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Afraid to #StayAtHome: Bolsonaro’s mobilization of fear during the pandemic

In PerspectiveJair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current president, is known internationally for his far-right stances. He supports loosening gun control and frequently rants against human rights and “political correctness”. His motto of “God above all” pleases the more fundamentalist sectors of his evangelical base and he promotes a particular idea of the “good citizen”, often represented by a white middle-class Christian family man. His government employs a neoliberal economic agenda and is completely dismissive of environmental concerns. He was elected on a “tough on crime” platform full of false promises on how to solve the crime and violence problem in Brazil. His racist and sexist positions are well-known and add to the conservative positions of his government.

This conservative common sense helps Bolsonaro to keep a loyal base, even though previous supporters have begun to demonstrate regret for their vote and even support impeachment initiatives against him. Mobilization is low, however, and it has been low from before the Coronavirus pandemic, despite a few specific protests such as those connected to education demands.

Bolsonaro’s campaign preyed on people’s many fears: fear of crime, fear of corruption, fear of losing jobs and income, fear of loss of traditional family values, fear of communism. These fears tie into the interests of Brazil’s economic class who press for austerity measures, looser workers’ rights and regulations, and policies that will ensure that the corporate and finance sector cut their losses during economic crises with the help of the government.

This scenario does not change with the Coronavirus pandemic, but is in fact accentuated. Bolsonaro continues to employ fear as rhetoric, but not as fear of the pandemic in order to legitimize stronger use of force and police control as one would expect. Rather, his authoritarian trends show in different ways as he attempts to engage the working class through fear of losing jobs and going hungry.

Fear as a smokescreen

There are a variety of affects that can be employed politically in isolation or simultaneously. Fear and courage, hatred and love, despair and hope, selfishness and empathy all play some part in the way we talk about what kind of society we live in and whether we would like to build an alternative one. They can be simple emotions or they can be translated into patterns of action, which is illustrated when empathy is built into organized solidarity. Hatred is an affect that can be depoliticized and used as fuel for the right in order to sustain and renew structures of oppression, as is the case with hate speech. If politicized, hatred and anger towards one’s exploitative employer may help to expose the class antagonism within that social relation. Audre Lorde, a respected poet and black feminist, is well known for discussing the political uses of anger by the oppressed.

Depoliticization detaches the understanding of the political aspects of life from evidence and emancipatory interests in order to keep society in a vicious conservative cycle that solves no problems and creates new ones. The use of fear by Bolsonaro is employed to depoliticize real conflicts in Brazilian society. It is not used lightly or by chance, but rather as part of a political project that gives legitimacy to his far-right positions and to any potentially drastic measures he might employ. It was used throughout his campaign and continues to be employed during the coronavirus pandemic so that important discussions about policies can be sidetracked through the instrumentalization of fear.

As an example, rather than tackling the problem of violence, he appeals to ideas such as more guns and more incarceration as well as the punitivist motto of “a good criminal is a dead criminal”. Brazil’s incarcerated population is among the largest in the world, but fear of crime, as mobilized by Bolsonaro, is used to ignore the science behind crime prevention and argue for more prisons and more punishment.

Generally, Bolsonaro and his supporters have managed to blame every crisis in the country on the leftists and, more specifically, the “communists”.  This is a convenient tactic, given that anti-left sentiment has been strong in Brazil for a long time, with the Workers’ Party (PT) as a primary target. Although the PT governments were considered as moderate left, it is not unusual for Bolsonaro supporters to refer to the party as communist in order to emphasize how big of a threat it is and how heroic it was for the Bolsonaro base to rid Brazil of a possible “communist” government comeback. When the WHO declared a pandemic in March 2020, immediately there were conspiracy theories fuelled by fake news about the coronavirus as a “communist virus” created in a Chinese lab.

The communist threat adds to the far-right strategy of “ultra-political” depoliticization. Ultra-politics, in this context, operates by depoliticizing real conflict in society to try to make it about a particular “Enemy” that can be shaped into whatever is most useful at the time. Just like that, there is no class antagonism, but rather a battle between good citizens and criminals of all sorts. It is no surprise that fundamentalist religious undertones often colour these constructions as a battle between good and evil. The people should respect and trust Jair Bolsonaro as their rightful leader if they expect to keep the communists at bay.

This employment of fear of the left is practical since the Bolsonaro government can just blame anything that goes wrong on the left, whether it is the leftist opposition that is getting in the way or supposed consequences of leftist mismanagement in the past. It helps to keep people disciplined without general physical coercion, although repressive tools through the police state continue to be selectively employed against social movements and marginalized peoples.

Fake news: fear and misinformation

It would be inadequate to discuss the mobilization of fear by Bolsonaro and his supporters without taking the phenomenon of fake news into account. As seen in the rise of the far right in many other countries throughout the world, the use of social media to spread lies and confusion is a preferred tool during campaigns, but also after elections. Similar to Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro has berated journalists for critiques of his actions and claims that he is the one credible source of news during his government—especially through his Twitter account. More recently, a series of news outlets have issued statements that they will no longer cover Bolsonaro’s statements outside of the presidential office building due to security concerns. Some of his supporters have become increasingly aggressive towards reporters, especially now when Bolsonaro is under fire for his handling of the pandemic and when multiple impeachment suits have been submitted against him.

Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp is central to the spread of fake news. Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign is involved in scandals concerning mass WhatsApp messages with all sorts of content, including libellous fake news about his opponents. His supporters often create message chains that end up forwarded thousands of times, and WhatsApp groups throughout the country help to “organize” supporters and to spread a variety of conspiracy theories.

Ever since a pandemic was declared, fake news about a “Chinese lab-made virus” have spread, as well as theories that blame deaths on “leftists who want to make Bolsonaro look bad” or that question whether the reported numbers are real. Instead of facing the truth of underreporting, especially when not enough tests are available, the fake news chain talks about someone whose doorman’s cousin died when changing a flat tire, which exploded in his face, but the cause of death was listed as coronavirus in his death certificate. This story ended up all over Twitter, but since no one bothered to change the text, it seemed like the exact same story happened to all of them: everyone’s doorman had a cousin whose death was mislabelled as coronavirus. It is well-known that the Bolsonaro media network employs bots to get a message across and impact trending topics, but it is also possible that real people joined in the mission in order to dismiss concerns about the seriousness of the pandemic.

Rather than treating the virus as a real threat, Bolsonaro has been very focused on downplaying it. He has called it a “little flu” and normalized the idea that most of the population would contract the virus and there was nothing to be done.  Given Bolsonaro’s authoritarian speeches and use of the state apparatus for his own interests, he could have likely gone in the direction of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, or even Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. However, instead of seeking additional powers and enforcing tough laws, curfews, and punishments for those who break quarantine, Bolsonaro decided to dismiss WHO recommendations for the healthcare system as well as methods of social distancing and self-isolation.

At some point, WhatsApp and Twitter chains promoted by Bolsonaro’s loyal base began to associate the WHO with a communist scheme to control people through fear and panic around the pandemic. State and city governments that take on stricter measures, such as closing down shopping malls and sending children home from school, become persona non grata and are treated as part of the scheme. Bolsonaro’s approach stokes fear of a conspiracy around fear, which helps him in his project to keep the country’s economy as close to normal as possible while hundreds of thousands of people get ill and many of them die as a consequence of a poorly-mitigated pandemic.

From fear of the virus to fear of unemployment

The Jair Bolsonaro government has opted to downplay the pandemic and its impacts. Although at first this may look like an irrational anti-scientific approach, it is part of a well-thought-out tactic of the Brazilian far right to discredit science whenever it gets in the way of major capitalist interests. This is why climate change denial is accepted and even promoted by the government’s ministries and entire sectors of social science research have been dismissed together with the funding cuts to public education. Yes, the government is anti-science, but not as a result of stupidity or short-sightedness as often reported in the media and by Bolsonaro critics online. To further certain interests, especially in the Brazilian context of capitalist underdevelopment and subordination to major economic interests from developed countries, it is important to discredit the opposition as much as possible, even if it means scientific denial.

The government has chosen to treat the pandemic as: 1) inevitable, so there is not much to be done about it; 2) part of a leftist conspiracy that would blame negative impacts from the pandemic on his government; 3) the reason why the Brazilian economy is suffering, so that measures to save corporations and to get people back to their regular work schedules should be prioritized.

This triad allows Bolsonaro to refuse to do what is needed while outsourcing the bad outcomes to the left and to the local governments that have engaged in social distancing measures. His interest is the same as the large corporations and medium-to-large businessowners who fear for reduced consumption combined with fixed expenses. This business-as-usual way of thinking creates a false opposition between tending to the health crisis and the measures required to maintain jobs and prevent people from going hungry or being evicted. For instance, instead of coming up with the best emergency income relief for workers possible, the Bolsonaro government has opposed the monthly sum of the emergency basic income recommended by congress while delaying, denying, and obstructing payments. This level of refusal, of course, is not seen when it comes to bailing out large corporations.

It is clear that what he wants is to get people back to work in order to cut business losses and save the government from spending on relief funds, even if it means an insurmountable amount of stress in the already-debilitated public healthcare system and thousands more deaths. The Ministry of Health had two changes in ministers at the beginning of the pandemic as a result of this tension.

The Brazilian economy has been in crisis for a few years now, but the government’s rhetoric is that it was about to recover when the pandemic started. Rather than understanding the effect of the pandemic on the global economy, they would rather blame the slowdown on the social distancing measures. Since the measures in Brazil have been insufficient, in that without proper assistance the majority of the working class cannot afford to simply stay at home, the current situation will lead to a double failure: the health crisis is getting worse and the economy will definitely not recover at this pace. This is where Bolsonaro’s list of justifications comes in, since he can just argue that the deaths were bound to happen anyway, or that the number is largely exaggerated—which will be believed by those who are currently fed information by his web of fake news. Meanwhile, the economic crisis can be blamed on the governors and mayors who bought into the leftist “panic” and closed businesses temporarily, with the benefit of hurting Bolsonaro along the way—as they say.

It is easier and cheaper for a government so deep into far-right values and its strong disregard for human rights to just let people die instead of providing the appropriate infrastructure. After all, this provision would break away from the pattern of austerity that has been implemented by Finance Minister Paulo Guedes, who confessed that the government would make money by helping out the big companies, but would lose money if it saved the small ones.

By enforcing a false opposition between saving the economy and spending public resources to ensure an appropriate level of social distancing  (combined with large injections of funds into the healthcare system), Bolsonaro has managed to employ fear, as is his specialty, but not in the expected way of fear of repression at this time.

Fear of the left and the threat of communists, which may include anyone who is opposed to Bolsonaro at this point, continues to be a trend. Now, communists are responsible for the virus and for the infamy the Bolsonaro government gets during the pandemic. When Trump decided to ban Brazilians from flying to the United States, a supporter asked Bolsonaro to do something about the bad press his government has abroad. Bolsonaro’s response was that the international press is leftist and that is why they portray him badly. No matter the situation, Bolsonaro can always blame it on the left. This is convenient because it excuses him from his terrible government, but also because it adds to the fear of a leftist comeback.

Meanwhile, by blaming the economic woes on the pandemic, Bolsonaro is able to twist common narratives so that he looks like the one who is interested in people’s livelihoods—without actually taking action that would preserve livelihoods and lives at the same time. Fear of unemployment, hunger, and eviction in a country as unequal as Brazil can easily trump fear of COVID-19, especially if the government wrongly approaches it as “a little flu” that can be easily treated with available drugs such as hydroxychloroquine—which specialists recommend against. Because of this, those who fear both unemployment and the virus are left without a real choice. Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic sends Brazil further into health and economic crises, but he can count on being remembered by the elites as the one who tried to save them along the way.

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