The impact of COVID-19 on Brazil is immense, second only to the United States in terms of number of cases and deaths. It is the epicenter of the outbreak in Latin America with a recorded 3.9 million cases and 122,596 deaths at the beginning of September. In Brazil, half the population lives on less than $180 (USD) a month and, as with most countries in the world, low-income residents have been hardest hit by the pandemic and subsequent economic shutdown.
Despite the skyrocketing number of cases, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has underplayed the seriousness of the disease since the beginning of the pandemic. This has included actively defying public health recommendations for social distancing and mask wearing, promoting unproven cures such as hydroxychloroquine, referring to coronavirus as nothing more than a “little flu,” and firing two different public health ministers over the past six months.
Given the country’s large number of cases and unique response from government leadership, Premise was interested in finding out sentiments of Brazilian contributors surrounding the coronavirus. We polled contributors in May and again in August to see if opinions changed over time, receiving a total of 1,839 survey responses. The responses gave us a range of insights on attitudes surrounding the economic impact, information and messaging, and the government’s pandemic response.
COVID-19’s Significant Impact on Employment and Income
Brazil’s economy has been significantly impacted by the pandemic. Over half of contributors surveyed reported a decrease of income during both collection periods, May and August. In May, 66% of contributors indicated their income had decreased as a result of COVID-19. In August, contributors that reported a reduction in income totaled 59%, a slight decrease from May. August responses were collected at the same time as Brazil’s economy was reported to have shown resilience relative to neighboring countries, likely attributable to the government’s emergency economic assistance programs.
Almost 38% of contributors reported being unable to work from home in August, a 5% decrease from contributor responses totaling 43% in May. This slight change may represent adaptability of the work environment as well as a shift toward work in the informal economy.
Following the second survey response collection period, the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics reported that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) decreased 9.7% in the second quarter of 2020 from the first quarter of 2020. Compared to the same period in 2019, GDP fell 11.4%. While some economists are hopeful the second quarter data reflects the worst of the crisis, economic indicators are highly influenced by the trajectory of the pandemic.
Reliability of Public Health Messaging is Strong
Based on our data, television is a main source of information on COVID-19 for Brazilians. National television (27%) and local television (25%) were the most cited as a primary news source followed by the internet (17%). Contributors have an overall favorable view of the media coverage in Brazil with 42% citing it as ‘Accurate’ or ‘Very accurate,’ although this is down from 47% in May. Reliance on television news sources is promising, since there is more rigorous vetting of the information shared as compared to the internet or social media.
Contributors expressed a high level of confidence in the messaging and information from international health authorities such as the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). When asked what their level of confidence in the messaging of international health authorities is accurate, 95% expressed some level confidence and 54% responded ‘Extremely’ or ‘ Very Confident.’ The high level of confidence in the messaging of international health authorities remained consistent in the responses from both May and August.
These results were in stark contrast to responses revealing the levels of confidence in the accuracy of messaging from President Bolsonaro, for which 35% of contributors expressed ‘Not at all confident’ in May and 22% in August. Contributors demonstrated higher levels of confidence in the messaging from the National Ministry of Health in both collection periods, with 90% indicating at least some level of confidence in May and 92% in August.
Troubling Spread of Misinformation in Brazil
The prevalence of misinformation surrounding the pandemic has been deeply concerning in Brazil, challenging both the adoption of preventative measures and the COVID-19 public health response. In May, one in every four contributors surveyed (26%) reported encountering misinformation about COVID-19 within the past month. This number decreased slightly to 21% in August, and during each collection period, 25% were unsure if they had encountered misinformation.
The majority of contributors who indicated they encountered misinformation reported seeing, hearing or reading it on the internet or social media. Online sources were responsible for the spread of much false information about the Zika outbreak that was circulated in 2016. In August, responses identifying print media as the source of information increased by 5%. Additional sources of misinformation identified by contributors who selected the “other” category include WhatsApp and public statements from President Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro even tested positive for COVID-19 in early July but has continued to maintain his opposition to scientific evidence on the disease.
Accusations of Bolsonaro’s administration downplaying rates of infection and restricting access to Brazil’s COVID-19 data led the country’s media outlets to form a consortium in June, working collaboratively to seek and publish information relating to the pandemic directly from state health departments. Distrust in the accuracy of the government’s reporting on rates of infection is reflected in contributor responses when asked if they believed if the actual number of cases matches the reported number by the government. In May, only 15% contributors indicated they believe the number of cases reported by the government is accurate, while over 55% indicated they believe the actual number of cases is higher than what the government reports.
This is concerning since public opinion seems to have shifted to become slightly more favorable when it comes to his false claims on the virus. For example, the number of contributors who ‘Disagreed’ or ‘Strongly Disagreed’ with Bolsonaro’s statement that there is too much “hysteria” around the diseases shifted down 11 percentage points between May and August from 47% to 36%. When asked about Bolsonaro’s decision to fire the health minister Luiz Henrique, there was a 10 point increase (36% to 46%) between May and August for those who ‘Agreed’ or ‘Strongly Agreed’ with this decision.
Key Insights into Perceptions of the Pandemic Response
Results from both surveys show that contributors overwhelmingly agree that social distancing practices are necessary to prevent the continued spread of COVID-19. In May, 87% responded with some level of agreement while 11% of contributors provided a neutral response. Contributors in agreement slightly declined totaling 80% in August, while the neutral response increased to 17%.
Dissatisfaction with the national government’s response to the pandemic decreased from 27% in May to 22% in August. This finding is in line with other polls that found approval ratings for Bolsonaro’s government increased slightly in August, despite harsh criticism for his attempts to downplay the effects of COVID-19. The modest rise in approval coincided with increased government spending aimed at emergency economic relief, including stipends for lost incomes. Emergency relief efforts set to continue through September, have included payments of 600 reais monthly, to low-income and informal economy workers, totaling more than 250 billion reais (47 billion USD).
Rates of satisfaction with the response taken by state and local governments continued to remain higher than satisfaction rates for the national government. In May, almost 60% responded with either “Very Satisfied” or “Satisfied,” and rates of satisfaction remained above 50% in August. While state responses have been varied, some states have stepped in to coordinate COVID-19 relief measures and resources in the absence of a strong response from the national government.
Contributor data shows slight increases in the level of confidence in national leadership and for the overall level of satisfaction with the COVID-19 response as economic outcomes show improvements. The connection between confidence in government leadership and personal economic stability appears to be clear. The impact of the pandemic in Brazil and globally, is far from over and Premise will continue to monitor sentiments of government leadership and national responses in Latin America and beyond.
Data Source: Premise Data | Data was collected between May 1-5, 2020 and August 24-28, 2020