Under Pressure, Bolsonaro Pivots on Covid Response in Brazil

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, under growing pressure from allies amid a raging coronavirus pandemic, has shifted his language about vaccines as he seeks to build bridges with congress, top court justices and governors.

The far-right leader on Wednesday hosted a dozen officials at the presidential palace, including the heads of the lower house, the senate and the top court, to discuss a unified response to the pandemic. In a nationally-televised speech the previous night, he struck a more conciliatory tone, avoiding criticism of lockdowns and pledging a mass vaccination campaign in order to quickly “resume our normal life.”

Under Pressure, Bolsonaro Pivots on Covid Response in Brazil

“We had a very fruitful meeting with all the leaders of the republic,” Bolsonaro told reporters after the Wednesday gathering. “More than harmony, there was solidarity and the willingness to minimize the effects of the pandemic.”

Even if not heartfelt, that’s a significant change of tone for a president who has harshly criticized local authorities for imposing restrictions on commerce, and who has repeatedly cast doubt on vaccines and delayed the purchase of shots. The move follows mounting pressure from the business community as well as powerful allies in congress, who have made it clear they are growing worried about the president’s handling of the crisis.

About 300,000 Brazilians have died from the coronavirus since its outbreak a year ago. With a slow vaccination campaign that has immunized only 6% of the population with a single shot so far, the virus remains unchecked across the country, overrunning its health system and derailing its economic recovery.

Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga, appointed by Bolsonaro last week as criticism of his government mounted, said later on Wednesday that the administration is committed to increasing the pace of vaccination by at least three times in the short term. He didn’t elaborate on how he plans to find enough shots to do so.

Under Pressure

House Speaker Arthur Lira said earlier this week he won’t move forward with pro-business reforms until the government does a better job at controlling the pandemic. He told local media it is “humanely impossible” to discuss long-term reforms “when we don’t know what tomorrow is going to look like.”

Under Pressure, Bolsonaro Pivots on Covid Response in Brazil

Criticism has also come from another ally, the usually soft-spoken Senate President Rodrigo Pacheco. Without naming Bolsonaro, the senator said downplaying the pandemic is a “gruesome, medieval joke” and, in a business event, endorsed restrictions to commerce, bars and restaurants.

Bolsonaro’s change of tone shows he fears losing congressional support and eventually facing criminal charges for his handling of the coronavirus crisis, according to Leonardo Barreto, a political scientist and head of the Brasilia-based Vector consultancy group.

“It remains to be seen whether this is a real change of course,” Barreto said, adding that Bolsonaro’s strategy consists in alternately attacking and courting the political establishing.

The consecutive records in cases and deaths from the virus are also taking a toll on Bolsonaro’s popularity. His handling of the Covid crisis is disapproved by 54% of Brazilians, according to a Datafolha survey published last week. The pandemic is completely out of control for 79% of the respondents, while 55% of them said they are afraid of getting infected.

Yet demonstrations of public discontent have been mostly limited to social media and the usual banging of pots and pans at night, as restrictions to the movement of people and curfews remain in place in many cities.

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