccine doses in domestic facilities have also been a problem, while reports are already emerging of wealthy or influential Brazilians trying to jump vaccine queues.

Bolsonaro, for his part, makes little effort to disguise his scepticism towards vaccines. “It says right there in the contract,” he complained of vaccine manufacturer Pfizer on 19 December. “If you turn into a crocodile, that’s your problem.”

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One would imagine that the Bolsonaro government must be thinking, not without some bitterness, that in seeking to align itself with the US it backed the wrong horse: with Donald Trump out of office, a failed membership bid to the rich-country club of the OECD, and US-developed vaccines only available for now to wealthy countries, closer relations with China might have yielded greater immediate benefits. Instead, as of January, China was refusing to expedite the release of crucial vaccine-making supplies in the midst of a diplomatic spat with foreign minister Araújo, who has made various statements in the past about China’s tyrannical behaviour. A 21 January report in the Brazilian newspaper Gazeta do Povo even alleged that the Chinese ambassador had demanded Araújo be fired. By 25 January, the supplies were finally released, but the delay will have deadly consequences for Brazilians, while the conduct of the Chinese delegation will likely make many both inside and outside the Bolsonaro government feel that Araújo’s stance has been vindicated.

Some in the government think differently: vice-president Hamilton Mourão, the voice of moderation within the government, is said to be lobbying too for Araújo’s dismissal. Still, the president seems to support his foreign minister for the time being.

[See also: Brazil’s heart of darkness]

Looking forward, the outcome of Brazil’s vaccine roll-out may be of more consequence to the prospects of ordinary Brazilians than for Jair Bolsonaro. The country’s public health service is accustomed to administering vaccines and there will in any case be sufficient supply well in advance of the next elections in 2022, meaning the memory of any failures that ensue with the roll-out will have dissipated by the time of the polls. The resurgent pandemic has dented Bolsonaro’s approval rating, which fell to 31 percent in January, but it will have to fall much further before impeachment becomes a serious option. The likely next leader of Brazil’s lower house, Arthur Lira, signalled, predictably, that he did not support impeaching Bolsonaro for his role in the country’s Covid-19 response.

Another reason to make Bolsonaro the favourite for another term despite everything is that he continues to enjoy few rivals at his level of national recognition. A recent survey showed that the only figure with a higher proportion of positive impressions from Brazilians than Bolsonaro was his former health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta. Even the former left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, still lionised by his supporters for his service to the country’s poor, polls 5 percentage points below Bolsonaro. João Doria, the governor of São Paulo state who has taken a prominent role in leading the vaccine roll-out, polls 13 points lower.

Brazilian history and the experience of 2020 have demonstrated emphatically that it is impossible to foresee with any confidence the events of the next several years. The rise of a strong candidate of the left or the centre is possible. Something else entirely may occur. Will Bolsonaro, seen by much of the world as tropical acolyte to Donald Trump, yet outlast his master?

[See also: How South Korea’s Covid-19 success faltered]