Brazilian leader has repeatedly played down the threat from COVID-19, describing it as ‘a little flu’.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday after months of downplaying the virus’ severity.
Bolsonaro confirmed the test results while wearing a mask and speaking to reporters in capital Brasilia, and said he is already taking hydroxychloroquine – an anti-malarial drug unproven to effectively treat COVID-19.
“I’m well, normal. I even want to take a walk around here, but I can’t due to medical recommendations,” Bolsonaro said. “I thought I had it before, given my very dynamic activity. I’m president and on the combat lines. I like to be in the middle of the people.”
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The 65-year-old populist has often appeared in public to shake hands with supporters and mingle with crowds, at times without a mask. He has said his history as an athlete would protect him from the virus, and it would be nothing more than a “little flu” were he to contract it.
He also repeatedly said there is no way to prevent 70 percent of the population falling ill with COVID-19, and local authorities’ measures to shut down economic activity would ultimately cause more hardship than allowing the virus to run its course.
For nearly two months, Brazil’s fight against coronavirus has been in the hands of an interim health minister with no health experience before April.
He took over after his predecessor, a doctor and health care consultant, quit in protest over Bolsonaro’s support for hydroxychloroquine.
Bolsonaro is “the democratic leader who has most denied the seriousness of this pandemic,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political science professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.
“Him getting infected is a blow to his credibility. It will be seen as another example of the failure of his coronavirus response,” Santoro said.
‘Life goes on’
Political analyst Geraldo Zahran, speaking from Sao Paulo, told Al Jazeera it was only a matter of time before the president contracted the disease with his failure to social distance.
“It is surprising it took so long. In a way, he saw this coming. Since last night, he’s been asking people to stay away and keep their distance, so he’s taking this a bit more seriously now,” said Zahran.
Bolsonaro on Tuesday compared the virus to a rain that will fall on most people and said that some, like the elderly, must take greater care.
“You can’t just talk about the consequences of the virus that you have to worry about. Life goes on. Brazil needs to produce. You need to get the economy in gear,” he said.
Cities and states last month began lifting restrictions that had been imposed to control the spread of the virus, as their statistical curves of deaths began to decline along with the occupation rate of its intensive-care units.
Brazil, the world’s sixth-most populous nation with more than 210 million people, is one of the global hot spots of the pandemic.
Bolsonaro said he cancelled a trip to the northeast region planned for this week. He will continue working via videoconference and receive rare visitors when he needs to sign a document, he said.
The president underwent an X-ray of his lungs on Monday after experiencing fever, muscle aches and malaise, he told reporters.
As of Tuesday, his fever had subsided, he said, and attributed the improvement to hydroxychloroquine, which he has long promoted despite growing medical consensus it does not work against COVID-19. He stepped back from the journalists and removed his mask at one point to show that he looks well.
Over the weekend, the Brazilian leader celebrated the US Independence Day with the nation’s ambassador to Brazil, then shared pictures on social media showing him in close quarters with the ambassador, several ministers and aides. None wore a mask.
The US embassy said on Twitter on Monday that Ambassador Todd Chapman is not showing any COVID-19 symptoms but would be tested.
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Bolsonaro tested negative three times in March after meeting with the US President Donald Trump in Florida. Multiple members of his delegation to the US were later reported to be infected with the virus.
More than 65,000 Brazilians have so far died from COVID-19 and more than 1,500,000 have been infected. Both numbers are the world’s second-highest totals, and are considered to be undercounts due to the lack of widespread testing.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly visited the hospital since taking office, requiring several operations to repair his intestines after he was stabbed on the campaign trail in 2018.