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COVID Roulette: Brazilians Didn't Vote For A President Who'd Gamble With Their Lives

Andre Borges
RUDDERLESS SHIP Brazilian Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta (right) gives President Jair Bolsonaro hand sanitizer last month at the Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia


President Trump turned up the pandemic chaos this week by halting U.S. funding of the World Health Organization and ordering his name slapped on U.S. Treasury relief checks. His Brazilian buddy, President Jair Bolsonaro, has effectively responded by saying: “Hold my beer.”

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Brazil’s health minister, Dr. Luiz Henrique Mandetta, says Bolsonaro is firing him this week. The reason: Mandetta publicly criticized Bolsonaro’s benighted denial of the COVID-19 threat. Mandetta’s team could resign in protest. That would leave Latin America’s largest country with a rudderless public health battleship just as the new coronavirus has begun its real assault there — and just as a new study estimatesBrazil may have 12 times the 29,000 infections the government has so far reported.

Bolsonaro hasn’t yet confirmed he’s axing Mandetta. But what’s certain is he really doesn’t care about the fallout. He’d finally be rid of Mandetta, whose responsible guidance during the crisis has won him a 76 percent approval rating among Brazilians compared to 33 percent for Bolsonaro. He’d be free of a science-based troublemaker who contradicts o presidente’s thick-headed mockery of COVID-19 as a media “hoax” and scolds him for walking Brazil’s streets to shake people’s hands – even though he may have been infected himself last month.

READ MORE: Bolsonaro Oblivion: Why Brazil's COVID-19 Future Is Likely Worse Than It Looks

You could call Bolsonaro’s health ministry purge O Massacre de Abril — The April Massacre. But this political carnage puts more than democratic institutions at risk. It endangers people’s lives.

So I have a question for the 80 percent of South Florida Brazilians who voted so vociferously for Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s 2018 presidential election:

Would you like your vote back now that Bolsonaro has made your native country an even bigger target for a plague that could do to your family and friends there what it’s done to Italians, Spaniards – and folks here in your new country, the U.S.?

Not even Trump was willing to play Russian roulette with American lives during the COVID crisis the way Bolsonaro looks willing to risk Brazilian lives.

If you do it’s completely understandable. Perhaps you didn’t fully appreciate two years ago that the maverick demagogue you backed was in fact as dangerously unhinged as you surely realize he is now. Right?

Hell, not even skeptical journalists like me could have imagined back then just how dangerously unhinged. I mean, I stood on Miami Dade College’s downtown campus talking with many of you after you cast your votes for Bolsonaro in your sea of green-and-yellow soccer jerseys. I did my best to understand why you’d entrust the nation of ordem e progresso to a middling, mean-spirited congressman best known for crudely racist, fascist, homophobic and sexist rhetoric.

I accepted the reality that you were following Bolsonaro for the same reason so many U.S. voters had signed up with Trump: you, like them, wanted someone who’d blow up a corrupt, elitist system, and you wagered that the most offensive guy you could find stood the best chance of getting it done.

But it turns out — and I know this from conversations I’ve had with you since – you didn’t really wager Bolsonaro would help eco-arsonists set matches to Brazil’s crown jewel, the Amazon rainforest. Or that he’d embarrass you by quipping this year that the indigenous people who inhabit that rainforest “are increasingly becoming human beings.” Or that he’d threaten to revive practices notorious during Brazil’s brutal 1964-85 military dictatorship, such as shutting down Congress, criminalizing anti-government protests and green-lighting extrajudicial killings.


Perhaps all that should have prepared us for Bolsonaro’s medieval dismissal of the coronavirus danger in Brazil — and for his jaw-dropping assertion that even if the pandemic takes lots of lives, it’s not worth taking the social-distancing and lockdown actions that would compromise the robust economy he needs for re-election in 2022.

Credit Andre Penner / AP
Brazilian health personnel check the passengers of a car for COVID-19 symptoms last month outside Sao Paulo.

After all, every pre-coronavirus Trump outrage should have prepared Americans for the presidential character vacuum they’re witnessing during his dysfunctional White House briefings now. But somehow, not even Trump can measure up — I mean, down — to Bolsonaro’s COVID criminality.

Eventually, not even Trump was willing to roll the dice, tell Americans to go about business as usual — meaning, preserve the U.S. economy and his re-election chances — and bet that the pandemic wouldn’t be as bad as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. Mandetta, was warning him it would be.

What sets Bolsonaro so monstrously apart is that even if COVID-19 doesn’t ravage Brazil as badly as experts fear — even if he turns out to be right about that — the chilling fact remains that he was willing to play that kind of Russian roulette with Brazilians’ lives.

Please, Brazilian friends, tell me you didn’t vote for that.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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