Sao Paulo: In the 1973 soap opera called O Bem-Amado (The Well Loved), broadcast on Globo TV, a cunning mayor of a small town in Bahia unveils a plan for a grand cemetery to impress the citizens. After much expenditure, so goes the plot, the cemetery is ready but it awaits inauguration as nobody is dying in the town. Consumed by his vanity, the mayor plots to kill someone, but fails. Out of desperation, the mayor summons a reformed assassin, asking him to take a life so the cemetery can be inaugurated. As fate would have it, in the final episode of the series, the criminal ends up killing the mayor; and the cemetery is finally opened with much fanfare.
Broadcast during the years when Brazil was under a military dictatorship, the town in the soap opera became a microcosm for the country, where the generals used mega projects like big bridges and events like football victories to dazzle the citizenry and keep the nation distracted from poverty and democracy. Like other South American countries, several Brazilian soap operas used the technique of magic realism, where the mundane becomes spectacular and reality looks like fantasy, to show the state of the nation under military jackboots.
Tales spun with magic-realism make delightful reading. Living those stories, though, is another matter. Since February, when the SARS-CoV-2 virus reached Brazil, it has been living through one such continuous moment, with President Jair Bolsonaro offering a “miracle cure” for the virus which he calls a “fantasy”. As the virus ravages the country, images of ICUs running at full capacity, the health system collapsing due to the number of cases, gravediggers working non-stop and children begging on streets have become ubiquitous. Despite these facts, the president still considers the virus a fantasy.
Distraction is the best defence
In February, when the virus had literally shut down the city of Wuhan in China and was causing panic in Italy, the mood here was different. It was carnival time. The weather was balmy, beer was flowing like water and Brazilians and foreigners – many from pandemic-affected European countries – were partying in jammed streets and packed bars.
Though there were enough signs – and warnings from the WHO – that the virus was headed towards this region, Bolsonaro was busy picking fights with his adversaries. First, he launched a torrent of insults at a female journalist for revealing that the president had shared a video on WhatsApp in support of anti-Congress demonstrations, scheduled for March 15, despite the risk of virus. Then he lashed out at Pope Francis after the pontiff pleaded for the “protection” of the Amazon rainforest. “Well, the pope may be Argentinian, but God is Brazilian,” Bolsonaro said, ticking off the Pope for an “attack on Brazilian sovereignty”.
On February 25, Brazil reported its first case of COVID-19 – a man who had just returned from Italy. As more cases were reported from the upper-class neighbourhoods of Sao Paulo, the mood began to turn grim. As private hospitals struggled with the patients and the media demanded a coordinated response from the federal government, Bolsonaro looked the other way. When he could not ignore the situation anymore, the president reacted by calling the virus a “fantasy” propagated by the media. As the caseload graph rose, Bolsonaro dubbed it a “hysteria”. After cases were reported from several states, he called COVID-19 a “little cold” that needed little attention.
In the first week of March, the federal health ministry announced that the “national scenario has changed”, and states like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro started shutting down non-essential businesses – but Bolsonaro couldn’t care less. He took off for Miami to have dinner with US President Donald Trump at his Mar-o-Lago resort, where they discussed how the two countries could work together and discussed Venezuela.
Within days of the president’s return, a member of his delegation tested positive for COVID-19. In the next few days, 19 of the 22 people who went to Miami tested positive. Amid rumours that the president himself was infected, Bolsonaro continued to move around, tweeting videos of himself visiting shops, shaking hands with people and encouraging them to “continue to work”.
As Bolsonaro appeared in public with a runny nose and a fit of cough, it reinforced the suspicion that he was indeed infected. Even as two tests came back negative (though he would not release the details of the examination, conducted under false names, for weeks), a vast majority of Brazilians remained unconvinced. Bolsonaro then tried to convince the nation by claiming that “nothing would happen” to him as he was an athlete in his youth. Then he questioned the death toll, saying that states were rigging the data to make “political use” of the matter. He claimed that eventually “70% of the population will be infected”. Finally, he argued that it was the “destiny of all human beings to die”.
As Bolsonaro’s claims neither convinced the people nor brought down the number of infections, the president began to look for new tactics. Around this time, on March 25, Trump came up with the idea out of nowhere that “hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine are possible treatments for COVID-19”. With demand for these medicines going up, Bolsonaro latched on to the idea. On March 28, he posted a tweet claiming “chloroquine was a cure” for COVID-19. Twitter removed the post the next day.
But Jair Bolsonaro had found a magic cure that he would hawk to 210 million Brazilians.
Here comes the magic
At the beginning of April, Brazil had recorded more than 1,000 deaths. As hospitals across all 27 states treated patients with severe cases, the president appeared at a bakery in Brasilia, hugged his supporters and posed for selfies without a mask. His message to the people was clear: it was alright to keep the shops open, it wasn’t necessary to follow physical distancing norms and there was a medicine for the “little cold”. At the same time, a Brazilian Army laboratory was going full steam, producing some 2.2 million chloroquine tablets, with plans to increase production to 1 million per week.
With the president openly violating WHO-recommended norms and promoting an unproven drug, the then health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, a doctor by training, publicly rebuffed Bolsonaro by releasing a report that concluded there was no evidence that “hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine were effective against COVID-19”. On April 13, a Brazilian study into the effect of chloroquine was halted after patients developed heart complications. Three days later, Mandetta was fired. “Life has to go on. Brazil has to produce. You have to put the economy in order,” said Bolsonaro, as he brought in a new health minister.
In early May, it was clear to everyone that hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine were not working. Even as several international studies rejected the drugs, Bolsonaro continued to push it. On May 7, just when Brazil’s coronavirus death toll touched the 10,000 mark, Bolsonaro and his ultraliberal finance minister Paulo Guedes warned that the “quarantine measures needed to be relaxed or the economy could collapse”. Under pressure to recommend the drugs, the new health minister resigned on May 15. The next day, the toll climbed to 15,000 and Bolsonaro went out to a gathering of his supporters, who demanded the “closing down of the Supreme Court judges and Congress”.
On May 22, in a bombshell decision, a Brazilian Supreme Court judge asked the government to release a video of the cabinet meeting where the president allegedly threatened to dismiss the chief of the Federal Police. The meeting, presumably called to discuss the COVID-19 crisis, had nothing to do with the pandemic, the video showed. Played on national TV for hours, it showed how Bolsonaro and his ministers were thinking of subverting all processes amid the pandemic. Leading from the front was the president himself, launching into a profanity-laden diatribe against everyone trying to “incriminate my family” into criminal cases.
Guedes, who cut his teeth into unbridled capitalism in Chile under Augusto Pinochet, vowed to move ahead with economic reforms – a euphemism for privatising state enterprises. The environment minister suggested passing laws that can “end all protection” for the Amazon rainforest because the media was “busy with the pandemic”. And the education minister Abraham Weintraub called on the president to “arrest” the Supreme Court judges as those “vagabonds” were threatening the government.
Even for a country assailed by a health crisis, the video was a shocking revelation of how dysfunctional the Bolsonaro government was. As the president faced questions about his angry outburst at the meeting, he turned back to chloroquine, making it a culture war issue between his far-right supporters and others. “Those on the right will take chloroquine, those on the left will take tubaína [a local soft drink],” Bolsonaro said in a tweet reminiscent of Trump.
Bolsonaro and his government have never shown any resolve to fight the virus. Since the beginning of the crisis, their aim has been to force the states to “reopen the economy”.
End of the world
In 1996, when Brazil was easing into a democracy, Globo TV broadcast another magic-realist soap opera called Fim do Mundo (End of the World). The story is based in a small city where a psychic announces the impending end of the world. Meteor showers, floods, storms and lightning follow the announcement. The city’s residents, as the story goes, believe that the apocalypse has arrived and try to fulfil their suppressed desires. But the world does not come to an end and everyone faces the consequences of their actions.
The 18 months of Jair Bolsonaro as president have been a rollercoaster ride for Brazil. In this period, everything progressive about the country has been rolled back and all democratic norms have been threatened by the president and his sons – known as Clan Bolsonaro – and their far-right supporters. But like the soap opera, karma seems to be catching up with them.
In the past month, the carefully crafted myth of the Bolsonaros has unravelled. The president’s eldest son, Flavio, a senator, is under investigation for links with a notorious militia from Rio de Janeiro. Bolsonaro’s other two sons are facing probes for running an “office of hate” that spreads fake news. Weintraub, the former education minister, ran away to Miami last month fearing prosecution in a case. His replacement had to drop out before he could be sworn in as it was revealed he had lied about his educational degrees.
The Bolsonaros have been hit the hardest where it hurts the most – on social media. In a case being overseen by the Supreme Court, far-right bloggers and militants have been arrested, their social media accounts deleted and their finances cut off. In a matter of weeks, the social media presence of Bolsonaro supporters has dropped after Facebook shut down some accounts. They have lost much of their power to make fake news trend with the help of bots.
The president’s whose popularity is now limited to his far-right base, as the upper- and middle-classes who backed him in the 2018 election have largely deserted him.
Poster boy of a miracle drug?
In the worst scenario possible for Bolsonar, the demand for hydroxychloroquine has nosedived as hospitals have become wary of using the drug. He stockpiled the drug but now there are no buyers. Last month, the US FDA revoked its emergency-use authorisation for hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine and Trump dumped two million doses on Brazil as a “goodwill gesture”.
After the Brazilian president attended a party at the US Embassy on July 4, where no one was wearing face masks, Bolsonaro reported some symptoms of COVID-19. On July 7, he announced he was infected with the virus. Within hours, his office released his test report – in his real name this time. But he remained dismissive about the virus. “This virus is almost like a rain. It will hit everyone. Some people have to be more careful. That’s all,” he said, taking off his mask in the middle of the press meet.
In March, when Bolsonaro had denied he was infected, a large number of Brazilians hadn’t believe him. Now, when he says he is infected, people are doubting him again. In the last 24 hours, Brazilian social media circles have been abuzz with theories that Bolsonaro is trying to prove COVID-19 is nothing more than a “little cold” that can be cured with hydroxychloroquine. Bolsonaro himself lent weight to such doubts on Tuesday when, during his 21-minute press conference, he mentioned hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine 17 times.
On Tuesday evening, he appeared in a Facebook video popping a hydroxychloroquine pill and claimed it was his third dose. “It is working. I’m feeling very well,” he said, shoving the tablet into the camera. These gimmicks have only intensified doubts.
“Although chloroquine has no proven efficacy for the treatment of COVID-19, Jair Bolsonaro takes advantage that he tested positive to advertise the drug, trying to show that he has already improved because of the ‘miracle drug’,” Leonardo Sakamoto, a respected Brazilian columnist, wrote in an article on Wednesday. “By offering a magic and cheap medicine as a solution, the President of the Republic wants to weaken the quarantine and push for the country to return to normalcy.”
With close to 45,000 new infections and 1,000 deaths every day, Brazil is far from any semblance of normalcy. But that hasn’t stopped its president from promoting a drug for a virus he doesn’t take seriously.
Shobhan Saxena and Florencia Costa are Sao Paulo-based journalists.