Bolsonaro Channels Trump and Rejects Quarantine Amid Virus

President Jair Bolsonaro followed Donald Trump’s playbook during a national address Tuesday night, urging Brazilians to resume normal life to protect the economy even as cases of coronavirus swell.

Defying medical advice to pursue social distancing, the Brazilian president also lashed out at Brazil’s state governors who have ordered shops and schools closed to slow down the pandemic that threatens to overwhelm the health system in Latin America’s largest nation.

“Our life needs to go on, jobs must be maintained, families’ livelihoods must be preserved,” Bolsonaro said. “We must return to normalcy.”

The next day, a video call between the president and Brazil’s governors quickly turned sour, with Sao Paulo’s Joao Doria saying Bolsonaro unleashed an “uncontrolled attack” against him. Sao Paulo has been the epicenter of the outbreak in Brazil, and Doria’s measures against the outbreak have been some of the strictest in the country. Rio de Janeiro governor Wilson Witzel said that although he felt his concerns had been heard by the president, he would continue calling on his constituents to quarantine.

Yet Bolsonaro told reporters early Wednesday that he intended to ask Brazil’s Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta to impose quarantine only on people most at risk from coronavirus.

“There’s no other way,” Bolsonaro said. “People should go back to work and the elderly should be spared.” Bolsonaro had scheduled a news conference after his meeting with governors Wednesday, but canceled it amid the row.

Read More: Bolsonaro, AMLO Roll the Dice With Laid-Back Virus Response

High-stakes gamble

Bolsonaro’s approach is a high-stakes gamble, since the public health system in Brazil is underfunded and ill-equipped to handle the potential influx of sick people if coronavirus spreads quickly as some health experts suggest. But it is not without precedent: Trump is pushing toreopen the U.S. economy by Easter, even as the number of cases of Covid-19 in the country soars.

As Bolsonaro spoke Tuesday evening, Brazilians banged pots and pans from their windows in several neighborhoods of the country’s main cities, a traditional form of protest in the region which has been going on for days now as criticism of the president mounts.

Bolsonaro’s laid-back and often contradictory response to the pandemic may become the defining moment of his presidency. His popularity, already suffering amid criticism of his handling of the coronavirus crisis, may take a bigger hit as the economy falls into recession and job losses mount.

The president’s stance risks sending confusing signals to the country of some 210 million, as state governors take the lead in imposing lockdowns aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. Sao Paulo brought in a full quarantine starting March 24 and Rio de Janeiro restricted public transportation while shutting down shopping malls and even the beach.

As well as deploying police to enforce the measures, firefighters are joining the fight to persuade the public to observe the guidelines, using megaphones to implore beachgoers to return home and “do your part and help control the coronavirus.”

By contrast, during his speech Bolsonaro said those under 40 rarely die of coronavirus and that even he, at 65, shouldn’t be worried because he was “an athlete” in the past.

Brazil had 2201 cases identified and 46 deaths due to coronavirus as of Tuesday night. Among those to test positive are Bolsonaro’s press secretary and members of the Senate.

Not alone

Still, Bolsonaro is not alone in Latin America. Mexico too has been slow to implement measures to curb the virus’s spread, with President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador continuing to hold public engagements and even kiss supporters.

“Don’t stop going out, we are still in phase one. I will say when not to go out,” Lopez Obador said in a video filmed at a traditional Mexican restaurant in the state of Oaxaca and posted on his Facebook page this weekend. “Keep taking the family out to eat.”

Trump, who is campaigning for a second term in November, said that he wants to wind down social distancing and see the U.S. economy restart after his 15-day strategy to slow the spread of the virus ends next week. “I would love to have it opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he told a Fox News “virtual town hall” on Tuesday.

— With assistance by Rich Miller, Michael O’Boyle, and Murilo Fagundes

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