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As Brazil Confronts Coronavirus, Bolsonaro and His Supporters Peddle Fake News

On March 11th, when the global community already had been struggling to contain the spread of coronavirus for many weeks, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro declared that the outbreak was something “of a fantasy.” It was a “moment of crisis,” he acknowledged, but “a small crisis” that had been exaggerated by “mainstream” media.

“Some press outlets had managed to make oil prices fall,” he added. “[It’s] a stock-market problem. It happens occasionally.”

These comments echoed the views of Bolsonaro’s most enthusiastic right-wing supporters, who have spent recent days disseminating articles and social-media posts downplaying the virus as mere hysteria—perhaps even part of an organized campaign created by the media, NGOs, and communists.

A blogger with ties to Brazil’s far-right government, Bernardo Küster, wrote that the situation was “in the first place, a great psychological experiment of manipulation on a global scale… Why not start tests to manipulate the international market by fear and [appealing to] our survival instincts?” Küster added that the template for this sort of campaign had already been witnessed on “a global scale in [the field of] education, through UNESCO”—a cryptic reference that he annotated vaguely by reference to right-wing author Pascal Bernardin, who has argued that the world is sliding into left-wing “totalitarian government.”

David Magalhães, International Relations professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, has noted that some of Küster’s claims—such as that the Chinese government spread the coronavirus to eliminate opposition to communism—are copied straight from Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon: “It’s just ctrl-c [and] ctrl-v. [In Brazil, as] throughout the world, the radical right is deliberately waging a war of narratives to discredit institutions that they judge elitist/progressive. The media, academics and scientists are prime targets.”

Küster is one of the most influential spokesmen for the ideology that some call Bolsolavismo, a mix of right-wing thinking and conspiracism linked to eccentric astrologer, self-styled philosopher and Bolsonaro confidante Olavo de Carvalho. Odilon Caldeira Neto, a historian at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora, notes that there is a strong element within such far-right Brazilian networks that focus on China, with Beijing playing the role of both eastern antagonist to the West more generally, and a source of communist agitation more specifically. According to Küster, for instance, “Covid-19 came at a good time for the Chinese and for the globalist bureaucra[cy]. The U.S. economy is growing… and Trump [likely will be] re-elected. He was winning the trade war against the Red Dragon, which was about to collapse. Trump and his allies continue to undermine globalism.”

More recently, Bolsonaro has changed course, claiming on a Facebook video broadcast that the disease is a “calamity.” But he did so while seated with his colleagues, in defiance of social-distancing practices—this following his insistence on shaking hands with supporters at a rally. The president, wearing a mask, asked that political marches be cancelled due to the same pandemic that a few days earlier he’d called a “fantasy.” Hours later, the marches were indeed called off, though by that time, far-right activists were determined to flout the restrictions as an act of defiance. And Carvalho, the aforementioned right-wing political guru, continued to call for demonstrations (from his home in Virginia) without any concern for the health of his own followers. The hashtag #Desculpepresidentemaseuvou (Sorry president, but I’ll go) began trending.

Alexandre Garcia, a supporter of Bolsonaro and a former journalist with Rede Globo, Brazil’s largest TV network, wrote an op-ed for Gazeta do Povo dismissing fears over coronavirus as a “hypochondriac thing.” He also tweeted on March 9th that “the coronavirus [channels] Freud on [Studies on] Hysteria and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life… and Shakespeare [on] Much Ado About Nothing.” Xico Graziano, a former state representative who supports Bolsonaro, tweeted early on that the epidemic “is the invention of catastrophic journalism.”

Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president since January 2019, is a populist social conservative who often is compared with Donald Trump. His supporters constantly speak out against initiatives aimed at furthering education, supporting teachers, or promoting science. Many of his most vocal cadres range from fundamentalist creationists to monarchists to neo-Nazis. They have raised fake news to an art form. The video network Terça Livre recently released a video in which a commentator speaks about the need to maintain street protests in order to fight the “power of coronavirus”—and urged followers to rise up in case the shadowy forces promoting fears of coronavirus “come to screw the population.”

As of Friday, Brazil already had more than 600 confirmed coronavirus cases (including six deaths), almost 200 of which were reported in the most recent 24-hour period. Ironically, Bolsonaro himself may have been put at risk of coronavirus infection by one of his own advisors. (Numerous members of Bolsonaro’s entourage who visited the United States last week have reportedly tested positive for coronavirus.) The close proximity of the disease is the likely explanation for why Bolsonaro stopped talking about the pandemic as a Chinese hoax. But his prescriptions are superficial. As pointed out by journalist Filipe Barini, “Bolsonaro ended his [March 12th Facebook] speech with only one recommendation: Avoid [social groups]. He did not announce practical measure[s]… He reinforced his support for acts against [political opponents in Brazil’s] Supreme Court and Congress, but asked the organizers to ‘rethink’ their organization [i.e. street marches].”

When thousands of people took to the streets anyway, the president himself shared videos of the demonstrations, even though he’d recommended their suspension. Some wore masks. Others said that the virus was fake. In São Luís, capital of Maranhão state, a demonstrator claimed that “coronavirus has never killed a person on the face of the earth. Nor it will. Old people die because they have pneumonia and other things.”

It was a few days later when Bolsonaro, who was supposed to be in isolation, waiting for the results of a coronavirus test, greeted protestors in Brasília and shook hands with some of them. Afterwards, when interviewed by CNN Brasil, Bolsonaro again suggested that coronavirus fears might be akin to “hysteria,” which he attributed vaguely to “economic interests.” A far-right (largely fake) news outlet celebrated all this by concluding that coronavirus isn’t “holding anyone at home.”

Bolsonaro’s own son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, told Fox News a week ago that his father had tested positive for coronavirus. But hours later, he retracted his statement. Indeed, he even went so far as to say that he hadn’t even spoken to the press about a possible positive result. Jair Bolsonaro then tweeted, moments later, that he had tested negative. This was accompanied by a picture of the president of South America’s biggest country giving a “banana” to journalists. In Brazil, the sign has the same effect as telling someone to go fuck oneself.

The whole world is facing a pandemic. Right now, Europe is getting the worst of it. But ultimately, the effects could be most serious in countries such as Brazil, which are relatively poor, full of inequality and beset by an ongoing economic crisis—not to mention a political crisis that long predates coronavirus, and which is presided over by a government that often seems sympathetic to radicals and conspiracy theorists.

Fighting coronavirus will require the best global leaders to step up and show real leadership. Alas for Brazil, all we have is Jair Bolsonaro.

 

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a Brazilian journalist, and holds a PhD in Human Rights from the University of Deusto. Follow him on Twitter at @Tsavkko/@Tsavkko_intl.

Comments

  1. We are in a crisis, there is no doubt about that. The question is, What kind of crisis? The governments of world are now ordering people to stay inside and even deploying troops to enforce it. In the USA, a mere 276 people have died from a new contagious disease over the course of 3 months, and already the entire state of California is on lock down. The media has become the most vocal champion of authoritarian solutions. To express the least bit of skepticism of the government’s draconian response earns a person the sobriquet “right wing conspiracy nutjob”. One would normally expect the media to be standing up against authoritarianism, yet the opposite is true, the media have become the Dictators best friend. We are in for some very dark times.

  2. Conspiracies are extremely common in democracies. The quality of deliberative institutions requires honesty, integrity. The design of our states rejects both. “Fake news” has been common for the longest time.

    @JWombacher Constitutionally there are some protections like in the US:

    Although we are likely to see greater use of robust social distancing measures, such as school closures or the cancellation of public meetings, broad sanitary cordons — in which geographic areas are quarantined — would raise serious constitutional questions. They also can present numerous logistical challenges and can increase the risk to those living in the restricted zone. Such measures may also have limited efficacy with a highly contagious disease such as Covid-19.4

    https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2004211?query=featured_home

    Though, what the law says is the case, never is really the case due to that notorious “executive discretion” claim. The same is true for constitutional law, so Courts can be relied on not to defend rights.

  3. The breathtaking speed with which the governor of California decides to “lock down” the state he leads is shocking. California did not even bother to convene the state legislature and pass a law authorizing this edict, however absurdly unconstitutional it would surely be. No, this is not needed when the media is a cheerleader for dictatorship.

  4. a PhD in Human Rights from the University of Deusto
    Wow, very impressive! A sort of Doctor, I presume.

  5. With little to base it on, I don’t get a great impression of Bolsonaro. But I’m pretty sure that with one or two exceptions I’ve never had a good impression of any South American politician. They seem to be far left or far right, with not much in between. With the exception of Africa, they are the continent with the most corrupt institutions and leadership. What went wrong down there? Why is it that where the Brits went, prosperity and democracy followed, and where the Spanish went, only crap ensued?

  6. Does the CA Gov have the power to order and enforce a state-wide lock down to ensure public health and safety? That’s for lawyers and politicians to debate. I’m neither, but I think the Gov is doing the right thing health-wise. Disgruntled persons can always sue the Gov–except that the courts may be the next service to be shut down.

    Remember that A. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War and is now remembered as a national hero, not a tyrant.

  7. It has been interesting to see how many issues that would normally be non-political have quickly divided upon political lines. Several countries have begun to use chloroquine as treatment for the coronavirus and there was a hopeful but very small study done that supports its effectiveness. Trump mentions it and immediately the news coverage of it divides along partisan lines. NBC and Bloomber report “2 grams of Trump’s touted anti-virus drug ‘can kill’” as if anyone is proposing such excessive dosage. Attempting to find real information that I can digest about cloroquine is proving again that our news media nearly useless.

    Everything seems to contain political ax grinding and when a story is reported I look suspiciously for the political angle before seriously entertaining the content. Still to echo your point, likely much of the media would quickly criticize authoritarian solutions if Trump were to adopt them.

  8. @Thersites wrote:

    Everything seems to contain political ax grinding and when a story is reported I look suspiciously for the political angle before seriously entertaining the content. Still to echo your point, likely much of the media would quickly criticize authoritarian solutions if Trump were to adopt them.

    I think the problem is the media focus is always Trump, and what lines of attack it can deploy most effectively in order to hurt him. So, we are really not getting accurate news about the Wuhan Virus. It was not always like this. We could reasonably expect a responsible press under past administrations and crises. It could be that this lack of seriousness from the media reflects the fact that this crisis from the virus is far from being as serious as they purport it to be. I think if it were really that serious, then the public outcry over the horrible press coverage would be such that the media could NOT sustain its partisan stance.

    It is worth noting that since Trump first announced his candidacy 5 years ago, the coverage has been wall-to-wall Trump ever since. The Wuhan Virus is the first real news story to finally dethrone pure Trump coverage on CNN, MSNBC, and the other mainstream networks.

  9. Case in point, even this term is now deemed “racist” even though it has been in general usage even by the same newsreaders that are now condemning its use. It is hard to keep up.

  10. I was happy to use Covid 19 until certain, ahem, people declared Chinese or Wuhan virus racist, which I think is simply stupid. So now I’m tending towards a term I first saw @Benitacanova using, WuFlu, which is hopefully irritating to all the right people :innocent:

  11. From what I understand, there is not a single “coronavirus” in the world, so I would have to refer to it as “a corona virus” instead in my comments, because “the corona virus” is technically wrong. But that does not make much sense, does it? Someone correct me if that is wrong. I could also say “the Wuhan coronavirus”, but that still includes Wuhan, so I just shorten it.

  12. What about “Kung Flu”?

    I hear that one a lot, as in: “Everybody was Kung Flu Fighting” over toilet paper.

  13. I am fond of Wuhanic Plague, although I also like Tom Hanks Disease (THD) and Boomer Remover.

    I supposed Flu Manchu is a bit over the top. And Moo Goo Gai Panic is right out.

    Has the name Spanish Flu been canceled? is it now “Covid-1: the Original!” or something like that?

  14. The Left has spent decades sacrificing the media’s credibility on the altar of progressivism. That’s a problem when a credible media is actually needed.

    The fable of the boy who cried wolf always ends with a real wolf, and it’s not just the boy who gets killed by it.

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