The competence myth



Denialism, neglect, omission and negligence resulted from the head of state's stupidity and administrative unpreparedness

A specter haunts the opposition to Bolsonaro: the myth of his competence. Among his followers, it is widely believed that that rough being who occupies the presidency of the Republic, and who makes a point of impulsively and aggressively manifesting himself, is a competent ruler. But broad opposition sectors also believe in this. It is a competence for evil, destructive – they say, clarifying and lamenting –, but for that he would be being very competent.

I think the opposite.

With Florestan Fernandes we learned that words are neither neutral nor naive. “There are no simple words”. No one uses them innocently, as their use “translates power relations and domination relations. If a coup d'état is described as a 'revolution', it is not by chance [referring to the 1964 coup, which, opposing the ongoing democratic revolution, called itself a 'revolution'] (…) It gets harder for the dominated to understand what is happening and easier to defend the abuses and violations committed by those in power”1.

Going against the current of common sense about the supposed competence of Bolsonaro and his government, I have asserted his incompetence. It's a myth that he's competent.

On 11/3/2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized that covid-19 was a pandemic. Five days later, in an article on the website the earth is round2 I stated that the worst way to deal with the pandemic “is to be paralyzed, finding things” and I denounced the 'epidemiological terraplanismo' that guided Bolsonaro's decisions at the head of the Presidency of the Republic, which was characterized by not planning, organizing and coordinating actions federal measures required to deal with the problem, since “until mid-March the country did not know of any plan to ensure assistance to the thousands of patients who, it is known, will seek assistance in public and private services”.

A year later, the governors realized this and announced their concern with the lack of coordination of actions at the national level by the federal government. Better late than never.

A year later, the performance of the Bolsonaro government confirms the complaint that its policy to face the pandemic was the denial of the problem and the immobilization of federal management. The policy has always been, therefore, not to have a plan for coping.

A set of 3.049 federal norms produced in 2020, consisting of laws, decrees, provisional measures, resolutions, ordinances and normative instructions, from which a plan can be deduced, was analyzed in depth by researchers from CEPEDISA, the Center for Studies and Research of Sanitary Law, from the University of São Paulo (USP) and Conectas Human Rights, and released by the Country Brazil. The conclusion is that the Brazilian government, under the leadership of the Presidency of the Republic, set in motion an institutional strategy whose systematic actions express an intention to spread the virus. The federal government’s decisions regarding the pandemic would make up the “most macabre timeline in the history of public health in Brazil”3.

For the researchers, “the results dispel the persistent interpretation that there was incompetence and negligence on the part of the federal government in managing the pandemic. On the contrary, the systematization of data, although incomplete due to the lack of space in the publication for so many events, reveals the commitment and efficiency of the Union's action in favor of the wide dissemination of the virus in the national territory, declaredly with the objective of resume economic activity as soon as possible and at any cost.”

There is no doubt, in opposition sectors, that Bolsonaro is setting in motion a deliberate policy of not facing the pandemic. This is evident since he refused, in February 2020, to repatriate 34 Brazilians who were in Wuhan and who asked for support to return to Brazil. Bolsonaro ignored them as much as he could, changing his position only when it was no longer possible to resist pressure from the press and social media, which released videos containing dramatic appeals from those who wanted to return home. On February 5, two Brazilian Air Force (FAB) planes went to China to pick them up. The rescue mission was, to Bolsonaro's dismay, probably the only successful operation by the federal government to date, related to the covid-19 pandemic.(4). But she unequivocally signaled the direction that Bolsonaro and his government would take from then on. Many people soon understood the seriousness of what was to come.5.

The hypothesis that there was a “plan” to spread SARS-Cov-2, and that Bolsonaro and his government were being competent in its execution, finds resonance in many opposition sectors, who believe that the president is being “very competent in what he does”. wants: to kill people, create chaos and transfer the blame to governors and mayors”. According to thousands of posts on social networks, it is admitted that the president “only cares about his voters” and “only thinks about re-election”. But this hypothesis is not incompatible with the recognition of Bolsonaro's incompetence and his notorious negligence, neglect, denialism and negligence.

There is no doubt, since the episode of the planes that went to China to pick up Brazilians, that the Bolsonarist policy to deal with the epidemic is to do nothing. but this laissez-faire Health care is not the same as having a plan and executing it competently. The epidemiological situation in which we find ourselves effectively stems from the policy developed by the federal government to deal with the pandemic, based on denial of the problem and inaction. But it is inherent to this policy not to have any plan, so it makes no sense to admit the existence of a plan, defining actions and setting objectives to be achieved – which basically characterizes any plan.

I am writing on the day when, in the first year since the announcement of the covid-19 pandemic by the WHO, Brazil assumes its epicenter and registers 2.349 deaths in the last 24 hours. The country is seen worldwide as a place where the disease has been spreading without being contained in any way. There is talk of an “open-air laboratory” to characterize the epidemiological scenario6, which stems from the characteristics of covid-19, but which, in Brazil, was greatly aggravated by denialism and the option of not acting by the federal government2.

Accepting Bolsonaro's competence in the execution of what would be his plan is contradictory with the 'competence ideology'7 which, in neoliberalism, marks the actions of specialists who are appointed to command. The competent speech collides with the fact that at this moment Brazil is the epicenter of the pandemic, with about 11,3 million cases and approximately 273 thousand deaths. It is not possible to talk about competence, having these numbers in hand and in mind the many lives lost as a result of the actions and omissions that departed from the Planalto Palace, whether due to neglect or the terrible examples given by the Brazilian head of state.

The alleged Bolsonarist competence has been questioned by many people, including former Minister Nelson Barbosa, for whom the President of the Republic creates “imaginary enemies to camouflage incompetence”8.

The numbers even indicate incompetence. To a maximum degree.

But saying this does not do Bolsonaro justice, as it shifts the benchmark that must be adopted to analyze his supposed competence to another level. If he spent all his time claiming that he would do nothing, how can he assess his competence with reference to what he should have done? It wouldn't make sense. Bolsonaro must therefore have his competence analyzed in the light of the “competence ideology” framework, according to which he and his government should produce administrative results capable of obtaining the best possible position for Brazil in the ranking of countries, as a winner in this environment. This is the gold standard for an evaluation in the light of the neoliberal framework.

But this is not what is seen. Bolsonaro led Brazil to the worst position in this global ranking. This is incompetence; not competence. He does not decide to argue with “this is what he always wanted”, because, I reiterate, this argument is contradictory with the “competence ideology”. He “didn't want” that, because to admit it would be to accept that the situation in which the country finds itself would have constituted, at some point, an objective of his government, explicit or implicit. That there would, after all, indeed be a plan. But explicit goal, it never was. And there is not even evidence that it was an implicit objective.

Denial, neglect, omission and negligence resulted from the stupidity and administrative unpreparedness of the head of state and the lack of qualification of several of his advisors to exercise the managerial functions to which they were assigned4. There are no indications that there was a “plan” – albeit a “malicious one” – and that it would have been “very well executed”, with the aim of bringing Brazil to the position it is in. Denialism, neglect, omission and negligence can be an implicit policy9, but they do not properly configure a “plan”.

The Bolsonarist policy to deal with the pandemic was wrong in several respects, hence it is not possible to speak of competence. I highlight, just to exemplify, some of these failures that, in my opinion, confirm its administrative incompetence and reveal the error that is its confrontation policy.

The most serious mistake, with macabre and dramatic consequences for thousands of families, was the option for the “Osmar Terra strategy”, according to which covid-19 would not last more than six months in Brazil. Bolsonaro gambled – and lost – by assuming, with his favorite medical consultant, that there would not be a second wave and that the first wave would be short-lived, being quelled in a few months. Everyone's protection would come with collective immunity (herd immunity, for those who prefer it)10.

Another very important mistake was the underestimation of the ability of science and technology to produce, in record time, several effective vaccines against SARS-Cov-2. Bolsonaro gambled – and lost – by assuming that, when vaccines arrived, the pandemic would have cooled down and they would not be needed.

Bolsonaro's list of mistakes was crowned with his remarkable incompetence in negotiating favorable contracts with international vaccine producers, some of whom had been partners with the Brazilian government for many years. As President of the Republic, he harassed them as “sellers” for a “big buyer” that is Brazil. Mockingly, he pretended to “negotiate prices”, mistakenly assuming that he was in an advantageous situation at the negotiation table. With that, he only exposed to the company's negotiators his absolute lack of knowledge on the subject, by intending to put himself in the position of a negotiator who “deals the cards”. Incompetence, incidentally, which is certainly not restricted to the President of the Republic, but extends to his advisors in this area, such as the Minister General and the three dozen military personnel who occupied the Ministry of Health.

It was a woeful spectacle of general incompetence, culminating in a series of gross errors.

The Bolsonaro government’s anti-covid-19 “national vaccination plan” is already, sadly, part of the national health anecdote. There has never been so much headbanging at the top of the Ministry of Health and the federal government. To the astonishment of even schoolchildren, Brazilian Chancellor Ernesto Araújo committed the folly of stating, at a meeting of the Council of the Americas, that “the health system is supporting well”, in a dramatic moment when thousands of women and men died waiting for beds ICU in most states11.

Certainly, one cannot speak of competence in a scenario like this.

In this context, it is pointless to argue that we are not talking about administrative competence, but about “political competence” to “kill really, because the government is genocidal”.

Yes, the government is genocidal. But for his remarkable incompetence and not the other way around.

Competence and incompetence are, moreover, words imbued with an ethical meaning, they are loaded with value. Would there be competence in killing, or letting die, being able to avoid deaths?

*Paulo Capel Narvai is senior professor of Public Health at USP.


  1. Fernandes F. what is revolution. 6a. São Paulo: Brasiliense; 1984. 121 p.
  2. Narvai PC. Epidemiological flat earthism. The Earth is Round [Internet]. March 16, 2020; Available at:
  3. Brum E. Research reveals that Bolsonaro implemented an “institutional strategy for the spread of the coronavirus”. Country Brazil [Internet]. January 2021; Available at:
  4. Narvai PC. Covid-19 in Brazil: negligence, fear, skepticism and popular resistance. Left Bank Magazine. 2020;35(2):125–30.
  5. Narvai PC. Drummond, the stone and loss. The Earth is Redon [Internet]. 220AD;2:1–5. Available at:
  6. “Brazil is the largest open-air laboratory for the coronavirus”, says Miguel Nicolelis. Mail [Internet]. February 24, 2021; Available at:
  7. Chaui M. The ideology of competence. 3a. edition. Rock AM, organizer. São Paulo: Autêntica/FPA; 2014. 296 p.
  8. Barbosa N. We run the risk of plunging back into the abyss due to the government's bravado. FSP [Internet]. March 4, 2021; Available at: -government.shtml
  9. Narvai PC. Bolsonarism: ideology that kills [Internet]. The Earth is Round. 2020. Available at:
  10. Narvai PC. Herd impunity. The Earth is Round [Internet]. August 17, 2020; Available at:
  11. Calgaro F. Araújo tells North Americans that the health system in Brazil is “withstanding well” the Covid crisis. G1 [Internet]. March 5, 2021; Available at: -brazil-is-supporting-well.ghtml


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