You could almost hear a collective "Ha!" from around the world. The news yesterday that Jair Bolsonaro had been infected with the coronavirus comes after the Brazilian president's response to the epidemic over the past four months that mixed arrogant dismissiveness with outright lies:
The 65-year-old hardline right-wing leader first baselessly suggested Brazilians were immune; then shrugged off thousands of deaths, calling the epidemic a "little flu". As Brazil's death toll ballooned to more than 66,000 — the world's highest outside of the United States — Bolsonaro criticized local lockdowns introduced by some Brazilian states and refused to wear masks during official visits where he regularly hugged supporters.
He summed up his approach to prevention in late March: "We'll all die one day."
Thus many inside and outside Brazil took his contagion as poetic justice. Some celebrated; others went further.
"I'm rooting that his condition worsens and he dies. Nothing personal," columnist Hélio Schwartsman writes in a provocative piece for Folha de São Paulo.
His rather extreme reasoning in the leading Brazilian newspaper: Like any death, Bolsonaro's would be regrettable — yet it could save the lives of others. "Brazil would no longer have a president downplaying the epidemic and undermining containment measures." It would also be "a global cautionary tale" for other irresponsible politicians, and prevent further loss of life the world over. In other words, "Bolsonaro would render in death the service he was unable to offer in life," Schwartsman concludes.
The argument is tempting.
Anger is understandable, and the argument is tempting. After all, the news that he was infected doesn't seem to have changed Bolsonaro's attitude: Shortly after telling reporters he had tested positive, he stepped back, removed his mask and smiled, saying, "You can see from my face that I'm well" — playing down the epidemic again, and potentially infecting others around him.
Comprehensible as our anger and frustration may be, Thiago Amparo, a Brazilian lawyer and politics professor also writing in Folha, warns against actually hoping for Bolsonaro to die. Such thoughts strip us of our reason, humanity and trust in democratic institutions; it's a gut reaction that appeals to our rage against the injustice of having lost thousands of people that should still be among us.
But gut reactions hardly ever produce justice, Amparo notes. "If they did, the pre-Enlightenment system of public lynching would have been a great place to live," Amparo writes. "Let the anger against Bolsonaro reveal the diamond it hides: the thirst for justice."