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Brazil and US: The Unmasked Leaders

Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, rides a horse while meeting fans.

It’s a masked world. One man wearing a mask is odd. He could be a good Samaritan like the Lone Ranger, or he could be dangerous like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man. When everyone is wearing a mask, it’s surreal. We are experiencing a world beyond our reality.

For those of us lucky enough to be healthy, we must adjust to the physical and emotional discomfort of a masked society by reminding ourselves to be grateful.

So many are less fortunate – healthcare workers dying on the front lines; maids being infected by their employers; warehouse workers in confined spaces who will lose their jobs if they don’t work; employees in meat-processing plants working when they’re sick.

And what about bank security guards and armored car drivers. How do they recognize criminals when everyone is wearing a mask? From the comfort of my rocking chair in Curitiba, Brazil, I hope all these folks get a 100 percent pay increase.

If everyone is wearing a mask, then we’re all good guys, which begs the question, Who are the bad guys? Since the quarantine began in March, crime is down and even pollution has fallen with less cars on the road.

While the enemy isn’t imaginary, it’s certainly invisible. How do we fight an enemy that won’t show its face? We are tilting at windmills like Don Quixote. Once we enter the realm of invisible foes, we’re in the land of magical realism, comic superheroes, and Harry Potter.

Where there is evil, we seek a culprit. Who’s responsible for the 400 thousand Virus deaths? In the first weeks, China seemed the obvious villain. Everyone agreed, even China, that the pandemic had started there.

However, this quickly morphed into racism, taking over social media, and Chinese people who were perfectly healthy were being attacked on the streets of the US and Europe.

As the Virus spread globally, the next scapegoat was the airlines industry, which isn’t logical as they were merely providing a service. Anyone who traveled could be the enemy.

National borders around the world closed. Then people understood anyone who flew could just as easily be a victim as a villain, and airlines lost 95 percent of their passengers.

Everyone is seeking answers. We need to know who are the most susceptible to catch the virus and who are the most likely to perish from it. We ask how virologists as well as layman like Bill Gates were able to predict the pandemic years ago.

While the speed at which vaccines are being created and tested is nothing short of remarkable, how long will it take to manufacture and distribute billions of doses of a vaccine to save us all?

As the virus is only six months old, experts are still pursuing answers, so it’s no surprise how crazy the non-experts sound on their podcasts and blogs. Those who favor conspiracy theories warn us not to listen to anyone but them because traditional sources of information can’t be trusted.

Rush Limbaugh, one of the wealthiest radio personalities in the US, often warns his listeners of the “four corners of deceit”: the media, scientists, academia and the government.

Meanwhile, Limbaugh was arrested in 2006 for “doctor shopping.” Prosecutors brought charges after they discovered he received about 2,000 painkillers prescribed by four doctors at a pharmacy near his Palm Beach, Florida, mansion.

When everyday citizens are being warned not to listen to the government or scientists or scholars or journalists, who’s left to advise us?

Unfortunately, this is the situation today in Brazil, the US, Russia, and Great Britain. It’s not a coincidence that these four countries are governed by men who think like Limbaugh, and these are the four countries with the first, second, third, and fourth highest number of confirmed Virus cases.

As Marsha Gessen states in her book Surviving Autocracy on the US and the number of cases: “We could have imagined, but we could not have predicted, that a pandemic would render [Trump’s] arrogant ignorance lethal.”

Like Trump, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is in full support of protestors who claim the Virus isn’t lethal. He leaves his residence in Brasília to greet supporters on horseback, shaking hands with the crowd and refusing to wear a mask.

Bolsonaro’s not concerned if his supporters attack journalists. When questioned by journalists as to why so many people are dying if the Virus isn’t serious, he replied, “Death’s everyone’s destiny.”

Thus it’s no surprise that the four countries with the highest number of cases are being run by men who eagerly broadcast their ethical codes as anti-elitist and anti-establishment.

Harvard professor Daniel Ziblatt, co-author of the book How Democracies Die, has labeled the four leaders as “radical right illiberal populists.”

Bolsonaro, who quickly mimics whatever his hero Donald Trump does, recently accepted shipments of the malarial drug hydroxychloroquine after Trump said he was taking it as a preventive measure.

Trump stopped using it after US doctors advised there was no evidence it prevented or cured the Virus. Bolsonaro has already instructed doctors in Brazil to begin administering it to Virus patients, and he accepted Trump’s gift of 2 million doses of the drug.

Thanks to social media, there is an epidemic of misinformation surrounding the Virus. In seeking answers people are listening to anyone. There are no fact checkers on the internet, and misinformation is taken more seriously in countries governed by men who encourage the public not to trust science. The situation is so severe it’s been given a name, “infodemic.”

Thanks to anti-science leaders and the availability of the internet to anyone who wishes to publish on it, such notions as the Virus can be cured by drinking methanol led to more than 700 deaths in Iran. That it is spread by 5G transmitters convinced arsonists in Britain to carry out more than 90 attacks on cellphone towers.

Trump has gone so far as to withdraw US participation in the World Health Organization (WHO), the international health group best situated to provide accurate information about the pandemic.

The world’s premier center for disease research, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, had its funding drastically reduced by Trump at a time when it needs greater funding and support.

Upon hearing the news that Trump was withdrawing from the WHO, Bolsonaro declared it a great idea and said he’s considering the same path for Brazil.

Trump is also willing to call in the military to suppress protests against racism and police brutality in cities across the US. Bolsonaro, as a former military man, supports expanded distribution of guns among the public and sees nothing wrong with the military controlling the streets.

These two countries’ leaders seem to have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, that it’s against the Constitution to use the military to attack your own countrymen, unless there is a situation that first prompts a governor to request the presence of the military.

From a philosophical perspective, both Bolsonaro and Trump are on the same unmasked wavelength. This health crisis offered both Presidents an opportunity to rise to positions of great leadership while at the same time expanding their power.

They could have exhibited courage and foresight to guide their countries through the pandemic, thereby securing greater respect and earning a place in history; however, they’ve chosen not to.

The most opportune time for a leader to raise his approval ratings is during a disaster. Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, another populist autocrat, has expanded his powers politically and militarily, but also protected his populace by limiting the Virus cases to small numbers.

Two Brazilian activist scholars, Miguel Lago and Alessandra Orofino, published an essay in The New York Times on June 3 offering their assessment as to why President Bolsonaro has refused to lead the country:

“Mr. Bolsonaro relies on the country’s institutions to defy him. Without their defiance, he can’t fire up his supporters. And the coronavirus crisis has supercharged his tendency toward antagonism.

“Seeing a situation from which no good could come, Mr. Bolsonaro seems to have decided the path to political safety lies in refusing responsibility for the pandemic’s toll — and keeping his base in a state of frenzied anger.

“So he calls for protests, attends public barbecues and turns a blind eye as his followers openly harass journalists. He is perhaps the world’s only strongman who likes to project an image of weakness, not strength.”

Perhaps then it’s no surprise that among the countries that have been most successful fighting the Virus are those run by women – Germany, New Zealand, and Taiwan.

Where is a masked Covid superhero when we need him?

B. Michael Rubin is an American writer living in Brazil. His website is www.bmichaelrubin.com.

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