SAO PAULO (Reuters) – President Jair Bolsonaro on Wednesday blasted as criminals the governors and mayors of Brazil’s largest states and cities for imposing lockdowns to slow the coronavirus outbreak, drawing fierce backlash as the death toll in the country rose to 57.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro adjusts his protective face mask at a press statement during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brasilia, Brazil, March 20, 2020. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Bolsonaro has aligned himself with U.S. President Donald Trump in prioritizing the economy over the shutdowns favored by public health experts, who have warned the outbreak in Brazil could trigger a collapse of the healthcare system next month.
Latin America’s largest nation reported 2,433 confirmed coronavirus cases on Wednesday, up from 2,201 the day before.
“Other viruses have killed many more than this one and there wasn’t all this commotion,” Bolsonaro told journalists outside his official residence. “What a few mayors and governors are doing is a crime. They’re destroying Brazil.”
“If we don’t get back to work, Brazil could depart from democratic normalcy,” he added, citing recent examples of social unrest in Latin America.
As his boss downplayed the virus, national security adviser Augusto Heleno on Wednesday ignored medical advice to self-isolate for two weeks, instead returning to work just seven days into his quarantine after a positive coronavirus test. Heleno also attended cabinet meetings on the day he was waiting for the test result, Reuters learned.
In throwing his weight against the shutdowns taking effect in Brazil’s biggest cities and states, Bolsonaro has cast himself against local officials, congressional leadership and even the advice of his own Health Ministry.
In a widely criticized national address on Tuesday, he played down the threat of the virus, assuring Brazilians that “90% of us will have no symptoms if contaminated” and his “history as an athlete” meant he personally would suffer at most “a little flu.”
Senate President Davi Alcolumbre called Bolsonaro’s speech “grave,” warning it contradicted the advice of the World Health Organization and calling for “leadership that is serious, responsible and committed to the life and health of its people.”
Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s two most populous and most affected states, have both begun shutting down non-essential business and public gatherings in order to slow the spread of the virus.
Demand for electricity, a strong indicator of economic activity, fell sharply at the start of the week in Brazil, according to the National Electricity System Operator.
The agricultural sector, a powerhouse of the Brazilian economy, also said it was suffering due to the coronavirus, with farm lobby CNA warning that grain, coffee and sugarcane growers were facing operational hurdles.
Still, the Economy Ministry made clear it would not sacrifice long-term debt targets in order to rescue the economy, with a top official saying there was no capacity for huge fiscal packages to fight the coronavirus crisis.
Economic Policy Secretary Adolfo Sachsida said any additional measures that might be implemented would only be for this year, but warned that fiscal stability in coming years cannot be put at risk by overspending in 2020.
Brazil’s Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta said the government is having a hard time getting medical equipment where it is needed due to widespread flight cancellations that have forced the healthcare system to rely on ground transportation.
Mandetta said the ministry would allow doctors to use the anti-malarial drug chloroquine to treat coronavirus.
The drug, described by Trump as a potential “game changer,” has not yet been proven effective against the new coronavirus. A lead doctor on clinical trials in Brazil for the related drug hydroxychloroquine told Reuters that initial results would only be available in two weeks.
Reporting by Eduardo Simoes and Stephen Eisenhammer in Sao Paulo; Additional reporting by Gram Slattery and Gabriel Stargardter in Rio de Janeiro, Ricardo Brito and Marcela Ayres in Brasilia; Editing by Brad Haynes, Grant McCool and Lisa Shumaker