April 15, 2020


Brazil's Bolsonaro Meets His FauciAcross Latin America, the coronavirus pandemic has raised public trust in health professionals--starting in Brazil. (Mac Margolis, April 14, 2020, Bloomberg)

As recently as 2018, the region's scientists had relatively little cachet. According to the Wellcome Global Monitor, based on a Gallup poll surveying more than 140 countries, a quarter of South Americans said they had little or no trust in doctors and nurses, making them almost as skeptical as respondents from Central Africa, the least trusting region. Fewer than 7 in 10 said they would look to health professionals for medical advice, outdone only by Middle Easterners (65%). No region had less confidence in hospitals and clinics: 37% of those surveyed compared with the world average of 19%.

Fortunately, as the coronavirus sweeps the region, the skepticism appears to be losing traction. To judge by the two-kilometer line of cars stretching before my neighborhood health clinic late last month, even the storied anti-vaccine movement is on the retreat: 8.7.million elderly Brazilians took seasonal flu shots during the opening week of the vaccination drive, double the number of the 20-day 2019 campaign. While a few hardcore science deniers still howl, Rio de Janeiro state authorities and bishops held an Easter light show projecting the city's postcard Christ the Redeemer monument dressed in a lab coat and stethoscope.

Mandetta, a pediatric orthopedist, has seen his approval ratings soar to 76% as he leads Brazil's fight against the outbreak; another survey found that 87% of Brazilians approved of the country's health professionals. Mandetta's daily press briefings alongside the health ministry's top officials have become obligatory national viewing. Not so the public performances by President Jair Bolsonaro, who has seethed as his minister consistently outshone him. (Hence his 42% disapproval rating, compared with 29% in February.) Only a counteroffensive by Bolsonaro's inner circle of military men and level-headed legislators reportedly dissuaded him from sacking Mandetta mid-crisis. For now, at least: A leader who takes his management cues from Donald Trump is unlikely to let some tropical Anthony Fauci keep taking the bows.

The stakes are especially dire for Brazil, where illness is accelerating -- officially, more than 23,700 stricken and 1,355 dead from Covid-19. (Independent studies say the real case load may be 12 times greater.) Although scientists have clawed back credibility from the corona-denialists, those gains will be threatened unless national leaders put more money into public hospitals, scale up mass clinical testing and increase the supply of ventilators and emergency health equipment. Getting Brazil's quack-in-chief to follow that prescription is another matter.

Moreover, Bolsonaro is not the only leader in a bubble. His Mexican counterpart, left-wing populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, blithely ignored the country's epidemiologists until the outbreak started to take off. Now the health minister has taken center stage -- an encouraging if unstated nod to the growing regional consensus that only hard science and proper health protocols can beat the outbreak.

Posted by at April 15, 2020 12:00 AM