SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s response to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak has been an outlier among world leaders: He has not implemented the social distancing measure now common around the planet.
The South American county has over 20,000 confirmed cases of the disease, and over 1100 people have died, the most in Latin America. It will get worse before it gets better, since Brazil isn’t expected to reach its peak in virus cases until late April or early May.
The Catholic Church in the country from the start has defended the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendations, an attitude that many of Bolsonaro’s backers see as an open defiance of his administration.
In the past few weeks, major authorities in the Brazilian Church and members of the clergy have made harsh public statements against the pandemic denialism disseminated by the Bolsonaro administration.
On different occasions, the president has played down the risk of COVID-19, calling the disease a “little flu.” Bolsonaro has also pushed back against the social distancing measures and lockdowns imposed by the governors of several Brazilian state governments, insisting that only the elderly and other vulnerable populations should be isolated.
Like Donald Trump – who the Brazilian president admires and tries to emulate – Bolsonaro has also been an vocal publicist of the properties of chloroquine to fight the coronavirus, even though there has not yet been a conclusive study on its effectiveness.
The Brazilian president has been adamant his main concern is protecting the economy of his country, even though his own Minister of Health, Dr. Luiz Henrique Mandetta, has argued that confinement is the only way to contain the virus.
Since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Brazil, the Church has been vocal in its support of protective measures imposed to stop the pandemic. While several Pentecostal denominations continued holding large church services and downplayed the disease, the Catholic Church adhered to the measures imposed by state and city governments and suspended liturgical celebrations.
On March 21, the president of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB), Archbishop Walmor Oliveira de Azevedo, released a video in which he appealed to the people to comply with the quarantine.
“I’m here to urge you, as the CNBB’s spokesman, uniting its voice to the voices of the civil and sanitary authorities: Don’t leave your home! That is a great medicine to defeat this terrible coronavirus pandemic. Don’t leave your home! May this appeal get into your heart,” the archbishop said.
On April 7, the CNBB and other civil society organizations – including two scientists’ associations – signed a “Pact for Life and for Brazil,” in which they urge the Brazilian society to follow the WHO’s social distancing recommendation and to “repudiate the discourses that debunk such strategy’s efficacy, putting in danger the Brazilian people’s health and survival.”
In the document, the organizations argue that the government should implement several social assistance policies, in order to preserve the “people’s employment, income, and work.”
“We recognize that the people’s health and the country’s production capacity are essential for everyone’s well-being. But we advocate, once more, the primacy of work over capital, of humanity over finance, of solidarity over competition.”
During Holy Week, Azevedo reiterated his concerns with the Bolsonaro administration’s handling of the pandemic.
“Civil society has the duty and the responsibility of addressing the federal government, presenting ponderations, admonishing it. (…) The CNBB seeks to collaborate with Brazil and to help the ones who exert power. That requires courage to manifest disagreements,” the archbishop told Folha de S. Paulo on April 9.
While the episcopate officially expressed its pro-quarantine stance, several members of the Brazilian clergy also used social media to voice criticism of Bolsonaro’s stance, sometimes garnering thousands of views.
That was the case of a video posted on March 25 by Father Juarez de Castro, a famous religious singer. In his post, which has been shared by more than 200,000 people, Castro called Bolsonaro “irresponsible.”
“This is not the time to loosen confinement. Each one to his trade, Mr. President. Physicians do what physicians must do. Scientists do what scientists must do. Presidents do what presidents must do. Each one to his trade, Mr. President,” Castro said in his video.
“Who wants to loosen confinement? The rich, the businessmen who are worried with their companies without workers. But they have good hospitals for themselves. They can buy ventilators and take them everywhere if they want,” the priest continued.
As a sign of the radical political polarization of Brazilian politics since the 2018 electoral campaign, Castro has been called a “communist” by several supporters of Bolsonaro since he posted the video.
“But I haven’t assumed any party disposition. I have only assumed the Church’s stance: To defend life in all its length, from the beginning till the end. As a priest, I represent a millennial institution with a long record of defending life and people,” he told Crux.
Castro said that the Church has no favorite political party and doesn’t support any candidate, but has “a political stance when it comes to the defense of life.”
“The Church hasn’t hesitated to suspend Masses and public encounters everywhere in the world and has alerted all its followers to stay at home. In that video, I vehemently repeated the responsible stance of scientists and of the Church in defense of life,” he said.
“To transform this debate in a battle of political parties is to impoverish all efforts that physicians, scientists and authorities are doing to defeat a common enemy,” Castro added.
In the opinion of Dr. Paulo Cesar Fontão, a Catholic physician and university professor, Bolsonaro’s vocal opposition to social distancing measures has served as an incentive for many people to leave their homes.
“Sadly, the results of it are coming within two weeks. But the Church hasn’t changed its attitude,” he said.
Fontão is a member of the Focolare Health, Dialogue, Culture movement, which gathers health service professionals all over the world.
“The Catholic Church has been very coherent and courageous. Unfortunately, courage is needed at this point in order to contradict some official declarations,” he said.
Fontão said that the quarantine is the best decision to deal with the pandemic.
“It’s not only science’s recommendation, but also the pope’s,” he added. “If some people think that the CNBB is playing the political opposition to President Bolsonaro because of that, we can’t do anything about it.”
In the opinion of Father Rino Bonvini, an Italian-born priest and physician who lives in Brazil, Bolsonaro’s position towards the pandemic is the result of a movement of political and religious fundamentalism in the country.
“Everyone who opposes President Bolsonaro’s decisions is called a ‘communist.’ This is a fundamentalist delusion,” he told Crux.
Bonvini – who is from Lombardy, the Italian region most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic – has no doubt that social distancing is the best way of dealing with the pandemic from an epidemiological perspective.
“I have colleagues that are working on the frontline in Italy. They always tell me that everybody should stay home to avoid contagion,” he said.
He’s also skeptical on the potential benefits of chloroquine, which many Bolsonaro supporters have said will cure COVID-19 and alleviates the need of a broad lockdown.
Working in Africa in the past, Bonvini contracted malaria and had to take a maximum dose of chloroquine for ten days.
“I had diplopy, a visual disorder. Some people can develop arrhythmia, a serious heart condition,” he said, pointing out to the possible risks of the medicine.
“[For COVID-19,] it has showed some good but limited results. But President Bolsonaro wants to appear as the person who is stimulating the use of a savior medicine,” Bonvini added.