With Covid-19 and the environment at the top of the agenda at this year’s United Nations’ General Assembly, observers braced for the first world leader to speak in the UN headquarters’ storied hall: Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, notorious for both his off-the-cuff comments and controversial handling of the pandemic and the environment.
The Brazilian President’s speech was calmly given, even monotone at times, opening with a numbing sales pitch of his country to investors that touted developments in sanitation and transportation services. He was presenting “a new Brazil whose credibility has been recovered in the world” – one very different from the country devastated by the coronavirus on his watch and lashed by fires in the Amazon, where Bolsonaro has pushed for development.
The conservative populist leader stuck to established provocations on social and pandemic issues, repeatedly alluding to the importance of “the traditional nuclear family” and criticizing pandemic lockdown measures. Doctors should be free to prescribe the use of “off-label” medications against Covid-19, added the president, who has long championed the unproven malaria medicine hydroxychloroquine as a treatment.
Brazil traditionally goes first in the General Assembly’s weeklong roster of speeches by member states, and Bolsonaro, who is up for reelection next year, had already set a pugnacious tone for his appearance, publicly flouting the UN’s “honor system” that calls for foreign delegations to be vaccinated before entering the building. Bolsonaro declared last week that he would not get vaccinated, because he already had Covid-19.
“Why do you take a vaccine? To have antibodies, right? My antibodies rate is really high. I can show you the document,” he said in a live social media broadcast. He added that he will only make a decision about getting vaccinated “after everyone in Brazil gets the vaccine” – a dissonant voice as the General Assembly pushes this year to increase vaccination throughout the globe, and cajoling wealthier nations to share more doses with poorer ones.
But while the Brazilian President has tended to use appearances at the UN to reject foreign authority – showing a similar allergy to being told what to do when it comes to another globe-spanning crisis: global warming – he seemed to sidestep any direct confrontation on that front.
In 2020 at the UNGA podium, as flames raged in the Amazon, he told the hand-wringing world to back off, claiming foreign agents were overhyping the wildfires in “the most brutal misinformation campaign.” He has long painted the environmental concerns expressed by foreign governments, local indigenous groups, and organizations as prelude to an imagined foreign invasion of the Amazon.
This year, a quieter Bolsonaro acknowledged “environmental challenges” but boasted that the Amazon region had seen a drop of 32% deforestation in August compared to the prior year, citing numbers from the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research indicating 918 square kilometers of deforestation. The number is still nearly double what was registered in August 2018, before the Bolsonaro administration, however.
In contrast, data from the Amazon Institute of Man and Environment (Imazon) – which monitors the deforested areas by satellite – suggest 1,606 square kilometers of deforestation in August, a 7% rise in comparison to the same month last year. It is also the highest rate for August in a decade, according to Imazon´s satellites imagery.
The president also called on other countries to do their part by fulfilling commitments to climate funding “at substantial amounts.” His own government has previously received significant foreign aid from other countries to help halt deforestation – a tactic that some environmental advocates in Brazil criticize, pointing out that not all the money allocated for environmental work in Brazil is spent in the first place.
Bolsonaro, never a fan of pandemic restrictions, acknowledged as much in Tuesday’s speech before world leaders, saying that while he regrets “all of the deaths that took place in Brazil and worldwide,” the toll of unemployment must be balanced against that of the coronavirus. Over the past year, he had frequently raged against municipal and state-level lockdown orders in Brazil, even during the grimmest moments of the pandemic, when hospitals filled to capacity and whole cities ran out of oxygen. Over half a million Brazilians have died in the pandemic – the highest death toll in the world after the United States.
A more moderate tone had been expected from Bolsonaro this year, said Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and vice president for policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas. For one thing, the assembly’s mood was simply different, with fewer fellow right-wing populist leaders to join Bolsonaro in giving international busybodies the middle finger.
“Bolsonaro is more isolated than ever,” Winter told CNN. “Trump left, Netanyahu is gone. The main country that really aligns with his brand of right-wing conservatism is Victor Orban’s Hungary,” he says. (Bolsonaro did have a sit-down scheduled with Poland’s conservative, anti-LGBTQ president Andrzej Duda before he took the stage Tuesday, though.)
This year, too, the stakes of climate change have never been clearer, with catastrophic fires and floods seen around the world. Brazil’s vast forest works as an “air conditioner” for the globe, influencing global temperature and rainfall patterns, and absorbing carbon dioxide, and Winters says Bolsonaro had already previewed a new “constructive” tone on coordinating climate protection during a summit convened by US President Joe Biden this spring, when Bolsonaro presented a plan to eliminate illegal deforestation by 2030 and neutralize greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
In a meeting Monday with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro showed the same mild-mannered stubbornness that he later displayed at the podium. The two leaders discussed climate and Covid-19, and Bolsonaro “affirmed Brazil’s commitment to sustainable development,” a Brazilian Foreign Ministry statement read after the meeting.
But when it came to getting vaccinated per the United Nations’ request, he was as unmoving as ever.
During footage of the meeting at the UN headquarters, Johnson could be heard telling Bolsonaro, “AstraZeneca, it’s a great vaccine. Get the AstraZeneca vaccine. I had it twice.” Bolsonaro laughed the tip off. “No, not yet,” he said.
Reporting contributed by CNN’s Rodrigo Pedroso in Sao Paulo.