The story of Brazil’s year can be told in numbers: 137,000 lives lost to the coronavirus. The worst recession in 40 years. At least five ministers sacked or resigned from the Cabinet. More than 29,000 fires in the Amazon rain forest in August alone. One President whose stubborn skepticism about the pandemic and indifference to environmental despoliation has driven all these figures upward.
Yet the number that really matters is 37—the percentage of Brazilian society that approved of Jair Bolsonaro in a late-August poll, the highest rating since he took office early last year. Despite a storm of corruption allegations, and one of the highest COVID-19 death tolls in the world, the right-wing firebrand remains popular with a large section of Brazilians. Bolsonaro’s approval rating is partly due to the monthly emergency-relief payments made to the country’s poorest during the pandemic. But it also reflects the fervent, almost cultlike following he commands. To his base, he can simply do no wrong. It’s the rest of Brazil, and the world, that is left to count the cost.
Stewart is TIME’s international editor
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