Taking a bite out of a slice of an authentic New York City pizza is seemingly a rite of passage for anyone who visits the Big Apple. Just ask Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro.
Shortly after arriving in New York City ahead of the UN General Assembly, Bolsonaro went out for pizza Sunday. However, he didn't get a table. Instead, the unvaccinated head of state ate his pizza outside on the sidewalk alongside members of his cabinet, the Brazilian online newspaper, Folha de S. Paulo, reported. The moment was shared on social media by the country's minister of tourism, Gilson Machado, showing Bolsonaro wearing a light tan button-down shirt and black slacks standing outside of a pizzeria holding a pizza slice.
New York City has mandated that restaurants make sure customers show proof of vaccination before serving them at indoor tables.
Meanwhile, presidents, premiers, monarchs and other dignitaries won’t have to show vaccination cards or other proof of inoculation — they’ll simply attest to it by swiping their ID badges at the assembly hall, G.A. President Abdulla Shahid said in a letter Thursday. The assembly began testing the same policy in June for diplomats at its day-to-day meetings.
Still, it could quickly raise thorny questions at the biggest global diplomatic gathering of the year. Russia has criticized the requirement, and the first speaker, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, isn’t vaccinated and reiterated Thursday that he doesn’t plan to get the shot anytime soon.
The U.N. has been wrestling with how to implement — diplomatically — a New York City vaccination requirement for convention centers, which the city said last week would apply to the assembly hall. Shahid told members Tuesday he supported the policy but didn’t give details on how it would work.
“We very much hope that this solution is acceptable to all, within the confines of everyone’s responsibilities and status,” U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said Friday.
The coronavirus pandemic forced the assembly’s top-level annual meeting to go almost entirely virtual last year.
COVID-19 has killed more than 585,000 people in Brazil. That’s the world’s second-highest death toll, and the eighth highest on a per-capita basis. Most Brazilians are eager to get their shots. The country’s vaccination program even has a beloved mascot, Joe Droplet.
When vaccines were about to roll out at the end of last year, the president was intransigent, repeatedly saying he wouldn’t receive a shot nor force anyone else to do so. He has faced grave criticism of his mismanagement of the pandemic.
“I’m not going to take the vaccine, period,” he said in a television interview in December. “You think my life is at risk? That’s my problem. Period.”
Invoking personal freedom jibed with his staunch opposition to restrictions aimed at limiting the virus’ spread, he said no one should be kept from coming and going as they please. He touted the supposed healing powers of the anti-malarial chloroquine long after scientists around the world had dismissed it as ineffective. He has routinely presented himself as willing to stand up against experts.
In his debut General Assembly appearance in 2019, Bolsonaro struck a defiant tone, railing against socialism and what he described as media sensationalism regarding fires in the Amazon rainforest. The next year, in a recorded video, he said Brazil was the victim of an environmental smear and stressed the economic harm caused by pandemic stay-at-home recommendations.
Per tradition, the Brazilian leader speaks first and is followed by the U.S. president. That provides an opportunity to at least swap pleasantries backstage. Bolsonaro’s administration has been working to demonstrate to Joe Biden its heightened commitment to stemming Amazon deforestation, and he may herald recent preliminary results pointing in the right direction.
Although a Brazilian foreign minister has spoken at the General Assembly in lieu of the president dozens of times, that isn’t in Bolsonaro’s interest, given global scorn for his environmental track record, his authoritarian impulses and his alleged mismanagement of the pandemic, said Maurício Santoro, a professor of political science and international relations.
Bolsonaro’s international image is so bad that addressing the assembly “could be an opportunity for him to try to deliver a better message about himself to the world,” said Santoro, who teaches at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. “It’s important for him to go there.”
Bolsonaro spent months sowing doubt about vaccines, especially the one produced by Chinese firm Sinovac. He also warned that there would be no legal recourse against Pfizer for anyone suffering side effects. Women might grow beards and men’s voices turn high-pitched, he joked. People could even transform into alligators.
The president’s skepticism initially resonated among his base and in some of Brazil’s less-educated communities, but ultimately it did little to dampen Brazilians’ desire for vaccines. Recent polls show about 9 of 10 people have either been vaccinated for plan to do so. Some have mocked Bolsonaro’s far-fetched claims by rolling up their sleeves while dressed in alligator costumes.
The government changed tack and began promoting vaccines, and the effort paid off. A greater share of Brazil’s population has now received first shots than in the U.S.
Many are doubtful that Bolsonaro is unvaccinated, including Santoro.
“Perhaps he received a vaccine, but doesn’t want to tell his supporters, because he spoke against vaccines for so many months,” Santoro said.
Publicly, anyway, Bolsonaro remains reticent -- even after he tested positive for COVID-19 last year.
“Why take the vaccine? To have antibodies, isn’t that right? My antibody levels are way up high,” he said Thursday night. “After everybody in Brazil is vaccinated, I’ll decide.”