Vaccinating the Brazilian population against COVID-19 is a colossal undertaking, which is facing the typical logistical obstacles of a country that spans a whole continent, as well as the many delays and refusals of the Bolsonaro government. A few weeks ago, another difficult obstacle emerged in the Brazilian press: a campaign of misinformation, panic and fake news spread by certain religious fundamentalist groups.
In a country where over 543,000 people have died from COVID-19 (and where a third of the population claims to be Evangelical), a survey by the Datafolha Institute carried out in May shows that only 20% of Evangelicals said they had been vaccinated, compared to 31% of Catholics and 25% of the national average at the time of the survey (currently, 33.21% of Brazilians have received their first dose and 11.95% are fully immunized). The hesitation of this segment of the population to get vaccinated has been attributed by many experts to the influence of religious leaders.
In the first months of the pandemic, many religious public figures (in addition to President Jair Bolsonaro himself) publicly discredited the seriousness of the pandemic, calling COVID-19 a “small flu” and introducing the term “corona-doubt,” coined by evangelical pastor Edir Macedo, head of the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus, one of the largest in Brazil. As the “antidote,” Macedo said on his social media channels, one must have “corona-faith”: in other words, God is the cure.
Such types of discourse have changed over the months. Now, the tone is one of objection to the vaccines, criticism of social isolation and church closures, and defense of the so-called “early treatment,” a cocktail of drugs that includes hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin, ivermectin and nitazoxanide, as well as vitamin supplements. The use of this drug cocktail, whose effectiveness is not supported by evidence nor scientifically proven, has been advocated by Bolsonaro since the beginning of the pandemic, and is also supported by Macedo and another well-known evangelical leader, Silas Malafaia, head of the Assembleia de Deus Vitória em Cristo church.
According to Cristina Vital, researcher and professor of sociology at the Federal University of Fluminense (UFF), several elements can be identified in the discourses that deny science and the risks of the coronavirus: “In certain fundamentalist groups, it is thought that modernity is a sign of the end times, of the return of Christ. Whenever phenomena like a pandemic occur, they are read as part of this scenario,” she says.
On the other hand, there is also an economic motivation: the largest evangelical churches in Brazil are also large media conglomerates with turnovers in the millions of reais, paid by the tithes of the faithful: “Many of them are both pastors and entrepreneurs. They have publishing houses, television channels and radio stations. The closure of the churches is threatening this structure, whose maintenance comes with an enormous cost,” Vital notes.
However, denialist discourse is not exclusive to Evangelical groups. A YouTube channel named Nossa Senhora de Fátima TV, from a Catholic denomination which does not recognize Pope Francis, claims that the current Catholic Church is “consecrated to the devil.” With 200,000 followers, the channel offers a large number of videos presented by “Professor” Emílio. According to him, “in churches beholden to Bergoglio, the host has the vaccine inside.”
In January of this year, the priest Elenildo Pereira, whose services are broadcast throughout Brazil on the Catholic television channel Canção Nova, preached against the vaccine during a mass: “Until the vaccine passes all possible tests, I will not accept it. After all, how is this product allowed to put people’s lives at risk?”
Such preaching has been rejected by the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) and by organizations such as the Padres Da Caminhada and Padres Contra Fascismo collectives, which have circulated a letter calling for the Catholic authorities to act. According to the priest Geraldino Proença, a member of one of the collectives, some priests “are defending the current president and denying history and science. They were against closing churches and in favor of pursuing herd immunity. They are echoing Bolsonaro’s discourse in their homilies,” he points out.
The denial of science, according to Rodrigo Coppe, historian and professor of the Science of Religion at the Pontificia Universidade Católica (PUC) in Minas Gerais, is an aspect of the so-called culture wars, a phenomenon that has occurred in the United States since the 1960s and has also taken root in Brazil. “Whenever groups such as black people, women and the LGBT+ population start fighting to expand their civil rights, another population segment reacts negatively,” he explains.
In Brazil, this wave became particularly strong after the 2013 demonstrations, which initially demanded cuts in the price of public transportation, “but soon revealed the surge of moral and social conservatism” that often connects to religious extremist discourse, Coppe notes.
Moreover, the researcher Cristina Vital also warns that the doubts generated by the spread of fake news are reinforced by the president’s position. She recalls that at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a significant halt in everyday activities, but after Bolsonaro’s various pronouncements against social distancing, the number of cases and deaths grew exponentially: “After a year of the pandemic, people are even more resistant to taking protective measures. The fact that Bolsonaro is against isolation, that he doesn’t wear a mask, is largely responsible for these doubts about vaccines and for the poor infection prevention practices,” she concludes.