As Brazil’s cemeteries filled with coronavirus victims and the South American nation’s death toll surged to the second highest in the world, the political obituaries were being written earlier this year for its populist president, Jair Bolsonaro.

From the outset, Mr Bolsonaro had gambled his reputation on playing down the risks from the virus and encouraging life to carry on as normal. He dismissed Covid-19 as a “little flu” and told Brazilians to “face it like a man, dammit”.

One health minister was fired for contradicting the president: his replacement lasted less than a month before resigning. The president ignored medical advice, greeting crowds of supporters at the height of the pandemic without a mask, going out to the street to buy a hot dog and even jet-skiing to a boat holding a floating barbecue.

“Which major country now faces the world’s worst political mess?” asked Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia group, a consultancy, in April. “Which head of state finds himself in deepest trouble? There’s a good case to be made for Brazil and its president.” The Lancet published an editorial in May saying Mr Bolsonaro “needs to drastically change course or must be the next to go”.

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro dismissed coronavirus as a 'little flu' in the pandemic’s early stages . . .  © Alan Santos/Presidential office handout/Reuters
. . . the population now has the highest death count in the world after the US © Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

By September 22, more than 137,000 Brazilians have died from coronavirus, a figure surpassed only by the US.

Yet Mr Bolsonaro is enjoying record popularity. For the first time since his election in 2018, more Brazilians believe the hard-right leader is doing a good or excellent job than think he is performing badly, according to pollster Datafolha last month.

Mr Bolsonaro is not the only populist leader reaping a dividend from playing down coronavirus and playing up the need to keep the economy open. Something similar is happening in Mexico where leftwing leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, has also emphasised the economy — sometimes at the expense of health advice. He has seen his popularity hold steady despite the country recording nearly 74,000 deaths from coronavirus.

At the same time, several of the countries that imposed strict lockdowns more in line with international advice are grappling with high death rates, even weaker economies and a political backlash.

Some believed that the coronavirus pandemic would find out populist leaders — especially those who prefer to pick culture-war fights over the hard work of good governance. Politicians ranging from US President Donald Trump to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson have come in for heavy criticism for the perception that they are not focused enough on the details of the fight against the virus and have tried to reopen their economies too fast.

Chart shows measuring the economic impact of Latin America’s coronavirus response

But the experience of Brazil and Mexico hints at a different dynamic. Charles Robertson, chief economist at Renaissance Capital, says the presidents of both countries tapped into a sentiment which has spread across developing nations: that European or east Asian-style strict lockdowns are not viable and will do greater harm than good.

Although Mr Robertson initially supported the curbs when they were imposed in developing countries in March, “what became clear in Latin America during April”, he says, “then in countries such as Armenia, Pakistan and Ghana among others, is that they don’t seem to work in low-income countries”. He cites a few exceptions such as Vietnam with very capable bureaucracies.

With hindsight, the emerging market lockdowns, especially in Latin America, are likely to be seen as a mistake, he adds.

Health experts disagree. Despite the poor results so far from the strict lockdowns in Latin America, they insist that such measures are the best way to avoid unnecessary deaths and that the main difficulty stems from weak enforcement.

Mexican health workers receive recognition during a military parade on the anniversary of the Independence Day this month . . .  © AFP via Getty Images
. . . their president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has also emphasised the economy sometimes at the expense of public health © Cesar Gomez/Getty

“Lockdowns and social distancing are the only strategies we have to control transmission,” says Dr Jarbas Barbosa, assistant director of the Pan-American Health Organisation. “The problem is not imposing the lockdown. It is the opposite: it is how to make lockdowns effective in poor countries.”

Some experts fear the pandemic is part of a broader shift in the region’s politics. After decades in which technocrats played a prominent role, the region appears to be going back to its long tradition of caudillos (military leaders) and populists.

“The old politics are returning [in Latin America],” says Shannon K O’Neil, vice-president at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “But now you are dealing with a much weaker state, more political fragmentation and a torn social fabric. It’s much more difficult to reach any real solutions or make progress. We are heading to another lost decade.”

Least worst economy

Back in June, political circles in Brasília were buzzing with talk of a possible impeachment of Mr Bolsonaro. Instead, the conversation now revolves around how the newly-reinvigorated president will push forward his conservative social agenda of loosening gun controls, giving tax breaks to evangelical churches and permitting home schooling.

Oliver Stuenkel, a professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, is no fan of Mr Bolsonaro but says that “what he did worked quite well” in political terms. “He created a dichotomy based on the lockdown versus the economy — you were either for the economy or you were defending the lockdown. He knew that at some stage, Brazilians would worry more about the economy than the pandemic.”

Maria Antonieta Alva, Peru’s finance minister, has been put on trial for mishandling the pandemic . . .  © Christian Ugarte/EPA-EFE
. . . Peru now has the world’s highest number of coronavirus deaths relative to size of population © Rodrigo Abd/AP

Like other commentators, Mr Stuenkel notes that Mr Bolsonaro’s popularity owes much to an emergency government programme of cash handouts to the poorest. At an initial cost of $9.5bn a month, according to the consultancy Teneo, it is something which Brazil’s shaky finances will struggle to sustain. Mr Bolsonaro has also benefited from the fact that Brazil’s public health system, known as the SUS, is one of the region’s strongest.

So far, Mr Bolsonaro’s gamble appears to be paying off. Bolstered by government largesse, Brazil’s gross domestic product is expected to shrink only 5.7 per cent this year according to Bank of America, the best performance of any major Latin American economy. In June, the IMF had predicted Brazil would contract 9.1 per cent in 2020.

When it comes to economic performance in the region this year, “the biggest winner has to be Brazil,” says Marcos Casarín, chief Latin America economist at Oxford Economics. “Brazil is the country which suffered least in terms of economic damage and is recovering fastest.”

Deflecting the narrative

Mexico’s economy is faring much less well because growth had stalled even before the pandemic. Unusually for a leftwing populist, Mr López Obrador has refused to countenance an economic stimulus package, insisting that more austerity is the answer: on fiscal issues, the Mexican president has conservative views. Bank of America forecasts that Mexican GDP will contract 10 per cent this year.

But in style, Mr López Obrador’s approach has some similarities to that of Mr Bolsonaro. After initially ignoring health guidelines and travelling around the country to shake hands and kiss babies, Mr López Obrador nodded to the Covid-19 emergency with a voluntary stay-at-home measure from March 30, relaxing restrictions from May 18 to allow the economy to pick up, even as infections continued to soar.

Playing up his folksy style of government, he told Mexicans that his amulets — including a six-leafed clover — would help protect him from the virus and that he had no need of police or troops to enforce quarantine because the people were with him. Even as cemeteries ran out of space and queues formed at crematoria, the government insisted that the situation was under control. Excess death figures recently released suggest that official figures are a gross underestimate and that Mexico’s true coronavirus death toll is among the world’s highest.

‘The old politics are returning [in Latin America],’ says Shannon K O’Neil, vice-president, Council on Foreign Relations

“AMLO got his approval ratings right up, which is really insane,” says Monica de Bolle, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute in Washington. “He’s done nothing. The situation is bad. Corruption is up. He’s not responded well at all to the pandemic. But he’s managed to deflect the narrative away from him being the culprit.”

While the populist presidents of Brazil and Mexico were playing down the pandemic, Latin America’s other major economies were doing the reverse. In quick succession in mid-March, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru announced strict lockdowns, closed their borders and decreed health emergencies.

Despite the divergent strategies, the health outcomes so far in most of the larger Latin American countries are almost uniformly poor. Of the 14 nations in the world with the worst Covid-19 death tolls relative to population size, eight are Latin American, according to data from Johns Hopkins University in mid-September.

Chart shows net score in consumer sentiment and socio-political stability, relative to historic trend showing Brazil and Mexico buck the trend of negative consumer sentiment

Peru was praised early in the pandemic for doing everything right. Its lockdown came fast and was enforced by the army and police. Finance minister María Antonieta Alva’s spending package was among the region’s biggest in proportion to the size of the economy and included cash payments to help the poorest.

But the results were disastrous. Peru now has the world’s highest number of coronavirus deaths relative to the size of its population, according to John Hopkins, higher even than Brazil. Its economy, crippled by the strict lockdown, collapsed by 30.2 per cent in the second quarter, the worst of any major economy. Almost half the urban population was put out of work.

Last week Congress put the Harvard-educated Ms Alva on trial, accusing her of mishandling the pandemic. “The minister has devoted herself to reactivating the economy of the same old elite power groups,” says José Vega, the opposition congressman who proposed a motion of censure to remove her. “We have more than six million unemployed and the [small and medium-sized businesses] have been ignored.”

Ms Alva, who insists she did the best she could in difficult circumstances, survived the dismissal motion by 73 votes to 46. But the political challenge to the government, which included an attempt to remove President Martín Vizcarra over alleged corruption, remains.

Relatives carry the coffin of a loved one during a burial in the section of Peru’s Nueva Esperanza cemetery reserved for Covid-19 cases © Rodrigo Abd/AP

Far from the triumph of science-based technocratic governments, as some had predicted, the devastation caused by the pandemic is magnifying the anger of many of the region’s citizens, who were already in the streets last year protesting against poor quality, expensive public services and a concentration of power in the hands of entrenched elites.

In Colombia, Latin America’s third most populous nation, the death of a man on September 9 after police repeatedly stunned him with a taser while on the ground ignited pent-up anger against the government. Thousands of people took to the streets of Bogotá, burning police stations and looting shops in violence which killed 14 and injured hundreds more.

“This wave of social protest in Latin America was wintering [during the pandemic] and is now coming back,” predicted Mauricio Cárdenas, a former Colombian finance minister who is a visiting professor at Columbia University in New York. “There will be months ahead with a lot of turbulence.”

As in other Latin American countries, populist challengers from the political extremes have been quick to exploit the pandemic. In Colombia, Gustavo Petro, the hard-left former guerrilla who is a strong contender in the 2022 presidential election, tweeted earlier this year that coronavirus “was brought in the planes of the rich and then spread on the [public transport system]”. More recently, he posted a study from The Lancet, saying it showed “Colombia is among the worst three countries in the world in terms of treating the epidemic”.

As the virus continues to sweep through Rio de Janeiro, more poor families face evictions from their homes © Silvia Izquierdo/AP

Analysts say the incumbent conservative president, Iván Duque, is vulnerable. As in Peru, Colombia’s long lockdown failed to stem infections and the country experienced one of the world's fastest rises in cases during July and August, though it has recently fallen back. Limited government support to the most vulnerable has compounded the country’s economic problems.

Further down the Andes in Chile, incumbent president Sebastián Piñera, a Harvard-educated conservative billionaire, is struggling in the polls after a stop-go response to the pandemic led to severe economic damage as well as a high number of deaths. Next year’s presidential election is wide open but surveys suggest that two populist mayors of Santiago suburbs, communist Daniel Jadue and rightwinger Joaquín Lavín, would be strong contenders.

A deeper understanding?

As Latin America’s mostly US-educated technocratic elite struggle to respond to the coronavirus crisis, the more modest backgrounds of the populists have given them a head start in understanding the needs and concerns of the poor.

Mr Bolsonaro’s upbringing in a small, rural town allows him to give the impression that he has some insight into the lives of ordinary people, while Mr López Obrador spent years as a community organiser in some of Mexico’s poorest and most marginalised areas.

Mexicans protest against their populist president López Obrador who has insisted austerity is the answer to the county’s economic woes © Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg

Christopher Sabatini, senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, recalls attending events in New York where “president after president [from Latin America] would give presentations saying they were addressing the needs of the people by improving their position in the ease of doing business rankings”. By contrast “Bolsonaro and López Obrador in some ways had their finger on the pulse of the people better”, he adds.

Mr Bolsonaro, whose middle name Messias translates as Messiah, shook off his own coronavirus infection in July and is experiencing a political second coming. A recent Poder360 poll showed him holding a 14-point lead over his nearest challenger, former leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, for the next presidential election in 2022.

São Paulo resident Ricardo José de Abreu, 58, used to work with transport apps such as Uber but stopped when the pandemic began. Initially he was confused about how bad the virus was but he then saw it mainly affected the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.

“At that point I started to agree with the president, because from the beginning he wanted to isolate the elderly and let young people work,” Mr de Abreu says. “You can’t stop working. People will get sick from a lack of jobs and food . . . so I understood his attitude perfectly. He was wise with his idea. And I think today, it’s almost proven that he was right.”

Additional reporting by Gideon Long in Bogotá and Carolina Pulice in São Paulo

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