RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who criticized measures of social distancing and downplayed the threat of the coronavirus when the epidemic in his country became the second worst in the world, said Tuesday that he, too, had been infected. .
Critics at home and abroad have called Mr. Bolsonaro’s handling of the cavalier and reckless pandemic, allowing the virus to spike in Brazil, Latin America’s largest nation. At one point he dismissed it as “a miserable cold,” and when asked in late April about the rising death toll, he replied, “So what? Sorry, but what do you want me to do?
As the number of cases skyrocketed, Bolsonaro avoided the masks, attended mass rallies by his supporters, insisted that the virus does not pose a threat to healthy people, defended unproven remedies, and passed by health ministers who they did not agree with him.
Brazil now has more than 1.6 million confirmed cases and more than 65,000 deaths, more than any other country except the United States.
Bolsonaro fell ill two days after he and a handful of his ministers attended a Fourth of July luncheon at the residence of Todd Chapman, the US ambassador to Brazil. Bolsonaro and other assistants sat shoulder to shoulder, hugging each other without masks. Since then, the ambassador and his wife have tested negative for the virus, but will remain at home, in quarantine, the embassy said.
Speaking to reporters outside the presidential palace in Brasilia, shortly after noon Tuesday, Bolsonaro said he had been tested on Monday after experiencing fatigue, muscle pain and fever.
He said he felt “very good,” which he attributes to taking hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug that he has endorsed but that studies do not prevent the virus. Covid-19 cases that become severe often worsen about a week after symptoms arise.
Mr. Bolsonaro expressed no regret for his handling of the pandemic, and doubled his claim that the virus poses little risk to healthy people. He characterized the diagnosis as a predictable result of a leadership style that requires him to be among people.
“I am the president, I have to be on the front line of the fight,” he said, comparing the virus to “the rain, which is going to affect you.”
After answering the journalists’ questions, Mr. Bolsonaro stepped back, took off the mask he was wearing, and smiled.
“Thank you to everyone who prayed for me and supported me,” he said. “I’m fine, thank God. Those who have criticized me, fine, can continue to criticize me.”
Despite the fact that several of Bolsonaro’s aides have tested positive for the virus in recent months, the president has often shied away from precautions, bragging about how his athletic record would protect him and encouraging his followers to ignore the blocking measures imposed by city and state officials.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also rejected social distancing advice and resisted blocking measures, although he was never as dismissive as Bolsonaro. But after he became seriously ill with Covid and spent several days in a hospital, he seemed to take the danger more seriously and praised overburdened health workers.
Bolsonaro’s handling of the virus has deeply divided his country, and many opponents expressed anger at his carefree approach hitting pots and pans on his windows at night. As Brazilians awaited the results of the president’s latest coronavirus test, messages posted on social media illustrated the country’s political polarization.
Two trending hashtags on Twitter on Tuesday morning were # ForçaBolsonaro and # ForçaCorona, the first sending strength to the President and the other effectively expressing the hope that the President will fall ill.
When she heard the news, Day Medeiros, a 31-year-old community activist in Santa Cruz, a working-class neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, said she was immediately concerned about how Bolsonaro’s supporters would receive her. His is one of the neighborhoods with the largest contingent of Bolsonaro voters in the city.
“My concern is that he will use this to say, ‘Look, I’m fine, if you get this you will survive,'” he said. “Everything that happens to her has real repercussions on how people behave here. This is really serious. “
Mr. Bolsonaro’s diagnosis is the latest challenge for a government that has been rocked in recent months by abrupt cabinet departures and a series of legislative and criminal investigations directed at the President and his family.
As the number of coronavirus cases in the country increased, Bolsonaro fired his prime minister of health in April over disagreements over the response to the virus, prompting the second to quit his job in less than a month.
Since mid-May, an active-duty army general with no health care experience has headed the ministry, which has come under fire for failing to mount a solid test and contact-finding strategy.
As the health crisis worsened, Bolsonaro clashed with governors and mayors who imposed locks and flexibly imposed quarantines. Claiming that local officials were presenting an unduly bleak picture of the pandemic, Bolsonaro in June asked supporters to enter hospitals and film what they saw.
The president’s illness will do little to alter Brazil’s approach unless he experiences serious complications, politicians and public experts predicted. The country is now in the process of reopening, with Brazilians packing bars, beaches, and public spaces.
A mild case could make Bolsonaro and his supporters feel vindicated, and accelerate the reopening of business in Brazil that began in recent weeks, when bars and gyms began to welcome customers again.
“I don’t think we will see any significant change,” said Senator Alessandro Vieira, an opposition lawmaker. “His denial is absolute, something strange.”
Supporters of the president praised him for disclosing his condition immediately and predicted that he would recover quickly by taking the antimalarial drug.
“I pray for his recovery,” Sóstenes Cavalcante, a congressman from Rio de Janeiro, wrote on Twitter. “Congratulations to the President for being transparent with the Brazilian people. We are all at risk of contracting the virus and our opinion on SOCIAL DISTANCE will not change at all. ”
If the president is among the majority of Covid-19 patients who don’t become seriously ill, he will be widely seen as living proof of the merits of hydroxychloroquine, said Denise Garrett, a Brazilian-American epidemiologist. Despite the lack of evidence that the drug helps and its potentially dangerous side effects, many Brazilians believe in the drug, said Dr. Garrett, who previously worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fernando Haddad, the leftist politician that Bolsonaro defeated in the 2018 presidential race, criticized the president’s handling of the crisis for the spread of the disease in Brazil.
“I regret that more than 1.6 million people have been infected and that we have had the worst response in the world,” he wrote on Twitter. “I hope everyone recovers, including Mr. Bolsonaro. To the relatives of those who have abandoned us due to the negligence of the government, my sincere condolences ”.
The president said Tuesday that his illness did not alter his view that Brazilians needed to continue working. A bigger threat than the virus, he said, was the inability to get workers back to work in an economy expected to contract by as much as 10 percent this year.
“There is no need to panic,” he said. “Life goes on.”