As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise around the world, some countries are under complete lockdown, while others have imposed restrictions and advised citizens to maintain social distancing. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, however, is yet to wake up to the threat of the coronavirus, which has infected over 7 lakh people across the world.
Over 32,000 have died from the infection across the world, according to figures compiled by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering, Johns Hopkins University.
The confirmed number of COVID-19 cases in Brazil are now at 4,256 on Sunday, but Bolsonaro, who was tested himself for the infection, continues to deny the gravity of the situation. He has called COVID-19 “a small cold”, a “fantasy” and even a media trick.
Worryingly, the right-wing leader ignores social distancing guidelines and has even urged mayors and state governors to roll back lockdown measures. As The Atlantic put it, the “coronavirus-denial movement officially has a leader, and it’s Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro”.
The 65-year-old, who was the chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations earlier this year, has a reputation for holding problematic views on everything from the environment to women to gay rights.
Brazilians have been protesting against their virus-denier president by banging pots and pans and shouting “Fora Bolsonaro!” (Bolsonaro out) from the windows.
Some experts say that Bolsonaro may be preparing to deflect blame from his government in case of an economic crisis. “If things go really poorly from an economic point of view, he can point his finger at the governors,” Christopher Garman, managing director for the Americas at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, told AP.
Here are five ways the Brazilian President has downplayed the threat of coronavirus:
1. Urging rollback of lockdown measures
The governors of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have banned public gatherings, closed schools and businesses and called for strict social distancing. These are the states worst hit by COVID-19. 25 of Brazil’s 27 governors signed a joint letter this week asking Bolsonaro to back strict anti-virus measures, according to AP.
Bolsonaro, however, urged the mayors and state governors to roll back lockdown measures and said “we must return to normality”. A federal court in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday even banned the government from advising against isolation.
With the President denying the seriousness of coronavirus, the country’s drug gangs and paramilitary groups have imposed a curfew to enforce social distancing, according toFinancial Times.
The curfew has been imposed in one of Rio de Janeiro’s best-known favelas, Cidade de Deus (City of God), and a resident told The Guardian, “The traffickers are doing this because the government is absent. The authorities are blind to us.”
City of God registered the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Rio’s favelas over the weekend, Reuters reported.
2. Saying Sao Paulo numbers seem ‘too large’
Bolsonaro said that the death toll in Sao Paulo from COVID-19 seemed “too large” and accused the state governor of manipulating the numbers for political ends.
Sao Paulo had 1,223 cases and 68 deaths till Friday.
“I’m sorry, some people will die, they will die, that’s life,” Bolsonaro was quoted as saying by Reuters last week. “You can’t stop a car factory because of traffic deaths.”
“We need to look at what is happening there (Sao Paulo), this cannot be a numbers game to favour political interests,” Bolsonaro added.
3. Visiting a market area
The President visited a market square in Taguatinga on Sunday and mixed with his supporters, flouting the social distancing guidelines.
“What I have been hearing from people is that they want to work,” the president told a street vendor in one of several videos posted on his Twitter account. “What I have said from the beginning is that ’we are going to be careful, the over-65s stay at home’.”
In another video, AFP said the president called for a “return to normality” and questioned quarantine measures. These videos were removed by Twitter, saying it recently changed its worldwide rules on content that contradicted public health recommendations and could put people at greater risk of transmitting COVID-19.
4. Threatening to sack Brazil’s health minister
Bolsonaro has reportedly threatened to sack his health minister over criticism on his response to COVID-19. Health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, according to The Guardian, told the President on Saturday at a top-level meeting that he would have no choice but to publicly criticise Bolsonaro if he continued to go out in public.
“Bolsonaro replied that, if he did so, he would fire him,” The Guardian quoted from Estado de São Paulo newspaper.
5. Taking selfies with supporters
Bolsonaro took selfies with supporters on 15 March, disregarding warnings that he shouldn’t encourage large gatherings. He met a throng of people at the gate of the presidential palace and grabbed cell phones to take pictures. He also ignored suggestions from his medical team to stay in isolation after several members from a Brazilian delegation to the United States tested positive for the virus.
Reuters reported that he drew sharp criticism for this, with House Speaker Rodrigo Maia saying Bolsonaro’s support for the protests was “an attack against public health”. Senate President Davi Alcolumbre called it “reckless to stimulate gatherings in the streets”
(With inputs from agencies)