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Brazil Pres. Unconcerned About Virus   03/29 09:38

   RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) -- Even as coronavirus cases mount in Latin America's 
largest nation, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has staked out the most 
deliberately dismissive position of any major world leader, calling the 
pandemic a momentary, minor problem and saying strong measures to contain it 
are unnecessary.

   Bolsonaro says his response to the disease matches that of President Donald 
Trump in the U.S., but the Brazilian leader has gone further, labeling the 
virus as "a little flu" and saying state governors' aggressive measures to halt 
the disease were crimes.

   On Thursday, Bolsonaro told reporters in the capital, Brasilia, that he 
feels Brazilians' natural immunity will protect the nation.

   "The Brazilian needs to be studied. He doesn't catch anything. You see a guy 
jumping into sewage, diving in, right? Nothing happens to him. I think a lot of 
people were already infected in Brazil, weeks or months ago, and they already 
have the antibodies that help it not proliferate," Bolsonaro said. "I'm hopeful 
that's really a reality."

   A video titled "Brazil Cannot Stop" that circulated on social media drew a 
rebuke from Monica de Bolle, a Brazilian senior fellow at the Peterson 
Institute for International Economics.

   "Do you know what will happen, Bolsonaro? Brazil WILL stop. Your 
irresponsibility will bring thousands to avoidable deaths," she tweeted Friday. 
"The destroyed lungs of these people, as well as the organs of those who won't 
be able to have medical care, will fall on your lap. And Brazil will not spare 

   Bolsonaro, 65, shows no sign of wavering even as the nation's tally of 
confirmed COVID-19 cases approach 4,000, deaths top 100 and Brazilians 
overwhelmingly demand tough anti-virus measures. Pollster Datafolha this month 
found 73% of people supported total isolation, and 54% approved of governors' 
management of the crisis. Bolsonaro's backing was just 33%.

   Does Bolsonaro actually believe, as he says, that the virus will be 
vanquished by a cocktail of drugs and Brazil's tropical climate? It's possible, 
but analysts say a more calculated political gamble may underlie his 
increasingly defiant position.

   Bolsonaro may have concluded that when he faces reelection in two and a half 
years, the economy will matter more to most Brazilians than the death toll from 
coronavirus. By labeling the virus threat as overblown and decrying state 
governors' quarantines and shutdowns as unnecessary, he could be preparing to 
blame others for any recession that might happen.

   "If things go really poorly from an economic point of view, he can point his 
finger at the governors," Christopher Garman, managing director for the 
Americas at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said by phone. "What he 
isn't calculating is the public opinion hit that he can take for being seen to 
have not handled well the public health crisis."

   The governors of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the states hardest hit by the 
virus, have banned public gatherings, closed schools and businesses and called 
for strict social distancing. Both are Bolsonaro critics and possible 
contenders in the 2022 presidential race. They also have backup: 25 of Brazil's 
27 governors signed a joint letter this week begging Bolsonaro to back strict 
anti-virus measures.

   Bolsonaro, a Trump devotee, said he has watched his U.S. counterpart speak 
about the virus in recent days and found their perspectives rather aligned. 
Like Trump, he has sought to ease anxiety by often touting the yet-unproven 
benefits of chloroquine in combating the virus. On Thursday, he eliminated 
tariffs for the anti-malaria drug.

   Local media have counted some two dozen people who tested positive for 
COVID-19 after traveling with Bolsonaro this month to the U.S. That includes 
his national security adviser, who this week returned to work at the 
presidential palace. Bolsonaro says his two tests for the virus came back 
negative, but he has refused to publish his results.

   From the U.S., Bolsonaro called coronavirus fears a "fantasy.''

   As COVID-19 started to spread in mid-March, he issued a lukewarm call for 
postponement of pro-government demonstrations, then celebrated the rallies and 
shook supporters' hands. For a few days, he and his ministers wore masks, but 
they removed them when speaking. Asked March 23 why they had dispensed with 
their masks, officials exchanged sidelong glances for a full 15 seconds before 
a moderator broke the silence to call for the next question. 

   Bolsonaro returned to a hard line of denial Tuesday in an address to the 
nation. He demanded that life return to normal and people get back to work. His 
athletic past, he said, rendered him impervious to the virus. The next morning, 
he told reporters he and his health minister would decide to isolate only 
high-risk Brazilians -- the elderly and those with preexisting health problems. 
The minister, a doctor who had earned praise for his no-nonsense crisis 
management, changed his position and said many quarantine measures had been 

   "It's a very high-risk, tremendous gamble for Bolsonaro and probably it 
won't work," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a 
Washington-based think tank. "But I wouldn't rule out that it could. He could 
get lucky. It seems like it is going to hurt him significantly, but he has 
defied the odds before."

   For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as 
fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older 
adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe 
illness, including pneumonia, and death. The vast majority of people recover.

   Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, was a fringe lawmaker during his seven 
congressional terms and gained prominence with a stream of offensive 
statements. Popular support coalesced around his call for aggressive policing, 
plans to impose conservative cultural values and promises to rejuvenate the 
economy. During his 15 months in office, he has battled the media, sought to 
purge the nation of so-called "cultural Marxism" and dismissed data showing a 
surge in Amazon deforestation.

   He has flouted the international consensus on coronavirus even as Trump has 
moved toward some World Health Organization recommendations for isolation. 
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lpez Obrador spent weeks dismissing the 
coronavirus threat but on Thursday closed government for all but essential work 
and urged Mexicans to remain indoors.

   Brazil's economy still has not healed from a devastating 2015-2016 
recession, and the country cannot survive a sustained stoppage without food 
riots and the like, according to Tony Volpon, chief economist at UBS in Brazil. 
He supports a shutdown but says the government should develop a plan to 
gradually ease the restrictions by region and business type, accompanied by 
ramping up testing and clamping down wherever coronavirus cases spike.

   In Sao Paulo and Rio, self-isolating Brazilians have leaned from their 
windows every night for the past week to bang pots and pans in protest. While 
that's not indicative of nationwide discontent, Eurasia's Garman said, it could 
spread if the health system begins to collapse.

   Bolsonaro's fate will depend largely on the damage wrought by the disease, 
according to Thiago de Aragao, director of strategy at political risk 
consultancy Arko Advice.

   If deaths are relatively low and the economy crippled, "public opinion could 
side with him," de Aragao said. "If the final outcome is 50,000 deaths and 
trucks carrying coffins, like in Italy, it will be tremendously negative for 
the president."


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