Brazil's Bolsonaro strives to regain leadership amid virus

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Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro puts on a mask during a press conference on the new coronavirus at the Planalto Presidential Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, March 18, 2019. For most people COVID-19 causes mild or moderate symptoms. For others, especially the elderly and people with existing health problems, it can cause many other serious illnesses, including pneumonia. (AP Photo/Andre Borges)

RIO DE JANEIRO – After questioning the seriousness of COVID-19, defying his own health ministry's recommendations and denouncing a “certain hysteria,” Brazil's president is now projecting himself as leading the nation's response to the coronavirus crisis in what has become one of the biggest challenges to his presidency.

President Jair Bolsonaro provoked the ire of many Brazilians and even former political allies with his blasé attitude to the global pandemic and insistence on shaking supporters' hands at a protest. One of Brazil's most popular news sites, UOL, reported Bolsonaro had suggested the Chinese government caused the coronavirus outbreak — a claim later voiced publicly by his son, a lawmaker. China's embassy rebuffed the allegations, saying on Twitter they were "extremely irresponsible."

While countries around Latin America and the world have closed borders, quarantined millions, canceled international flights, and shut down schools, Brazil has done none of these things, except for closing a stretch of its vast border with Venezuela. Flights continue in and out of the country. No lockdowns have been ordered and state governments and municipalities have taken the lead in telling people to stay home.

“Coronavirus in Brazil is acting as a kind of catalyst, channeling all this discontent and accelerating the process” against Bolsonaro, said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at the Insper University in Sao Paulo. “When he came out to the streets for the protests, he made a very big, very serious mistake. Now he is trying to regain control.”

Faced with a growing backlash, a concerned-looking Bolsonaro, flanked by many of his ministers, on Wednesday gave his first press conference on the coronavirus at Brazil's presidential palace. During the two-hour event, Bolsonaro said he would redouble efforts to fight COVID-19, but did not announce any new measures.

For the first time since the outbreak, he thanked lawmakers for their efforts and called on them to approve a “state of calamity,” which would allow the government to spend more than the annual budget allows, with funds going toward health and job preservation.

But the press conference conveyed mixed messages about how to deal with the pandemic. While vowing to fight the outbreak, he sat shoulder-to-shoulder with his ministers in a violation of the social distancing prescribed by international authorities. Government officials wore white masks, but several of them, including Bolsonaro, removed them repeatedly when speaking.

“As the head of the executive I have to be in the front lines with my people,” Brazil's president said. “Don't be surprised if you see me entering a crowded bar in Sao Paulo, a ferry from Niteroi to Rio or in a bus in Belo Horizonte.”