Crocodile Tears: Brazilian President Struggles to Retract his COVID-19 Public Statements

Faith Evans explains President Jair Bolsonaro’s role in stirring vaccine panic and misinformation amid pot-banging protests, with multimedia elements by Sydney Oliver.

President Jair Bolsonaro is trying to save face this week as Brazilian citizens loudly protest his pandemic response. His attempts at sympathy and a “return to normalcy” have struck the wrong tone in the ears of his constituents. Visual by Sydney Oliver

A Staggering Death Toll

The raucous sounds of clattering pots and pans, car horns and wailing has been ringing in Brazil. Friday, March 26th, according to the Health Ministry, Brazil recorded a new high of 3,650 Covid-19 deaths. Citizens are fed up with President Jair Bolsonaro’s promises of a rapid return to normalcy.

The South American country’s pandemic timeline reads like a disheartening telenovela: a death toll surpassing 300,000, political rivalry fueling pandemic-related policies, President Bolsonaro’s pot-stirring press conferences — all spiraling out of hand.

President Bolsonaro went viral back in December for suggesting that the COVID-19 vaccine could turn recipients into crocodiles, but he’s rapidly changing his tune. Backtracking to regain support from his donors and supporters, he faces a barrage of uncertainty as to whether public relations can help him save face, and whether he can preserve his country’s reputation for its world-class inoculation infrastructure.

Like all countries, Brazil’s struggle through the pandemic has been complicated and unique. But one easy way to get the broad strokes picture is through President Bolsonaro’s viral press conference quotes.

Consistently throughout the pandemic, President Bolsonaro has discouraged lockdowns, promoted reopening, and tried to personify a “strong leader” by insisting that he will not need the vaccine. He tested positive for the virus back in July of 2020. Graphic by Faith Evans

“What do you want me to do about it?”

This was President Bolsonaro’s response late last April when, early into the pandemic, a reporter pointed out that Brazil’s COVID-19 fatality rate had surpassed China’s.

The wicked irony of this rhetorical question is that, for him, it was a step in the right direction. Vanessa Barbara, a São Paulo resident writing for The New York Review, highlighted the fact that this marked a turning point: it was one of the first times President Bolsonaro admitted to the reality of the pandemic.

He tried to strike a different tune in June, adding to his quote pool: “I regret the deaths, but that’s everyone’s destiny.”

Simultaneous to this lukewarm attempt at sympathy, the Brazilian government adopted a new strategy to rapidly control fatality rates: stop reporting total cases and deaths.

President Bolsonaro’s administration enacted this new policy on June 5. It barely lasted the weekend, after the Supreme Court ordered the government to immediately halt all data suppression. The government brought the full numbers back online the next Tuesday afternoon.

For that frightening weekend gap in Brazil’s COVID-19 fatality reports, Brazil’s major news outlets worked with state health departments to keep their own tallies. Brazil’s Supreme Court described the whole event as something that an authoritarian regime would do to conceal a crisis.

These public relations interactions set the tone for Brazil’s pandemic outlook: citizens knew from the start that their president was ready and willing to prioritize economic gain over human life.

Sydney Oliver reports on the pressure President Bolsonaro faces from his political rival, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Former President Lula just recently cleared his name in court, after facing campaign corruption charges. He is now eligible to run in Brazil’s 2022 presidential election.

“If you turn into a crocodile, that’s your problem.”

Considering President Bolsonaro’s eagerness to reopen the country, his disdain for vaccines came out of left field last December:

“In the Pfizer contract it’s very clear: ‘we’re not responsible for any side effects.’ If you turn into a crocodile, it’s your problem…If you become superhuman, if a woman starts to grow a beard or if a man starts to speak with an effeminate voice, [Pfizer] will not have anything to do with it.”

In a country renowned for its state-of-the-art immunization infrastructure, his comments fell flat. According to a survey by the polling institute Datafolha, published in January, despite President Bolsonaro’s vaccine rants, 79% of citizens want to be vaccinated.

Some hilarious, viral Portuguese crocodile memes were born of this quote, but because of the absurdity of the first two sentences, westerners have overlooked the cultural context of the last sentence.

What an American would point out as blatant transphobia is partially an appeal to machismo culture, the Latin and South American take on hyper-masculinity.

Of all the parallels to point out between former US President Trump and current Brazilian President Bolsonaro, their manipulation of conservative norms to fit their agenda is perhaps the most accurate. Just as Trump preyed on conservative fears of immigration and crime to build his ‘law and order’ platform, President Bolsonaro has preyed on machismo ideologies to attempt to instill vaccine panic and promote early re-opening.

In Brazil, citizens gather on their balconies to bang pots and pans, drowning out President Bolsonaro’s televised address in which he tried to defend his pandemic response.

“How long are you going to keep crying about it?”

And now we’re caught up to March. Just a few weeks ago, President Bolsonaro made headlines again for telling his citizens to “stop whining” about COVID-19.

His aggressive push to halt social distancing and isolation guidelines forced him to take a pro-vaccine stance this month, promising Brazilians 60 million inoculations by the end of April. Though he has insisted that he himself will not be taking the vaccine, he has simultaneously declared that he still supports vaccination efforts, and said that his refusal should not be interpreted as disapproval.

These new promises aren’t necessarily the direct result of citizen protests and disapproval. One of President Bolsonaro’s political rivals, past Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was cleared of campaign corruption charges this month. This makes him eligible to run for office in Brazil’s 2022 election.

Lula is a left-leaning politician, known for his progressive social legislation during his 2003–2010 presidency. With Brazil craving pro-vaccine leadership, there’s a solid chance that the country will rally behind him if he runs.

It’s likely that President Bolsonaro’s sudden support of the COVID-19 vaccine is a last-minute attempt at shuffling the cards back in his favor.

What’s especially interesting is the probability of his new strategy working. There’s a solid chance that, if President Bolsonaro keeps his promises, Brazil could reopen soon. The country theoretically has the infrastructure to reach a 79% vaccination rate in under three months, resources permitting.

This is the problem that President Bolsonaro will face in the coming weeks: even if Brazil returns to relatively normal life soon, will his constituents forgive him for his tone-deaf covid-isms? And how will he save face after having to eat his own words?

He’s learning the hard way, crocodiles don’t really walk backwards.

Explainer Journalism by Faith Evans and Sydney Oliver for the Reynolds Sandbox



The Reynolds Sandbox showcases innovative and engaging storytelling by students with the Reynolds Media Lab.

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Showcasing innovative and engaging multimedia storytelling by students with the Reynolds Media Lab in Reno.