In the press interview in which he announced he had tested positive, Bolsonaro wore a mask – despite having vetoed the obligatory use of masks in shops and public buildings a few days earlier. He said he had only taken the test because he was worried about passing on the virus to others. This concern for others was in contrast to the insouciance of some of his most infamous recent comments on COVID-19, such as the dismissive: “We’re all going to die one day.”
It would be wrong to expect him to adhere wholesale to the advice of the World Health Organization (WHO), but in the same interview he said he would isolate himself in his office and added that he had cancelled two scheduled trips outside of Brasília. It could be that the president has a new-found respect for the virus.
That raises the question of his government’s response to the wider crisis it has caused. Brazil’s pandemic response has been one of the worst in the world. The president has opposed broad lockdowns, arguing that only the old and the vulnerable should stay at home and that everyone else should return to school and work immediately.
However, in April Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that mayors and governors had the authority to impose their own rules in response to the health emergency, a decision that Bolsonaro was forced to accept. Brazil’s two largest cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, are in the middle of phased loosenings of their lockdowns, but if the number of cases were to shoot up, they have the autonomy to reimpose stricter stay-at-home measures.
In April, 20 of the 27 governors signed an open letter to Bolsonaro criticising his handling of the coronavirus.
Before the pandemic, Bolsonaro had already broken with some of Brazil’s governors – some his former allies – including the governor of São Paulo, João Doria, who is seen as a potential political rival. Bolsonaro also broke with Wilson Witzel, governor of Rio, who he saw as being behind anti-corruption investigations into his son Flavio. Witzel himself is now being investigated by the federal police for alleged misuse of public funds in the health system.