Anti-government protesters took to the streets in more than a dozen cities across Brazil on Saturday, as the country’s confirmed death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 500,000 — a tragedy many critics blame on President Jair Bolsonaro’s attempt to downplay the disease.
Thousands gathered in downtown Rio de Janeiro waving flags with slogans such as “Get out Bolsonaro. Government of hunger and unemployment.”
Other marchers hoisted posters reading: “500 thousand deaths. It’s his fault,” alluding to Bolsonaro.
At least 22 of Brazil’s 26 states, as well as the Federal District of Brasilia, held similar marches. They were promoted by left-wing opposition groups buoyed by Bolsonaro’s plummeting poll numbers as the presidential election approaches next year.
“Get out Bolsonaro, genocidal,” yelled Rio demonstrators, some of them wearing t-shirts or masks with the image of former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — who leads Bolsonaro in some polls.
In São Paulo, protesters dropped red balloons as a tribute to the victims of the virus.
Bolsonaro’s followers have been taking to the streets more frequently in the last month, in part because many agree with his dismissal of coronavirus limitations and are angry that lockdown measures have harmed businesses.
Critics say such messages, as well as Bolsonaro’s promotion of disproven treatments such as hydroxychloroquine, have contributed to the soaring death toll and a sluggish vaccine campaign that has fully inoculated less than 12% of the population. The country of some 213 million people is registering nearly 100,000 new infections and 2,000 deaths a day.
“For the leftists, putting their followers in the streets is a way of wearing Bolsonaro down for the election,” said Leandro Consentino, a political science professor at Insper, a university in Sao Paulo. “But at the same, time they are contradicting themselves and losing the discourse of maintaining health care, because they are causing the same agglomerations as Bolsonaro.”
Saturday’s marches came a week after Bolsonaro led a massive motorcycle parade of supporters in Sao Paulo, though his allies and foes differ dramatically on the size of that event.
“Bolsonaro needs to show that he maintains significant support to give a message of strength to those who are investigating the actions of his government in Congress,” Consentino said.