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Bolsonaro fans applaud his maverick virus response

4 min
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Sao Paulo (AFP)

As the number of dead from coronavirus shot up in Brazil, the popularity of far right President Jair Bolsonaro has remained unchanged.

For his supporters, the president has done nothing wrong despite more than 63,000 deaths and 1.5 million infections.

Bolsonaro originally dismissed the coronavirus as a "little flu" and his opposition to lockdowns and flouting of measures aimed at stifling the spread have provoked a hail of criticism from some.

Local epidemiologists and the World Health Organization have expressed concern about the president's approach in a country that is second only to the United States in terms of total cases and deaths from the virus.

Yet a poll by Datafolha at the end of June found that 32 percent of Brazilians thought Bolsonaro's government was "good or very good," a number that hasn't dropped since the start of the health crisis.

"People are suffering a lot financially, and when Bolsonaro says: 'We can't stop Brazil from working,' he's speaking to people's despair," said Vinicius Valle, a political science researcher.

He says most of the president's supporters recognize there's a health risk -- but with Brazil set for a record recession this year, many have been deeply resistant to the lockdown.

However, today the people supporting Bolsonaro are not the same as those before the pandemic, said Valle, the co-author of a study on Bolsonarism published in June.

"He's lost some points amongst those that supported him since the election. The faithful make up only 22 percent," he said.

On the flip side, "he's gained some amongst the lower social classes thanks to the 600 reais ($112) emergency support" given to almost 60 million Brazilians.

- 'A patriotic president' -

Every Sunday in Sao Paulo and the capital Brasilia, Bolsonaro supporters hit the streets draped in the nation's flag to show their appreciation.

And they seem to be singing from the same song sheet as the president.

If there aren't many at the demonstration, they say, it's because the media has stoked fear and discouraged people from heading out.

If the economy is crashing, that's the fault of state governors.

"Bolsonaro has given money to the people and the states. But the state governors have mismanaged that money, rural hospitals are falling to pieces," said Neusa, who didn't want to give her full name.

"There was no need to close down anything," added the 50-something taking part in a pro-Bolsonaro protest in Sao Paulo and holding a banner calling for the state governor Joao Doria to quit.

Doria was quick to impose a lockdown at the start of the crisis, but the state, by far the largest in Brazil, has been the worst affected by the pandemic.

"Bolsonaro is taking wise decisions" and has "competent ministers," according to another demonstrator, Lee Freitas.

Two health ministers have left the job since the pandemic began after clashing with Bolsonaro over the country's approach to the crisis.

"We support this management. We're delighted to have a patriotic president who is cheered everywhere he goes," added Freitas.

Bolsonaro is well known for mingling with his supporters, even during lockdown when social distancing measures were in place -- and being ignored by those very groups.

- Burying empty coffins -

Coronavirus is a Chinese conspiracy for some Bolsonaro supporters.

"It's the result of the strategy of certain media, linked to the left and Chinese communism, to demoralize conservative governments like the Brazilian and American governments," said demonstrator Alex Silva, 46.

"How do you explain that the number of COVID-19 cases didn't explode in China," he added.

Several conspiracy theories are circulating on social media.

"But the most negationist false information circulating in Brazil, like the one claiming local authorities have buried empty coffins to inflate the (virus death) numbers, are not necessarily pushed by Bolsonarists, which shows that few people believe in it," said Valle, who believes the president's popularity ratings will drop soon enough.

"Once the emergency aid ends, Bolsonaro's popularity should reduce to the 22 percent faithful who voted for him and continue to support him."

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