In an address to the nation on Tuesday night, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro finally seemed to acknowledge the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, calling it “the biggest challenge of our generation.”
For weeks, Bolsonaro has downplayed the crisis, dismissing it as “panic” and “hysteria,” “a small cold,” a media “trick,” and a fake emergency manufactured by his political opponents. On Sunday, he visited bustling shopping centers and said businesses should remain open, contrary to guidance from the Ministry of Health.
On Tuesday, however, his tone softened. This time, instead of arguing to protect the economy, he spoke of “saving lives without leaving jobs behind.”
“We are going to fulfill this mission while taking care of people’s health,” Bolsonaro said. “The virus is a reality.”
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Brazil topped 8,000 on Friday, and 327 people have died. Around the world, more than 1 million people have tested positive for COVID-19, although the real number of cases is believed to be much higher.
Sources tell HuffPost Brazil, however, that Bolsonaro’s shift in rhetoric was motivated more by political considerations than by science. Bolsonaro has found himself without support, not only in the political class — something he has never tried to cultivate, and in fact has actively rejected — but also within his own government. Bolsonaro is “feeling fragile” in his position, a source close to the president said.
For the past two weeks, Brazilians isolating themselves at home have taken to their windows and balconies nightly to bang pots and pans in protest and shout “Bolsonaro out!”
“He has demonstrated that he is unfit to be president,” Maria Hermínia Tavares de Almeida, a political scientist at the University of São Paulo, told The New York Times. “He remains in power for one very simple reason: No one wants to create a political crisis to oust him in the midst of a health emergency.”
In the United States, President Donald Trump similarly downplayed the severity of the pandemic for weeks, insisting that the coronavirus would “miraculously” be gone by April and that American businesses would be open again by Easter. Reviving the U.S. economy, which had boomed during Trump’s presidency, would strengthen Trump’s case for re-election this fall.
“The president’s greatest strength has been the economy,” Mike DuHaime, a Republican strategist, said recently. “If the stock markets continue to tank, and real people begin to hurt financially, it will hurt the president politically.”
With White House officials now estimating that as many as 240,000 Americans could die as a result of the coronavirus, however, Trump’s political calculus appears to have changed.
“The polling sucked. The campaign panicked about the numbers in red states. They don’t expect to win states that are getting blown to pieces with coronavirus,” a former West Wing official told Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman.
“The campaign doesn’t matter anymore,” Trump recently told a friend, according to Sherman. “What I do now will determine if I get reelected.”
That sentiment was echoed this week by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a White House adviser who has taken on a central role in the government’s coronavirus response.
“What a lot of the voters are seeing now is that when you elect somebody to be a mayor or governor or president, you’re trying to think about who will be a competent manager during the time of crisis,” Kushner said during a news briefing on Thursday.
For the time being, Americans seem to be giving Trump the benefit of the doubt, despite his early missteps and rejection of scientific evidence. Trump’s approval rating reached 49% in a Gallup poll last month — the best of his presidency — and now stands at 47%, according to a RealClearPolitics average of public surveys.
That tendency of people to “rally around the flag” during a time of national crisis is reflected in Europe as well.
In Italy, the epicenter of the pandemic in Europe, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has seen his popularity surge to 71%, even though more than 13,000 people have died in his country.
This week, Conte strongly criticized the European Union for failing to come to Italy’s aid. “If we are a Union, the time has come to prove it,” Conte said in an interview with the German weekly Die Zeit.
On Thursday, the president of the European Commission apologized to Italy for its delayed reaction. “I apologize, we are with you,” the commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, wrote in an article in the Italian press.
In France, where Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly told the public that “we are at war,” the president’s approval ratings have increased by as much as 14 percentage points since February. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen her approval ratings rise 11 points to 79% since early March.
In Spain, however, tensions between the country’s main political parties have been rising. On Thursday, the leader of the conservative Popular Party described Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez as a combination of “arrogance and incompetence,” according to El Pais. The far-right Vox party has called for Sánchez’s resignation.
In the United Kingdom, too, Boris Johnson’s government has faced withering criticism over its management of the crisis. The Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, the country’s two most pro-Johnson newspapers, have lambasted the prime minister over the U.K.’s lack of coronavirus tests. Even Trump said this week that the U.K.’s initial strategy for handling the outbreak would have been “very catastrophic.”
Earlier this week, British Chancellor Michael Gove told the BBC that criticism of the government’s response should be reserved until the crisis is over. “Frankly, the most important thing is not to look backwards but forwards and do everything to increase the number of tests,” he said. “Once this epidemic is over there will be an opportunity to look back and learn the lessons.”
As criticism of the government increased throughout the week, however, health secretary Matt Hancock pledged to ramp up the coronavirus testing plan, and admitted mistakes had been made.
“There will be criticisms made,” Hancock told a daily press briefing on Thursday, “and some of them will be justified.”
With reporting from HuffPost Brazil, HuffPost UK, and Reuters.