In Brazil, the health risks of COVID-19 are a very partisan problem

Ernesto Calvo (Universidade de Maryland, UMD) e Tiago Ventura (Universidade de Maryland, UMD)

Nothing escapes polarization in Brazil, not even perceptions of health risks and job security. While in some countries of Latin America the emergence of the COVID-19 has brought a more civil tone and a sense of collective purpose, as in Argentina and Uruguay, President Jair Bolsonaro has delivered partisan messages, sow discord, and challenge local and state authorities to engage in riskier health policy strategies. The image of a defiant Bolsonaro will certainly resonate with readers in the United States, who followed Donald Trump’s script of partisan tweets that deflect responsibility to State authorities, international agencies, and foreign leaders. However, while Donald Trump policy messages drifts in and out of a federal health response, Bolsonaro’s public messages remains on target: forget health, get some tissues for this ‘summer cold’ and carry on with your job responsibilities. Dire warnings of a pending economic collapse, just last Friday, are the latest push to shift attention away from social distancing and focus the public’s attention on the economy. The health consequences have been noteworthy. Just as the US leads the world in COVID-19 cases and deaths, Brazil leads Latin America. And it leads comfortably.

Bolsonaro’s messages declared the pandemic a hoax, unimportant, and a non-threat. In his first nationally televised message, the President accused governors of overreacting, challenged social distancing policies, criticized schools closures, described himself as an athlete who would “not even notice” if he got infected, and labelled the virus, in the worst case, as just a little flu.  Yet, his actions speak louder than his tweets, firing his health minister to steer the ship away from the sea and back towards the iceberg.

In the United States, health policy has been shown to be a wedge issue that separates partisans and correlates with risky behavior. A number of recent articles finds consistent partisan differences among Americans on health behavior. Democrats and Republicans have shown different propensities to wash hands and use hand sanitizer, with lower aggregate social distancing compliance in Republican controlled districts. Our research in Brazil documents similar differences in risk perception and risky behavior between pro-government followers and the opposition in Brazil.

A recently completed national survey in Brazil shows that those who voted for the Worker’s Party candidate Haddad were twice as likely to report that their health could be affected by COVID-19 and close to 50% more likely to report that they could lose their job. Predictably, the gaps in risk perception map well to partisan differences in assessments of government response to the crisis.  Differences in risk perceptions remain when we control for the usual socio-demographic factors. While older voters are more likely to perceive their jobs and lives are at risk, age differences are rather small when compared to the partisan gap. Surveys we conducted in Argentina and Mexico evidence that Brazils polarization far exceed that of other large federal countries in the region.



To explain the behavioral mechanisms driving partisan responses to COVID-19 in Brazil, we implemented a framing experiment where we exposed random groups of voters to positive or negative partisan social media messages from high-level politicians. While recent research using observational data shows that partisanship and polarization correlate with citizens’ risk behavior and compliance with health policy recommendations, our research provides experimental evidence of how leaders such as Bolsonaro or Haddad may change perceptions of health and job risks by delivering partisan messages.

Negative frames, we show, make health and job assessments a wedge issue that triggers partisan identity responses. When the opposition politician Fernando Haddad attacks Jair Bolsonaro, perceptions of likely health and job risks increase for the opposition and decrease among government supporters. By contrast, positive social media messages from the opposing politicians do not increase polarization.

Going negative, however, can also backfire. Negative messages delivered by Eduardo Bolsonaro, as expected, increase perceived health and job risks among opposition voters. But the aggressive messages of Bolsonaro not fair much better among his own supporters. Supporters of the populist President Jair Bolsonaro do not respond well to the negative partisan appeal. In fact, Bolsonaro’s polarizing behavior during the crises seems to be hurting his popularity with its core voter, reducing overall government support, and increasing perceptions of risk exposure to COVID-19.

Further testing of this finding shows that Bolsonaro supporters were less likely to “retweet” and “like” Bolsonaro’s negative messages compared to his more positive messages. Pro-government voters that view a positive post by Eduardo Bolsonaro “liked” the tweet 63% of the time and 18% “retweeted” the message. By contrast, “likes” and “retweets” declined to 43% and 12% respectively when reading the negative social media message. Therefore, while both posts induce identity responses by strong partisans, the negative message was not well received by less committed voters and reduced overall government support.


Figure 2: Share of respondents “liking”, “sharing”, and “replying” posts by Bolsonaro and Haddad

Note: Respondents were allowed to simultaneously “like”, “share”, or/and “retweet” the posts given to them. While Bolsonaro and Haddad liked and shared the posts of Politicians they voted for, they did so more actively for the positive messages rather than for the negative ones.


Recent scholarship has shown that negative partisanship is very relevant for explaining vote choice and vote behavior in Brazil. Voter often have stronger preferences about things they do not want than about those things they do. Our results also show that anti-PT respondents are even more sensitive to the treatments, with a significant decline in support for the government and heightened perceptions of job and health risks. Indeed, going negative may be still efficient to activate partisans who support Bolsonaro but shy away voters to simply “hated” the Workers’ Party (PT). It may be politically risky for Bolsonaro to confuse anti-PT sentiments with true support for his policies. After all, Brazil is a country with plenty of parties and a long tradition of impeaching standing presidents.

At a time when social distancing is the single most important health response to the COVID-19 crisis, our findings show that voters expectations of losing their jobs or becoming infected with the virus are not immune to partisan appeals that make health and jobs wedge issues. Preaching to the core may be politically appealing but has important health consequences that extend well beyond the usual partisan pandering and posturing. Negative partisan messages may induce different exposure rates to the virus among pro-government and anti-government partisans, with partisan behaviors actually translating into differences in infection rates. In a dramatic example of “wedged” politics, Bolsonaro’s actions, and the behavioral response from his supporters, could make political pandering dangerous, and not only for democracy.

How to quote this post

CALVO, Ernesto; VENTURA, Tiago. In Brazil, the health risks of COVID-19 are a very partisan problem. Blog DADOS, 2020 [published 27 May 2020]. Available from:

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