The US And Brazil Have The Most COVID-19 Cases. That’s No Coincidence.

Presidents Trump and Bolsonaro have a lot in common. Their governing styles have played direct roles in the public health crisis from the beginning.
President Trump hands out a personalized jersey to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. (Photo: Isac Nóbrega /PR)

President Trump hands out a personalized jersey to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. (Photo: Isac Nóbrega /PR)

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This year, the northern hemisphere nods in its summer with more than just the coming solstice. Every day, there’s more buzz about research on a vaccine; Etsy artists designing ear loop-free rainbow face masks; curves flattening and some rising, topical articles on how to get through quarantine; and how people are finding humor in quarantine life.

We humans, still alright and alive, want to normalize all the newness that the pandemic brought us, and talk about the “Life After.”

This is a defense. After so much panic and upending, it’s normal to want to feel OK, and that we’ve adapted. As Charles C. Mann writes in The Atlantic, “Pandemics Leave Us Forever Altered,” and we can begin to accept that.

But we’re not ready to talk in the past tense. Instead of just overcoming the virus, we have to overcome the leaders who fail to protect us.

When looking at the latest pandemic data, two countries consistently rank at the top: The US and Brazil. You might have most recently heard about surprise regarding Brazil’s numbers, which Bolsonaro’s government is currently playing with and concealing.

Besides being powerful countries on the world stage – both passing a population of more than 200 million – both stand under leaders that share an unfortunate and dangerous repertoire. Bolsonaro’s June 5th threat to pull his country out of the World Health Organization, for example, followed Trump by just one week.

This article looks at how each president contributed to their country’s public health failures considering initial denial, April actions, and current crisis response.

The following executive statements can remind us of a president’s power to influence their citizens – for better or for worse. And sometimes, Twitter is the ultimate tool. No wonder Trump signed an executive order last month targeting the regulation of social media companies just two days after Twitter questioned the veracity of one of his tweets.

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The United States of America – President Donald Trump


But this wasn’t the beginning of the denial. We’d have to consider January 22nd’s “we have it totally under control,” perhaps inspiring citizens to adopt a lax attitude, lost somewhere in the American superiority complex (see Bolsonaro on Brazilians’ “strength” below) – and February 2nd’s imposition of the China travel ban, which, oh yeah, didn’t actually ban travel from China – only that of “aliens,” or nonresidents who do not apply to any special case specified.

Since the virus’s surfacing in late December, at least 430,000 people had arrived in US airports from China – including 40,000 after the imposed travel ban. “Thousands of them,” reported The New York Times, “flew directly from Wuhan, the center of the coronavirus outbreak, as American public health officials were only beginning to assess the risks to the United States.”

President Trump ignored warnings from officials including HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Economic Adviser Peter Navarro as early as January. The Trump Administration also failed to get testing up to speed between January and mid-March. Crucial months lost. While the CDC created unreliable tests, Trump spent February holding rallies. Trump called coronavirus fears a hoax at the end of February.

It wasn’t until late Match that the Trump Administration recommended lockdowns and strict social distancing guidelines. Studies have shown that if the social distancing had been in place just one or two weeks earlier, tens of thousands of lives would’ve been saved.

Here’s a fantastic source to follow Trump’s denial timeline.

Intermediate boasting and passive-aggressive retweeting

The language leaves facts vague, but clearly wants to brag. However, Trump is not using a meaningful metric, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation: “The highest number of raw tests in and of itself is not meaningful for any particular country or location within a country,” said Jennifer Kates, a vice president at the Foundation.

Right, and that’s because the US has so many people to test. But how have we done in terms of proportion? PolitiFact wrote that Germany, Ireland, Belgium, and Canada had all tested a larger percentage of their population than the US at the time. “[F]ocusing on the 5 million figure distracts from the real issue — by any meaningful metric of diagnosing and tracking, the United States is still well behind countries like Germany and Canada.”

There’s also Trump’s passive-aggressive retweeting of a call to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci – the nation’s leading specialist on infectious diseases. Trump also advocated unproven drugs like hydroxychloroquine which the FDA later warned against. See Bolsonaro play a similar card around the same time below.

Current crisis response

In this tweet, Trump focuses on the economy as the impetus for opening up the country. The same day, the CDC reported 16,429 new cases, and that total deaths was approaching 100,000.

Trump has also belittled the coronavirus death toll, claiming it could’ve been much higher. Trump also claimed no responsibility for the deaths.

Brazil – President Jair Bolsonaro


Twitter deleted two of the Brazilian head of state’s tweets in late March on grounds that they could lead to physical harm or violence.

The deleted tweets were reported to show videos of Bolsonaro questioning social distancing and promoting the ingestion of hydroxychloroquine as a viral remedy. Sound familiar?

Although these claims can no longer be confirmed through Twitter, the app isn’t his only means of influence: On March 26, he publicly stated that Brazilians are exceptional, and because of that, nothing will happen to them: “Brazilian jumps into sewer and nothing happens, says Bolsonaro in regards to coronavirus.”

The same article reported that Bolsonaro also thinks that many people have already had the virus, and are therefore producing antibodies which will help stop the spread. “I don’t think it will ever get to that point,” he said, in reference to the pandemic in the United States.

Intermediate shrugging, firing, and bragging

In this interview with reporters, Bolsonaro is asked about the rising death rate. He shrugs and says two things: “So what?” and “I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?”

Earlier that month, Bolsonaro had fired health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, on ground that his “vision was that of health, of life. Mine is more than life, it includes the economy, jobs.” Bolsonaro had expressed worries regarding quarantine’s effect on the economy, but as the New Yorker reminded, “Brazil’s social and economic inequalities were well advanced before COVID-19, and redressing them was not a top priority of Bolsonaro’s government.”

Curiously, the following is the tweet pinned on his Twitter, which claims that the government has dedicated R$140 billion reais, the Brazilian currency, towards pandemic response.

Current crisis response

On May 26, Bolsonaro tweets, with 77,700 likes, that “I am president because the majority of people trusted me, just as I am alive because God allowed it.”

Interesting. Rationalizing his election, and justifying that rationale with religion. Or rather, comparing a supposed public trust in him to God. It seems that no one can prove either one.

On the same day, São Paulo Governor Joao Doria stated that Brazilians are not only combatting coronavirus, but “Bolsonaro virus.”

All this, while coverage shows dire situations in Brazil’s hospitals and favelas. And just as critics of Trump pointed to his flagrant disregard of the pandemic, amplified by his choice to go golfing, CNN reported that “[a]s hospitals in Brazil teeter on the brink of collapse, Bolsonaro does pushups with supporters.”

Two peas in a pod

What else do these leaders have in common? The answer seems (at least) fourfold:

  • Far-right authoritarian tendencies.
  • Downplaying the threat of coronavirus leading to inaction that worsens the threat.
  • Publicly spreading disinformation that runs contrary to scientific evidence and health experts.
  • Pushing a supposed “strength” over science;
  • Never apologizing, or accepting responsibility.
  • A complete lack of empathy.
  • A curious dependence on Twitter.

The world has plenty of time to analyze, in the aftermath, any other common threads.

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News // Coronavirus / Donald Trump / Jair Bolsonaro