Brazil’s Bolsonaro Defends Coronavirus Policies, Touts Strong Economy at U.N.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro addresses the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, at United Nations headquarters in New York. (Timothy A. Clary/Pool Photo via AP)
Timothy A. Clary/Pool Photo via AP

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro devoted much of his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday to touting his country’s business environment and talking up progress on Amazon deforestation, but for much of the media, it was difficult to hear Bolsonaro over the sound of him not being vaccinated.

Bolsonaro did not devote a great deal of time to discussing the coronavirus pandemic, but he was feisty on the subject. The media was obsessed with his status as the only world leader known to have violated the “honor system” at the General Assembly by entering the hall without being fully vaccinated. 

The Washington Post said it was “awkward” for the vaccine-skeptical Bolsonaro to be the first speaker at this year’s event, chided him for turning down an offer of AstraZeneca shots from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (“Not yet!” Bolsonaro demurred with a laugh) and suspected him of settling for a pizza dinner on the streets of New York the previous evening because the city prohibits unvaccinated people from dining indoors.

“We need to send a message to all the world leaders, including most notably Bolsonaro, from Brazil, that if you intend to come here, you need to be vaccinated. If you don’t want to be vaccinated, don’t bother coming, because everyone should be safe together,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio growled on Monday, but Bolsonaro ate his pizza and showed up at the United Nations anyway.

Bolsonaro’s relatively short speech was intended to “showcase a different Brazil,” as he put it, contrasting the reality of the nation as he closes out his first term in office with the international media’s portrayal of it.  (He’s up for re-election in 2022 and his odds are not looking good, although his supporters remain energetically devoted to him – perhaps a bit too energetically, in the estimation of his critics.)

“Brazil has a president who believes in God, respects the constitution, values family principles, and is loyal to her people,” he said. “This is a lot. It is a solid foundation, if we take into account that we were at the brink of socialism. Our state-owned enterprises used to incur financial losses in the billions of dollars in the past, whereas now they are profitable companies.”

“I present to you now a new Brazil whose credibility has already been recovered in the world,” Bolsonaro said, pointing to thriving investment partnership programs, infrastructure improvements with privatization, a booming consumer market, and a “firm tradition of honor and respect for contracts.”

Bolsonaro touted Brazil’s “comprehensive and thorough” environmental legislation, especially its Forest Code, which he said “sets an example for other countries to follow.” 

“In the Amazon region, we have seen a drop of 32 percent in deforestation in August, as compared to August last year,” he said. “What other country in the world has an environmental preservation policy like ours?”

Bolsonaro boasted of Brazil’s progress in clean energy generation and voiced support for a “global carbon credit market,” calling on other nations to “fulfill their commitments to climate funding at substantial amounts.”

The Brazilian president took a firm stance in the social wars, declaring the traditional nuclear family to be “the very foundation of civilization.”

“Human beings’ freedom can only be complete with the freedom of worship and of expression,” he continued, stressing Brazil’s commitment to such freedoms for its indigenous people. 

Bolsonaro restated Brazil’s promise to welcome refugees from the “dictatorship” in Venezuela, and said refugees from Afghanistan would be welcomed as well. He cited the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to repudiate terrorism.

When he finally came to the coronavirus pandemic late in his address, Bolsonaro described it as a hideous “surprise” and mourned the deaths in Brazil and worldwide. He rejected criticisms of his approach to the pandemic by insisting he kept an appropriate focus on protecting jobs and keeping poverty from overwhelming Brazil.

“I have always advocated that we should fight the virus and unemployment at the same time, and with the same sense of responsibility,” he remarked. “Isolation and lockdown measures left a legacy of inflation, particularly in foodstuffs, all over the world.”

Bolsonaro addressed criticisms of his attitude toward vaccines by saying he supports vaccination efforts, pointing to the 260 million doses of vaccines distributed by the Brazilian federal government, and saying almost 90 percent of the adult population has received at least one shot. He added that almost 80 percent of the indigenous population has been inoculated against the Wuhan coronavirus.

“We support vaccination efforts,” he said. “However, my administration has not supported a vaccine or health passport, or any other vaccine-related obligation.”

“Since the pandemic started, we have supported doctors’ professional autonomy in the quest for early treatment measures, in line with recommendations issued by the Brazilian federal council of medicine,” he noted, supporting the freedom of doctors to prescribe medicine for both official and off-label use, as they think best.

“We cannot understand why many countries, together with a large portion of the media, took a stance against early treatment measures,” he said. “History and science will certainly be wise enough to hold everyone accountable for that.”

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