In July of 2020, when the monstrous coronavirus pandemic had just begun to sink its teeth into Brazil, I took to the streets of Rio de Janeiro to do some reporting.
I stopped by the open-air pop-up markets that dot the beachside neighborhood of Copacabana and spoke to people who were shopping for produce amid ongoing lockdowns.
“Do you know the name of a famous Brazilian scientist?” I asked people as they passed.
At the time, President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain who is often called the “Tropical Trump,” was on a full-blown crusade against science. Bolsonaro tried to stop state governors from following lockdown protocols, promoted fake cures, and persecuted researchers who proved him wrong.
I wondered how much Brazilians cared about science, at a time when we needed it most.
Out of the dozen people I spoke to on the streets of Rio that day, only one knew a famous Brazilian scientist.
Embarrassed to tell me her name because she was a public-school teacher who couldn’t think of a single scientist, a young woman in glasses told me “Well, there is that vaccine guy, right? I forget what he’s called.”
She was referring to Oswaldo Cruz, the world-renowned Brazilian epidemiologist who founded Fiocruz, one of the world’s leading public health institutions. Most Brazilians don’t know that our country is home to internationally recognized research hubs.
Brazil has one of the largest public health care systems in the world and most of its top scientific institutions are government-funded.
In fact, the cosmopolitan state of São Paulo funds Instituto Butantan, one of the most celebrated scientific centers in the world. São Paulo governor João Doria often boasts that Brazil is among the four largest vaccine producers in the world and the largest in Latin America.
Instead of celebrating these feats, President Bolsonaro has gone to great lengths to slander science over the last two years.
In 2021, I spent nine months collecting persecution stories for a podcast published by Brazilian investigative news agency, Agencia Publica, about scientists who are being targeted for their research by Bolsonaro and his followers. What I discovered was grim: scientists all over Brazil have been fired, received death threats, or had to flee the country to guarantee their own safety.
But since we grow up having soccer players and not scientists as role models, it is no surprise that most Brazilians have not come out in defense of researchers who are attacked.
To make matters worse, Bolsonaro has made his anti-science stance a crucial pillar of public policy.
In March of 2020, I tuned into a presidential address that was aired on national television to discuss the pandemic. In his rigid military-like demeanor, Bolsonaro downplayed the severity of the situation calling the virus “a little flu” and asked local governors to go against lock-down measures recommended by the World Health Organization.
In the early days of the pandemic, the former army captain even brought the virus to the United States. After Bolsonaro joined his idol, Donald Trump, on a weekend getaway to Mara-Lago, several people in his entourage later tested positive for the virus.
Frustrated with Bolsonaro’s disdain for following protocols, many doctors and scientists on the government’s coronavirus response team were either fired or left.
Epidemiologist Julio Croda, who was my source in the Health Ministry, quit because Bolsonaro sidelined colleagues and refused to listen to the scientists on staff. In total, three health ministers stepped down or were fired from office since the pandemic began.
Perhaps most shocking of all is that Bolsonaro has consistently promoted quack COVID cures like hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria pill that is not proven to work against the coronavirus.
Trump also praised the drug, but Bolsonaro went as far as to spend $16 million on what he called “early treatment kits.” The pack of drugs was marketed as a treatment for preliminary coronavirus symptoms and included the anti-malaria pill plus other medications like ivermectin, which is used to treat lice.
When internationally renowned Brazilian epidemiologist Marcos Lacerda and his team became the first in the world to prove that high doses of hydroxychloroquine caused irregular heartbeats, they were persecuted. The president’s son, Senator Eduardo Bolsonaro, accused the researchers of being left-wing extremists and said their study “killed 11 people after patients were given doses that were way out of the ordinary.” None of that was true.
What happened next was harrowing. For months, Lacerda and his team received death threats over social media and by phone. As the lead researcher, Lacerda was bombarded with lawsuits filed by extreme-right politicians. Things got so intense that he had to be escorted to and from work with bodyguards.
But this was just the tip of the iceberg. Scientist after scientist told me they were living in fear. Ricardo Galvão, head of INPE, the Brazilian NASA, was fired after Bolsonaro publicly attacked him for publishing numbers that showed a rise in deforestation in the Amazon. As the list grew larger, people came together to form Rede Irerê, a support group for Brazilian researchers under attack.
Still, the Brazilian population has been incredibly silent in lieu of all this. And I think that is because, culturally, we don’t value science as one of Brazil’s crowning achievements.
Growing up in Brazil, I wasn’t taught to idolize physicians like Emilio Ribas, who made great headway in preventing yellow fever. Two years ago, when Black female scientist Jaqueline Goés de Jesus led the genome sequencing of Brazil’s first COVID-19 variant, she also wasn’t celebrated as a national hero.
Since the pandemic started, our president has only made it harder for Brazilians to find value in science. Even though Brazil’s thriving scientific community is essential to our country’s economic development, Bolsonaro has stunted our growth by persecuting the researchers who make strides for our country.
Unless we create a culture that loves and protects its scientists, Brazil risks losing the very world-renowned public health and research institutions that should be guarded as our greatest national treasures.
Mariana Simões is a freelance journalist from Brazil and a graduate student at the Columbia Journalism School.
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.