Brazil: Conflicting Information About COVID-19 is the Difference Between Life and Death

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is repeatedly dismissing the virus as a “little cold."

By: Sofia Ferreira Santos

As world leaders scramble to keep their citizens safe amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is repeatedly dismissing the virus as a “little cold,” demanding that Brazilians ignore social distancing measures in favour of the economy.

“I wouldn’t need to worry if I was infected by the virus,” the President said, addressing the nation as part of a call to end pre-emptive social distancing measures set up by some of Brazil’s local governorates.

“I wouldn’t feel anything—at the very worst it would be like a little flu or a bit of a cold.”

Over the past few weeks, Bolsonaro has gone on national television programmes to belittle those who are worried about dying from the disease, and advance his own conspiracy theory that Brazilians are immune to the virus. When medical professionals advised him to quarantine after he returned from a trip to the United States, he went on to ignore the advice and publicly shake hands with thousands of his supporters instead.

He was tested for the virus, but refused to share his results—even with medical professionals. 

“Why do you want to know? Do you sleep with me? My word is worth more than a piece of paper,” he retorted to the media, when questioned about the results. 

However, while Brazilian media is often silent when it comes to Bolsonaro’s shortcomings and mistakes, local journalists have stepped up in many areas, openly criticising the president and making sure that their readers have the information that they need. Many have doubled down on efforts to stop the spread of misinformation, using scientifically accurate information from reliable sources to fact-check the president’s claims. Thousands of Brazilians have organised panelaço demonstrations online, mobilising others to bang pots and pans out of their windows to protest Bolsonaro’s reckless messages. 

“We can no longer accept a person like this as our president,” Wilma Dutra de Oliveira, a teacher from Rio de Janiero told the Guardian in an interview. “We don’t have a president – we have a clown who doesn’t know what he is doing.”

Bolsonaro’s supporters have also taken to social media to protest local politicians’ restrictions on large gatherings, and demands to close businesses. Many believe that the economic impact of social distancing is far worse than the virus itself, and have staged protests with this message.

“Brazilians do not want to stay at home,” said Julio Hubner, a local party representative. “The Brazilian wants to work and not stay home anymore. From now on, it will be civil disobedience.”

Meanwhile, the health and wellbeing of Brazilians hangs in their hands — there are now 6,836 confirmed cases of Covid-19, and 241 deaths. While wealthier Brazilians can access the Internet, and with it, the information that will help them make a decision to self-isolate, quarantine or practice social distancing, those living in favelas— around 12 million Brazilians—are less likely to own televisions or be online, and are vulnerable to being hit even harder by the pandemic, and the lack of reliable information surrounding it. 

“I was spreading the idea that the coronavirus is only affecting the elite; that was my mistake,” one favela resident told the community-organized platform Rio On Watch, which is currently documenting daily life for favela residents during the pandemic with the Portuguese hashtag #COVID19NasFavelas. 

While Brazil was first exposed to the disease because of wealthier Brazilians’ trips abroad, it soon became apparent who would be badly hit by the disease. Without regular access to running water, and multiple families confined to single homes, the typical advice for stopping the spread of the coronavirus—wash your hands regularly and self-isolate—rings hollow. 

“We know which sector of society is most vulnerable to death because of the virus,” they continued. “At this moment, disseminating information is very important.”

After the first confirmed coronavirus case in the City of God favela, it soon became clear how fast the disease could spread in their community. Without a unified national response to the Coronavirus pandemic, some favela communities have taken matters into their own hands, with local gangs imposing self-isolation periods on residents.

“We are imposing a curfew because nobody is taking [coronavirus] seriously,” one gang leader told the City of God favela’s 40,000 residents. “It is best to stay at home and chill.”

While the favela gang’s curfews might actually be working to keep people at home on a basis of fear, both of the spread of the disease and consequences of going out, it is no replacement for the Brazilian government’s lack of information and support to its citizens. Brazil’s elite can afford to stay home and access private healthcare, but the millions of Brazilians living in poverty cannot afford to stop working, even when they get sick. For them, a unified government message to stay home—and financial support to do so—is what will make the difference between life and death.