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Brazil Has 28,000 Coronavirus Cases, But Its Govt Is Still Sending Mixed Messages

Bolsonaro fired his health minister on Thursday after the two clashed over how to fight Covid-19.
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro reacts while meeting supporters as he leaves Alvorada Palace, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Brasilia, Brazil, April 9, 2020.
Adriano Machado / Reuters
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro reacts while meeting supporters as he leaves Alvorada Palace, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Brasilia, Brazil, April 9, 2020.

President Jair Bolsonaro has put Brazil in a precarious situation in its fight against Covid-19. While his popularity is plummeting as he continues to downplay the threat of the virus, his defiance of social distancing norms is sending mixed messages to Brazilians.

State governments in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, which have banned public gatherings and encouraged social distancing, have expressed concern as their social isolation orders have begin to lose effectiveness, according to Reuters.

In Sao Paulo, data shows that the social isolation rate is only around 50% currently, below the optimal level of 70%, Bloomberg quoted the state government as saying. There has been a dip in voluntary compliance with self-quarantine measures in Sao Paulo, according to cellphone data phone carriers have provided to the state

Aprajita Kashyap, Assistant Professor (Latin American Studies Programme) at the School of International Studies, JNU, told HuffPost India that while around the world, messages from the Heads of State and adherence by citizens have been key to tackling the pandemic, Bolsonaro’s claim that social isolation measures are pointless has worsened the situation.

Also, she pointed out, millions of people in Brazil live in favelas, which are makeshift cities. “They do not have the luxury of practising social distancing or self-isolation, thus becoming sitting ducks for Covid-19.”

Once the pandemic starts spreading in the favelas, it will be difficult to contain, Kashyap said. “Presently, there may be under-reporting and the epidemic curve may peak by late April.”

Covid-19 cases in Brazil have risen significantly in the last few weeks. There are now 28,912 confirmed cases and 1,760 deaths, according to figures complied by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering, Johns Hopkins University.

A new study has now found that the number of cases may actually be 12 times more than officially reported. The government has focused on testing serious cases rather than all suspected cases, according to the consortium of Brazilian universities and institutes known as the Center for Health Operations and Intelligence, Reuters reported.

On Sunday, the President claimed in a video address that “it seems the matter of the virus is starting to go away.”

Bolsonaro, who was tested for the coronavirus last month, has received an ultimatum from Brazil’s Congress to release his test results within 30 days.

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.

Bolsonaro’s defiance

The President’s insistence on downplaying the risk of the pandemic and defying social distancing guidelines invited a rebuke from the country’s former health minister. During one outing last week, the President was filmed wiping his nose with his wrist and then turning to shake hands with an elderly woman.

He has repeatedly called the coronavirus a “little flu” and a “fantasy”. The 65-year-old has fought for confining only “high-risk” Brazilians and urging people to go back to work because the economy “can’t stop”.

The President stands alone in his opinion of Covid-19. João Doria, the governor of São Paulo, told TIME that the governors across Brazil have never been united as they are now. In an interview to AP on Wednesday, Doria said, “We’re fighting against the coronavirus and against the ‘Bolsonaro-virus’”.

Nearly all of Brazil’s 27 governors have urged the public to self-quarantine and shut down schools and businesses.

“The moment it became clear that Bolsonaro was more interested in
safeguarding Brazil’s long-ailing economy rather than the health of people, governors of several Brazilian states decided to take the matter into their own hands,” said Kashyap from JNU.

Rio de Janeiro’s Governor Wilson Witzel, a former ally of Bolsonaro, said he has been infected by the virus. “I request once again that you stay at home,” he said Tuesday, according to The Wall Street Journal, “This sickness, as you can all perceive, does not discriminate, and contagion is rapid.”

A survey by pollster Datafolha said that three-quarters of Brazilians supported governors’ quarantine measures and only one-third supported Bolsonaro’s handling. “But the president is having a baleful effect,” The Washington Post noted in its Tuesday editorial, pointing out only 50% people stayed home on Easter in Sao Paulo.

Marcos Lago, an infectious diseases specialist at Rio de Janeiro’s Pedro Ernesto University Hospital, told The Guardian that Bolsonaro’s reckless conduct was confusing people about the need to stay at home.

Former health minister Henrique Mandetta, who echoed the same in a television interview which aired on Sunday, was sacked on Thursday.

Spat with health minister

Mandetta had urged the government to speak in a unified voice in its fight against the coronavirus. “I hope we can speak with a single, unified message, because otherwise Brazilians end up doubting. They don’t know whether to listen to the health minister, the president. Who should they listen to?” Mandetta said, according to Reuters.

Brazilian health officials on Wednesday had braced for Bolsonaro’s firing of Mandetta. The health minister also acknowledged his differences with Bolsonaro and said he had discussed a search for his replacement with the presidential chief of staff.

(With inputs from agencies)

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This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost India, which closed in 2020. Some features are no longer enabled. If you have questions or concerns about this article, please contact indiasupport@huffpost.com.