Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has said that a coronavirus lockdown would ‘destroy’ the country, aligning himself with US President Donald Trump in prioritising the economy.
Yesterday Bolsonaro condemned as criminals the governors and mayors of the largest states and cities for ordering people to remain indoors to stop the outbreak. Meanwhile the death toll rose to 57 from 46 while confirmed cases rose to 2,433 from 2,201 the day before.
State governors have defied the president’s calls to reopen schools and businesses, dismissing his argument that the ‘cure’ of widespread shutdowns to contain the coronavirus is worse than the disease.
Bolsonaro has aligned himself with Trump in prioritising the economy over the shutdowns favoured by public health experts – including his own health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta – who have warned the outbreak in Brazil could trigger a collapse of the healthcare system next month.
‘Other viruses have killed many more than this one and there wasn’t all this commotion,’ Bolsonaro told journalists. ‘What a few mayors and governors are doing is a crime. They’re destroying Brazil.’
Bolsonaro contends the clampdown already ordered by many governors will deeply wound the already beleaguered economy and spark social unrest.
In a nationally televised address on Tuesday night, he urged governors to limit isolation only to high-risk people and to lift the strict anti-virus measures they have imposed in their regions.
‘What needs to be done? Put the people to work. Preserve the elderly, preserve those who have health problems. But nothing more than that,’ said Bolsonaro, who in the past has sparked anger by calling the virus a ‘little flu’.
Senate President Davi Alcolumbre denounced his speech and called for ‘leadership that is serious, responsible and committed to the life and health of its people.’
Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria took Bolsonaro to task for not setting an example for Brazilians and appealed for him to ‘lead the nation, not divide it’ at a time of crisis.
Two sources told Reuters that Bolsonaro’s prepared 5-minute speech had been drafted without consulting health minister Mandetta.
The two have been at odds since Bolsonaro flouted guidelines and physically greeted supporters on March 15.
The country’s top medical associations issued statements in support of Mandetta’s approach to dealing with the epidemic, amid fears that the minister might resign from the job.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Mandetta, who denied that he was quitting, stressed the gravity of the epidemic and the need to keep up the drive to isolate the population from the virus.
The country’s governors protested that Bolsonaro’s instructions ran counter to health experts’ recommendations and endangered Latin America’s largest population.
They said they would continue with their strict measures. The rebellion even included traditional allies of Brazil’s far-right president.
Governor Carlos Moisés of Santa Catarina state, which gave almost 80% of its votes to Bolsonaro in the 2018 presidential election, complained he was ‘blown away’ by the president’s instructions.
Moisés said he would insist that all residents stay home during the pandemic despite the president’s stand.
In a video conference earlier in the day between Bolsonaro and governors from Brazil’s southeast region, Sao Paulo governor João Doria threatened to sue the federal government if it tried to interfere with his efforts to combat the virus, according to video of their private meeting reviewed by The Associated Press.
‘We are here, the four governors of the southeast region, in respect for Brazil and Brazilians and in respect for dialogue and understanding,’ said Doria, who supported Bolsonaro’s 2018 presidential bid. ‘But you are the president and you have to set the example. You have to be the representative to command, guide and lead this country, not divide it.’
Bolsonaro responded by accusing Doria of riding his coattails to the governorship, then turning his back.
‘If you don’t get in the way, Brazil will take off and emerge from the crisis. Stop campaigning,’ the president said.
The governors weren’t the only defiant ones. Virus plans challenged by Bolsonaro were upheld by the Supreme Court. The heads of both congressional houses criticised his televised speech. Companies donated supplies to state anti-virus efforts.
Bolsonaro has found some support among his base — #BolsonaroIsRight trended atop Brazilian Twitter on Wednesday — though that backing has been countered by a week of nightly protests from many Brazilians respecting the self-isolation rules, who lean from their windows to bang pots and pans.
There is particular concern the virus’ potential damage in the ultra-dense, low-income neighborhoods known as favelas.
Bolsonaro’s administration has also faced criticism from economists, including Armínio Fraga, a former central bank governor, and Claudio Ferraz, a professor at Rio de Janeiro’s Pontifical Catholic University.
‘Brazil is seeing something unique, an insurrection of governors,’ Ferraz wrote on Twitter.
‘This will become a new topic in political science: checks and balances by governors in a Federal System.’
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 said it will not sacrifice long-term debt targets in order to rescue the economy. An official said there was no capacity for huge fiscal packages to fight the coronavirus crisis.
Economic Policy Secretary Adolfo Sachsida said any additional measures would only apply for this year, but warned that fiscal stability in coming years cannot be put at risk by overspending in 2020.
The government is struggling to transport medical equipment due to widespread flight cancellations, health minister Mandetta said, forcing authorities 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.