Could Bolsonaro be impeached? Brazil’s leader under intensifying pressure over coronavirus denial

Jair Bolsonaro President of Brazil takes off his protective mask to speak to journalists during a press conference about outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID – 19) at the Planalto Palace on March 20, 2020 in Brasilia, Brazil.

Andressa Anholete | Getty Images

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has sparked public outcry over his handling of the coronavirus crisis, with a movement to impeach the right-wing nationalist leader gaining popular support.

The president of Latin America’s largest economy has repeatedly played down the threat of the pandemic, dismissing it as a “little flu” and condemning state governors for imposing lockdowns that are causing job losses.

He has also contradicted his own health minister’s advice over self-isolation and social distancing, encouraging people to end their time in quarantine and return to work.

All but three of Brazil’s 27 states have refused to relax lockdown measures, and citizens in many urban centers can be heard banging pots and pans from their homes each evening as an act of protest to the president’s demands.

“It won’t be controversial to say that he is now probably the last man standing in the denial camp,” said Jimena Blanco, head of Latin America at Verisk Maplecroft.

By rejecting international recommendations, Bolsonaro is in the company of very few global leaders, with Belarus’ authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador also maintaining relaxed policies.

When asked about the prospect of Bolsonaro facing impeachment proceedings this year, Blanco replied: “I think it is one of the risks that can no longer be called a black swan.”

View of the popular shopping streets of downtown Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on March 25, 2020, completely empty due to the closure decreed by the Government due to the pandemic of Coronavirus Covid-19. The region normally concentrates tens of thousands of consumers daily.

Luiz Souza | NurPhoto via Getty Images

“There is about a 20% chance at this stage,” Blanco continued. “But, if we fast forward two or three months and see the kind of spike in cases that we are seeing in Europe right now, I think the chances of impeachment would increase significantly.”

Late last month, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all deleted some of Bolsonaro’s online videos and social media posts because they were found to have violated their policies.

Bolsonaro’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment when contacted by CNBC.

‘Politically isolated in government’

Most countries have effectively had to shut down in an effort to slow the spread of the virus, with draconian measures imposed on the daily lives of billions of people.

To date, more than 1,033,000 people have contracted COVID-19 worldwide, with 54,369 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

As of Friday, over 8,000 people had contracted the coronavirus in Brazil, including 327 deaths. The South American country has recorded more cases of the virus than any other nation in the region.

Brazilian Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta warned earlier this week that the country’s coronavirus figures were deeply worrying.

Mandetta also expressed concern about the lack of available personal protective equipment and ventilators nationwide, Reuters reported. The government plans to import millions of medical items from China over the coming weeks, he added.

Bolsonaro has repeatedly underscored the importance of the country’s economic performance during the coronavirus crisis, saying hunger must also be a primary concern.

“Mr. Bolsonaro’s actions leave him politically isolated in government … and this has already led to calls for his impeachment,” Robert Wood, principal economist and Latin America specialist at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said in an email.

Wood said impeachment proceedings were “unlikely to go ahead right now,” partly because other leading figures probably believe that the lengthy process if he were to refuse to step down would detract from the urgency of health and economic crisis management.

“While he has fought his way into a corner — and his unpredictability and unhinged behavior carries risks over his next steps — it seems that as he becomes more isolated, he is having to back down, at least for the time being,” Wood added.

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