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Sick Man Of The Americas: Bolsonaro's COVID Infection Reflects A Toxic Hemisphere

RECKLESS DISREGARD Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (front, white shirt) his arm around Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo, celebrating 4th of July with diplomats at U.S. embassy in Brasilia. U.S. Ambassador Todd Chapman is seated next to Bolsonaro.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.


When Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro confirmed this week he’d tested positive for COVID-19 – hardly stunning news given his reckless disregard for the pandemic – he became one of the Western Hemisphere’s 6.2 million cases and counting.

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That’s more than half the global total of 12 million. This hemisphere has also registered more than half the world’s 550,000 COVID-19 deaths. But here’s what is stunning: this hemisphere accounts for just one-eighth of the world’s population. Yet one of every two COVID-19 infections and fatalities has occurred in the Americas.

A hemisphere doesn’t produce catastrophically disproportionate numbers like these during a worldwide health crisis unless there’s something seriously awry with the hemisphere.

There is. The new coronavirus arrived at a moment when toxic leadership and dysfunctional governance are widespread in the Americas, especially in its three largest countries – the U.S., Brazil and Mexico – and especially the pandemic’s new patient, Bolsonaro.

READ MORE: Macho and Maskless: Trump, Bolsonaro Make U.S., Brazil Weaker COVID Prey

When COVID-19 came to Brazil in late February, brought to São Paulo by a middle-aged man returning from a trip to Milan (northern Italy was among the first places battered by the respiratory plague) it looked like public health officials were on top of it.

“We’re taking all the right isolation measures,” a director at the Brazilian Society of Infectious Diseases in São Paulo assured me in early March, when Brazil’s cases were still fewer than 10 while the U.S.’s had already topped 1,000.

But by late March Brazil’s case load had ballooned to 2,500. Three months later it’s 1.7 million, including 68,000 deaths – levels second only to the U.S.’s apocalyptic statistics.

It is not unfair to lay much of the blame at Bolsonaro’s feet. Or lap. O presidente himself said in April that if Brazil ever reached the COVID calculus choking it today, “it lands on my lap.”

Or more accurately, on his determination to call the pandemic a “hoax.” To dismiss an exponential death curve with callous soundbites like “So what?” To undermine every lockdown and social distancing effort state and local leaders have tried to implement. To ridicule life-saving protective masks and brazenly encourage mass, maskless political rallies. To jettison two health ministers because they objected to the deadly example he was setting. To put Brazil’s economic re-opening and his 2022 re-election prospects ahead of Brazilian lives.

Even catching the virus looks to become part of Bolsonaro’s perverse scheme to discredit it. His plan now, it seems, is to recover robustly (which I of course hope he does) and show the world all the precautions are still for wimps.

So it’s a pathetic but instructive coincidence that over the weekend, when Bolsonaro says he started feeling sick, he was at the U.S. embassy in Brasília. He was partying it up for the 4 th of July, hugging U.S. and Brazilian diplomats – and wearing no mask.


Jair could be Jair there because the U.S. government itself currently operates in a strongman belief system that’s fed up with all your corona-cowardice. In fact, Bolsonaro has publicly praised President Trump’s own downplaying of COVID-19 – his own prioritization of presidential re-election over public health.

A Mexican man attends to the grave of his wife, who died recently from COVID-19, on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Credit Rebecca Blackwell / AP
A Mexican man attends to the grave of his wife, who died recently from COVID-19, on the outskirts of Mexico City.

That’s a troubling reminder that the U.S. President sets an example not just for America – where COVID cases passed 3 million this week – but for the Americas. And in Latin America, not just right-wing demagogues like Bolsonaro but left-wing populists like Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador often follow Trump’s delusional pandemic playbook.

López Obrador has presided over the world’s fifth-highest number of COVID deaths in no small part because he too bought into the absurdity that strong leaders don’t let a microscopic virus crimp their sovereign style. Like Trump, he appears more concerned with demonizing his country’s media than with solving its pandemic crisis. So as if to showcase their populist bond, López Obrador decided he’d honor the White House this week with his first foreign visit – even though Trump has hurled every racist insult imaginable at his country.

Elsewhere, leftist Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s criminally cavalier denial of the pandemic rivals Bolsonaro’s. But even where the hemisphere’s corona-calamity doesn’t involve denial, it involves official corruption (Peru). Or institutional incompetence (Chile). Or inexcusable poverty (Haiti).

And so a sliver of the world’s population suffers the brunt of the world’s pandemic. Including the president who’s now a patient.

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Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.