Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro sparked protests with a Tuesday evening address in which he claimed the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is a media “fantasy,” demanded governors end quarantine and isolation measures, and bragged that he is so healthy he wouldn’t even know if he was infected, the Guardian reported.
In his address, Bolsonaro claimed that “The virus has arrived and we are fighting it and soon it will pass.” He said the media was responsible for inflicting “hysteria” and a “feeling of dread” on the population by reporting on the crisis in Italy, where over 69,000 people have tested positive for the virus and more than 6,800 have died. Similarly to Donald Trump’s administration, Bolsonaro made the argument that it’s time for everything to business as usual at a time when health experts warn the crisis is ramping up: “Our lives have to go on. Jobs must be kept… we must, yes, get back to normal.”
This isn’t the first crisis Bolsonaro has tried to play off as just some trite nonsense created by the lying media; he infamously lied that massive wildfires in the Amazon rainforest last year were actually the result of environmentalist groups committing arsons. But this one is progressing even faster than the wildfire debacle. According to the Associated Press, there are currently around 2,200 cases of the virus in Brazil so far, with 46 dead. That number is expected to rapidly grow in the coming weeks, just as it has in other nations, and Bolsonaro’s own health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, has said he expects the health care system to collapse. São Paulo has now gone into quarantine, with only essential businesses allowed to remain open, while Rio de Janeiro has indefinitely halted schools and commerce.
Bolsonaro told his audience on Tuesday evening that since “90 percent” of the population will be fine, it is not worth enacting such restrictions in response. It does not appear to be a coincidence that he is locked in a feud with the governors of both both states, who according to the Los Angeles Times are former Bolsonaro supporters that are now campaigning against him.
“A small number of state and municipal authorities must abandon their scorched-earth ideas: the banning of public transport, the closing of commerce and mass confinement,” Bolsonaro said, per the Guardian. “What is happening around the world has shown that the at-risk group are those over 60 years old. So why close schools? … Ninety percent of us will show no sign [of infection] if we are infected.”
(Chinese epidemiologists have instead found that around 14 percent of confirmed cases in China had severe symptoms, while five percent were critical, though the risks ultimately vary based on factors such as age.)
“In my particular case, because of my background as an athlete, I wouldn’t need to worry if I was infected by the virus,” Bolsonaro added. “I wouldn’t feel anything or at the very worst it would be like a little flu or a bit of a cold.”
Bolsonaro’s handling of the coronavirus situation has sparked backlash even among many of his supporters, the LA Times reported. On March 15, he reportedly touched over 270 people at a campaign rally despite coming into contact with over numerous other government officials who have tested positive for the virus, including members of his entourage during a recent U.S. visit; Bolsonaro has refused to release the results of his own tests.
Even before the crisis, Bolsonaro’s approval rating was slipping. A CNI/Ibope poll of Brazilians in December 2019 found the number of respondents who rated his tenure as great or good had slipped to 29 percent from 35 percent in April, while the number who rated his presidency as bad or terrible rose from 27 percent to 38 percent. The prospect of the coronavirus outbreak continuing to spread throughout Brazil has sent consumer confidence and retail sales down, according to Reuters, while Bolsonaro has taken further hits for his slow pace in declaring a national emergency and a lag in testing.
Right-wing congresswoman Janaina Paschoal, once viewed as a strong contender for Bolsonaro’s running mate in 2018, called for an end to his presidency before walking the remark back, the Guardian wrote. Some Brazilians in self-isolation have protested by banging pots and pans outside their windows, including after his speech on Tuesday evening. In timing that may raise some eyebrows, shortly after Bolsonaro’s speech, the U.S. embassy in Brazil reiterated its warnings that all American citizens in the country should return home immediately.