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In Brazil, Bolsonaro Doubles Down On 'Exaggerated' Coronavirus

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro removes his mask to speak to journalists after a press conference on the coronavirus on Wednesday.
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro removes his mask to speak to journalists after a press conference on the coronavirus on Wednesday.

There's been a furious reaction in Brazil after President Jair Bolsonaro demanded an end to lockdowns imposed in his country's biggest cities in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Having played down the virus for days as "exaggerated," the president doubled down Wednesday, labeling governors and mayors who have imposed restrictions as "criminals" who are "destroying Brazil."

Bolsonaro's position has brought him into direct conflict with a broad spectrum of medical professionals, scientists and regional leaders who have been appealing to Brazilians to remain indoors.

Governors and mayors have brought the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to a near-standstill, closing down non-essential businesses and most transport links. Brazil, Latin America's largest nation, has 2433 confirmed cases with 57 deaths.

"Other viruses have killed many more than this one and there wasn't all this commotion," Bolsonaro complained to journalists Wednesday, adding: "If we don't get back to work, Brazil could depart from democratic normalcy."

On Tuesday, he made an impassioned nationwide TV address in which he called the closures a "scorched earth policy" and declared that "jobs must be "protected." He warned against hysteria and panic measures, and questioned the need for schools to shut down.

Bolsonaro also told the TV audience that the majority of people with the virus show no symptoms and that those at risk are over 60. Himself 65, the retired army captain declared he would have no reason to worry if he became infected because of his "history as an athlete."

"I would feel nothing," Bolsonaro said. "For me, it would be at most just a little flu."

Brazilians in urban neighborhoods responded to the broadcast by angrily clattering pots and pans and shouting from their windows, a traditional form of political protest that has continued for eight consecutive nights. Social media were flooded with posts expressing amazement and dismay.

The governor of São Paulo state, João Doria, condemned Bolsonaro, describing his views as "absolutely mistaken" and "out of tune" with the policies pursued by Brazil's health ministry.

The coronavirus is "not a little cold, it's not a little flu," said Doria, after holding an apparently acrimonious video conference call with the president Wednesday. "It's a grave issue."

He said there are about 7 million people over age 60 in his state, which includes the mega-city of São Paulo.

"Is it legitimate to abandon them?" he asked.

Among the slew of organizations condemning Bolsonaro's words is Brazil's National Council for Health, which said he is "putting at risk the lives of millions of people" and committing "a serious affront to the health and life of the population."

As Bolsonaro faces the massive health and economic emergency posed by the coronavirus, he could also find himself fighting for political survival. Some lawmakers have been calling for his impeachment.

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