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Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro is seen during a ceremony to lower the Brazilian National flag down for the night, at the Alvorada Palace, amid the coronavirus outbreak in Brasília, Brazil, July 20, 2020.

Why is Brazil's Bolsonaro peddling hydroxychloroquine despite the science?

The Brazilian president has used his illness as a platform to sell both his cynicism about the coronavirus and social restrictions, and his praise for chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine.

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Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro is seen during a ceremony to lower the Brazilian national flag down for the night at the Alvorada Palace amid the coronavirus outbreak in Brasília, Brazil, July 20, 2020.

Credit:

Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters 

It’s been two weeks since Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was diagnosed with COVID-19. He has been quarantined to the presidential palace in Brasília since then, but that has not kept him out of the spotlight, nor has it changed his response to the pandemic.

In fact, he has doubled down, repeatedly calling for the economy to be reopened despite rising cases, and praising the medication, hydroxychloroquine, a less toxic derivative of chloroquine, for his returning health.

“This was my experience. Twelve hours after taking that first dose of hydroxychloroquine, I was 100% better. So, it worked for me. I’m the living proof.”

Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil

“This was my experience,” he told a group of religious supporters outside the palace in Brasília on Saturday. “Twelve hours after taking that first dose of hydroxychloroquine, I was 100% better. So, it worked for me. I’m the living proof.”

Related: Indigenous mothers in Brazil mourning children's deaths seek closure

The following day, he again greeted his fans outside the palace and lifted a box of hydroxychloroquine into the air, eliciting cheers from the crowd.

The video went viral on social media. His opponents joked that it reminded them of Disney’s “The Lion King,” with baby Simba being lifted up over the Pride Rock landscape. 

It is a fitting metaphor for Bolsonaro’s COVID-19 infection. He’s used his illness as a platform to sell both his cynicism about the coronavirus and social restrictions and his praise for chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. Those are the anti-malaria drugs that the World Health Organization says should no longer be prescribed to COVID-19 patients. Tests have shown they likely offer no benefit and could even increase the risk of death.

Nevertheless, Bolsonaro has become one of the drugs’ most vocal champions.

Related: Paulinho Paiakan is remembered as a hero to Indigenous Brazilians

“I trust hydroxychloroquine; how about you?” he told followers in a video he posted over social media on July 7.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Bolsonaro has downplayed the coronavirus, fought with state governors over social restrictions, forced out two health ministers, attended rallies without wearing a mask, and repeatedly called for the economy's reopening. He did so again over the weekend.

“From what they tell me, no one has died from a lack of ICUs or respirators. So, we need to think about the economy. We can’t keep talking about lives, lives, lives. Social isolation kills. Without a salary, without a job, you die from hunger.”

Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil

“From what they tell me, no one has died from a lack of ICUs or respirators. So, we need to think about the economy. We can’t keep talking about lives, lives, lives. Social isolation kills,” he told supporters. “Without a salary, without a job, you die from hunger.”

But Brazil has been reopening far too soon, according to researchers, analysts and even a recent report from Citibank Brazil. The country has yet to hit a peak number of cases of the coronavirus, but stores, shopping malls, restaurants and bars have been getting back to work. At the same time, the number of cases has risen. Brazil has been averaging more than a thousand deaths a day from COVID-19 for weeks, and more than 80,000 people have died.

Bolsonaro’s opponents blame the president for the country’s failed response to the pandemic that has made it the world's hardest-hit country after the United States.

“The president is an enemy of the fight against COVID-19, and one day, he should be held responsible for the tens of thousands of deaths,” Rogério Carvalho told the Brazilian outlet TVT last week.

He’s a former surgeon general of the Brazilian state of Sergipe and congressman for the Workers Party, one of Bolsonaro’s staunch opponents.

“He used chloroquine as a trick to create the false illusion that COVID-19 would be easy to manage because there was a drug,” Carvalho said.

Rogério Carvalho, congressman, Workers Party

“He used chloroquine as a trick to create the false illusion that COVID-19 would be easy to manage because there was a drug,” Carvalho said.

That opinion is echoed by many.

Related: Black Lives Matter protests renew parallel debates in Brazil, Colombia

“Obviously, the president wants people to get back to work soon to boost the economy, which was already shrinking and plummeted during the pandemic. So, by praising chloroquine, he’s offered a placebo so that people lose their fear of leaving their homes,” said Brazilian political blogger Marcelo Idiarte.

Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine were prescribed in severe cases in Brazil since the beginning of the pandemic, but in May, the interim Health Minister Gen. Eduardo Pazuello — a Bolsonaro ally, who has no medical experience — approved their widespread use across the country.

There may be both political and practical reasons behind the government’s active promotion of the drugs.

“This is a person that denies reality. Creates his own reality and then presents that reality as propaganda for his followers and for the whole of Brazilian society. So, we are talking about a very radical and fanatic way of doing politics,” said Federico Finchelstein, an Argentine historian at The New School for Social Research.

“Basically, what we are seeing is a very fascist way of telling lies and then believing those lies.”

According to Brazilian media outlets, a number of companies producing chloroquine in Brazil are owned by Bolsonaro supporters who have met with the president during the pandemic. Additionally, the investigative outlet Reporter Brasil revealed in June that the country's Army Chemical and Pharmaceutical Laboratory had increased its chloroquine production a hundred-fold since March, producing 750,000 tablets per month since then. The country now has a glut of the product to sell and distribute.

But not all doctors are following orders.

Related: Brazil's government hid coronavirus stats. That's a problem.

“For now, we live in a free country, despite the president of the republic that we have,” said Marlus Thompson, head of the ICU unit at a hospital in the northeastern state of Espírito Santo, in a widely publicized WhatsApp message earlier this month.

“In the Intensive Care Unit [chloroquine] will not be used under any circumstances, because I am the technician responsible. I sign for the unit. I take responsibility for what happens there.”

Marlus Thompson, head of the ICU unit at a hospital in Espírito Santo

“In the Intensive Care Unit [chloroquine] will not be used under any circumstances, because I am the technician responsible. I sign for the unit. I take responsibility for what happens there.”

The Brazilian Medical Association and the Brazilian Society of Infectious Diseases recently joined WHO in recommending that doctors stop prescribing chloroquine to their patients. But with Bolsonaro on the mend, it’s clear that he’ll be using his case as a sign of the treatment’s effectiveness for months, regardless of the scientific and medical evidence.

“It’s difficult to try to imagine what’s going through his head. It might be a political game. He might really believe that it works,” said Márcia Grisotti, a sociology professor at the Santa Catarina Federal University. “When someone believes that something works, they are going to take it to the very end. But it’s a risky game for a politician because he puts everything else at risk. And Bolsonaro is defending something that has no foundation.”

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