When Right-Wing Populism Becomes Distorted Public Health Communication: Tracing the Roots of Jair Bolsonaro’s Epidemiological Denialism

Stuart Davis, João V. S. Ozawa, Joseph Straubhaar, Samuel Woolley


This article delineates key links between right-wing populism and epidemiological denialism. Building on a comparative analysis of central tropes from Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s 2018 campaign and his public-facing response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we argue that his engagement during both periods employs two key elements of right-wing populism: Anti-elitism, or the view that the political establishment is irredeemably disconnected from the citizenry, and anti-pluralism, or the blaming of political and social problems on scapegoat populations. During the COVID-19 outbreak, this denigration of public trust fuels denialism or the systemic attempt to downplay severity to minimize public response. Developing a thematic analysis around Bolsonaro’s speeches, interviews, and personal social media, we address how anti-elitist and anti-pluralist strategies from the 2018 campaign inform the pandemic response. These include the discrediting of governmental bodies, the villainization of progressive activists, and the assignation of blame on foreign actors. Our goal is to provide an in-depth case study of how communication bolstering epidemiological denialism is propagated—an increasingly vital conversation as right-wing populism and health misinformation proliferate.


populism, public health communication, COVID-19, Brazilian studies

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