Bolsonaro’s Response to Covid-19: The Political Tools of Inaction, Obstruction, and Blame

An informal fish market  in Manaus, on September 19, 2020. There is a municipal law that requires citizens to wear protective masks, but many people ignore the rules.  (Photo by Raphael Alves/ IMF.)
An informal fish market in Manaus, on September 19, 2020. There is a municipal law that requires citizens to wear protective masks, but many people ignore the rules. (Photo by Raphael Alves/ IMF.)

By Elize Massard da Fonseca and Andreza Davidian

Brazil has been one of the countries most affected by Covid-19. Since the beginning of the pandemic, President Jair Bolsonaro has taken controversial measures to obstruct a coordinated response, adopted a denialist and anti-science discourse, and personally interfered in health policymaking.

His government’s position has been surprising, given Brazil’s previous successful responses to epidemics such as HIV/Aids, its large public health system, and an expert health-sector bureaucracy. It is therefore natural to look at explanations for Brazil’s response in the content of the president’s politics: populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism.

However, together with colleagues from the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois, and Harvard University, we propose a different question to explain the controversial reactions of Brazil, the U.S. and India to Covid: Who can decide these policies and what they can do? We focus on the institutional politics of agency, who acted instead of the content or health effects of their decisions.* In this blog post, we will explore the case of Brazil.

Brazilian presidents loom large in their country’s politics. Jair Bolsonaro, the current chief executive, holds far-reaching constitutional and para-constitutional powers to push forward his controversial, inept response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil at a March 2020 press conference. (Photo by Isac Nóbrega/PR.)
President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil at a March 2020 press conference. (Photo by Isac Nóbrega/PR.)

Brazilian presidents are endowed with strong constitutional powers, including the allocation of positions in the vast federal administrative empire, which are usually filled in alignment with the share of Congressional seats of their party coalition members. Presidents also have the prerogative of issuing decrees, as well as exclusive initiative over budgetary matters. They also hold reactive power, such as the ability to partially or totally veto bills passed by the Congress. As in other countries, the chief executive also holds non-legislative prerogatives that give them great visibility in speaking directly to Brazilians through speeches on the radio and television. These are powerful instruments that allow the president to push forward his agenda, whether for the public good or for more particular interests.

Subnational governments in Brazil — the federal states and municipalities — are a prominent check on presidential power. Coordination among these levels of government is a major challenge in policy and administration. For instance, the Ministry of Health has the constitutional mandate of coordinating Brazil’s extensive public health system, which includes 27 states and more than 5,000 municipalities, with both levels having elected leaders with responsibilities for healthcare provision.

Luiz Henrique Mandetta, then Brazil's Minister of Health, March 2020. (Photo by Isac Nóbrega/PR.)
Luiz Henrique Mandetta, then Brazil’s Minister of Health, March 2020. (Photo by Isac Nóbrega/PR.)

Bolsonaro’s interference with the Minister of Health has no precedent in Brazil. In April, with the number of Brazilian Covid-19 cases second only to the count in the U.S., Minister of Health Henrique Mandetta was fired for threatening the President’s political dominance and undercutting his pseudo-scientific rhetoric. Mandetta, a physician, was a member of the Democrats party, part of the president’s coalition. The president then appointed another respected physician, Nelson Teich. However, due to his vehement disagreement with President Bolsonaro’s plans to adjust clinical protocols for Covid-19 treatment, Teich resigned less than a month after taking the position. Teich was replaced by General Eduardo Pazuello, an active-duty army officer who publicly expressed his lack of previous knowledge about the Brazilian public health system when already in office. Pazuello yielded to the adjustment of the clinical protocols; reformulated the disclosure of epidemiological data, to announce only information about death and confirmed cases in the previous 24 hours; and ruled out vaccines that could be included in Brazil’s immunization program because they were produced by China and distributed by the state of Sao Paulo, both seen as enemies by the president.

Eduardo Pazuello speaks as Minister of Health, September 2020. (Photo by Isac Nóbrega/PR.)

It was thanks to the authority of state governments over health policy that Brazil was able to secure some level of social distancing and other non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI), and to coordinate with WHO measures. For almost three decades, state governments have had limited influence on Brazilian national politics, given the institutional powers of the executive and the way that tax resources are distributed. But in the vacuum of federal NPI leadership, they began to enact measures and communicate public health information. The President tried to challenge the authority of subnational governments over pandemic management, but the Supreme Court ruled in favor of governors.

A drive-through testing facility for Covid-19 in Águas Claras, April 2020. (Photo by Leopoldo Silva/Agência Senado.)
A drive-through testing facility for Covid-19 in Águas Claras, April 2020. (Photo by Leopoldo Silva/Agência Senado.)

Bolsonaro then used his decree power to list essential business that should remain open (including gyms and beauty salons), arguing that subnational governments went too far in social distancing measures, damaging the economy. Most state governments remained firm in their support of social distancing, business closures, and warnings against therapies that had yet to be tested. That is why we observe a large disparity between the severity of social distancing measures supported by the federal government and those enacted by subnational authorities, with the latter contributing more to Brazil’s scores on country-level stringency measures.

Taking advantage of the uncertain division of authority over Covid-19, the president adopted a blame-avoidance strategy. Bolsonaro used his power to address the nation on national TV seven times between March and September 2020, attacking subnational governments, sowing doubt about the seriousness of the pandemic, and fostering public demonstrations against social distancing. He also vetoed several parts of Covid-19 related legislation passed by Congress (e.g. mandatory use of masks in religious sites, and compensation for health professionals permanently harmed by the pandemic).

We argue here that centralization of agency in the president does not explain necessarily the policy outcomes, but his action — and inaction — were in the power of that role. Bolsonaro and Trump are controversial leaders, incapable of managing the pandemic or of coordinating effectively. We call attention to the importance of observing political institutions that enable agency, and that federalism, as a check on federal power and in interaction with other variables, can safeguard public health and political order.

A sign warns residents of Brasília, “Stay at home.” (Photo by Leonardo Sá/Agência Senado.)

*This essay was adapted from a manuscript co-authored with Scott Greer (University of Michigan), Mina Raj (University of Illinois), and Charles Willison (Harvard University) about the politics of agency in COVID-19 responses, which is submitted to a health politics journal. EMF is funded by the Sao Paulo State Foundation (2020/05230-8).

Elize Massard da Fonseca.

Elize Massard da Fonseca is Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the Getulio Vargas Foundation and a non-resident Visiting Scholar at the Latin America and Caribbean Center at the London School of Economics. She was a Visiting Scholar at CLAS in 2019. Together with Scott Greer, Elizabeth King, and Andre Peralta, she is the co-editor of The Comparative Politics of COVID-19: The Need to Understand Government Responses, forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press in Spring 2021.

Andreza Davidian is a doctoral candidate in Public Administration at the Getulio Vargas Foundation. She is a Visiting Research Student at the Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines in France.

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