Brazil coronavirus: Timeline of what Bolsonaro said as the virus spread

While Covid-19 raced across Europe, overthrew the British Prime Minister and strangled New York earlier this year, Brazil had plenty of notice that a disaster was on its way. But has the danger been drowned in the megaphone of his bomber President Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly said that the virus is a “small flu”?

People around the world are asking their governments how local outbreaks have gotten out of hand. But in Brazil, where the acting health minister is a military general with no health training and where the president personally attends anti-lockout rallies, it is unclear who in the federal government could even deign to answer the question.

A handful of cases

It has not always been so. When the deadly virus began to spread in China in February, Bolsonaro expressed clear concern about its threat: he reluctantly agreed to repatriate Brazilian citizens from the then epicenter, the province of Hubei, apparently afraid of putting the rest of the country at risk.
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Brazil’s domestic saga with the virus officially started on March 5, with the Ministry of Health announcing that “the national scenario has changed”. In total, eight cases in Sao Paulo reported over 10 days had shown that the virus was no longer an import – community spread was underway.

The following week, state governors began to act to contain the spread, shutting down non-essential businesses and activities in Rio, Goias, Sao Paulo and the Federal District. But their precautions raised a red flag for Bolsonaro.

“When you ban football and other things, you fall into hysteria. Banning this and it will not contain the spread,” he told CNN Brasil on March 15. “We have to take action, the virus could get pretty serious But the economy has to work because we can’t have a wave of unemployment.”

This would become the argument that the President openly Prime Minister has constantly repeated, even if the coronavirus crisis has radically evolved around him: that the economy cannot be sacrificed for public health.

The first death

Under the Brazilian federal system, state and city officials have the power to implement regional measures, while the national government oversees broader issues.

In March, Bolsonaro’s government did its part to ward off the coronavirus: it closed Brazil to the outside world by closing most of the land borders and preventing foreigners from entering by international flights. Finance Minister Paulo Guedes also announced a major stimulus package to fund social assistance programs and cushion the fall of people who lose their jobs due to closings.

But the virus was already spreading internally. On March 17, health officials in Sao Paulo confirmed the country’s first coronavirus death, a 62-year-old man who had traveled to Italy.

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Local government efforts to eradicate the virus have been criticized from above, as Bolsonaro mocked unpopular quarantine and shelter measures there.

“Our life must go on. Jobs must be maintained,” Bolsonaro said in a speech broadcast on March 24 on national radio and television.

Bolsonaro also tweeted videos of himself visiting the shopping districts of Brasilia, encouraging people to keep working and stimulating chloroquine, an unproven drug, as a remedy. On March 29, Twitter took the extraordinary step of deleting the messages.

Meanwhile, horror stories about the coronavirus were emerging elsewhere on the continent. In Ecuador, the city of Guayaquil saw its fight against the virus unveiled online in early April, with videos and photos on social networks revealing corpses lying on the sidewalks and abandoned in front of hospitals.

1000 dead

As the cold weather began to set in for fall in Brazil, Bolsonaro again took steps to strengthen the economy and the public health system.

He increased funds for severance pay for laid-off workers and signed a law to provide three months of emergency funds to the country’s poor and informal workers. The Ministry of Health also announced that it would register 5 million health professionals to relocate to the most affected states to strengthen public health systems.

But his words and personal actions continued to believe the work of his government. On April 9, images showed the naked president in a local bakery, hugging supporters and posing with people in disregard of social distancing advice. Crowds could also be heard in the background booing and shouting through the windows of surrounding buildings.

The country killed 1,000 people on April 10.

5000 dead

A series of difficult weeks followed for the Brazilian Ministry of Health: on April 16, after weeks of internal struggles and threats, Bolsonaro dismissed his Minister of Health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta. The outgoing minister had been one of the biggest supporters of social isolation in Brazil, backing governors’ decisions to close schools and businesses.

At a press conference after Mandetta’s departure, Bolsonaro praised his work, but insisted that the economy and health at the moment be treated as two diseases. “You cannot treat one and ignore the other,” he said, adding that he had already discussed the need to “open up gradually” with new minister Nelson Teich.

On April 28, Bolsonaro broadened the definition of core business by adding retail, food services, transportation, auto repair shops and warehouses to the list.

“We were clearly on opposite sides,” Mandetta told CNN Christiane Amanpour a few weeks later. “They thought it would not be more than a thousand (cases). And I think we are going to be far away. I think Brazil may become one of the most numerous cases in the world,” he said. added.

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As of April 29, more than 5,000 people have died. Questioned by journalists outside the presidential residence in Brasilia, the president said infamous words: “So what? I’m sorry, but what do you want me to do?”

He then added: “I am sorry for the situation we are living in right now because of the virus. We express our solidarity with those who lost loved ones, many of whom were elderly. But that’s life, that’s it could be me tomorrow. “

10,000 dead

The infection rate only accelerated in May.

On May 7, Bolsonaro and Guedes issued a statement insisting that quarantine measures must be relaxed or the economy could collapse. Two days later, the death toll from coronaviruses in Brazil exceeded 10,000.

Next week, Bolsonaro reopened the concept of essential services, this time adding beauty salons, hair salons and gymnasiums.
“This story of locking up, of closing everything, is not the way. … It is the way of failure, of the rupture of Brazil,” he told reporters on May 14 – the same day he signed a decree exempting public servants from responsibility for their responses to the pandemic, unless an action had a “high degree of negligence, recklessness or professional misconduct”.

The next day, the new Minister of Health, Nelson Teich, resigned. An oncologist by training, Teich had been in this position for less than a month and would have opposed the promotion of chloroquine as a treatment. Much later, in an interview with Globo News, Teich would also appear to criticize Brazil’s ever-broader definition of essential businesses.

“Health care is absolutely essential. Obviously,” he told the Brazilian publication on May 24. “Is beauty essential? I don’t know.”
Bolsonaro and Nelson Teich (left), who disagreed with the president and resigned.

15,000 deaths

After having two medical experts at the top of the Ministry of Health and endless crisis in sight, Bolsonaro changed course. He chose Eduardo Pazuello – a military general with no medical or public health background – to lead the national fight against the coronavirus as acting minister.

The death toll in Brazil exceeded 15,000 on May 16. On that day, Bolsonaro joined another rally outside his official residence in Brasilia. The video posted on Bolsonaro’s YouTube page showed him wearing a facial mask, shaking hands and even carrying several children.

The next day, Brazil overtook the United Kingdom to become the country with the third highest number of cases in the world.

20,000 dead

In a few days, Brazil rose again in the dismal ranking, overtaking Russia hard hit with more confirmed cases of coronavirus than any country in the world, except the United States.

On May 21, 20,000 people died.

That night, when Bolsonaro stopped in a hot dog in Brasilia, his entourage drew a mixture of angry supporters and protesters.

“Killer!” a woman could be heard screaming in the video, captured by local media.

Bolsonaro met with angry protesters while eating a hot dog in Brasilia.

25,000 deaths

On Wednesday, the Ministry of Health increased the death toll in Brazil to 25,598.

In recent months, the federal government’s focus on protecting the economy first has been largely confirmed by measures to relieve businesses and inject liquidity into the economy. But while the health ministry has also supported state health systems, the president has undermined local leaders charged with governing the behavior that spreads the virus.

“With the example of the President of Brazil, everything is more difficult for us,” the governor of Sao Paulo, Joao Doria, told CNN’s Isa Soares on Tuesday. “He takes to the streets without a mask. Bad behavior and a bad indication. It is very sad for Brazil and makes everything more difficult for the governors of the states of Brazil.”

The populist leader’s strategy seemed to have been to leave unpopular decisions to others, while trying to garner the credit of supporters to whom he embodied the handyman – promoting “treatments” against unproven coronaviruses and by daring to break the lock restrictions on social media.

But citizens who follow his example can put themselves in danger. Tens of thousands of new cases are diagnosed every day, but compliance with the rules of social distancing seems to be declining. In Sao Paulo, for example, more than 60% of the population initially followed the guidelines for home accommodation, according to city authorities. Last week, less than half stayed at home.

Bolsonaro has recently started calling the fight against the virus a “war,” although he continues to insist that economic stagnation will hurt Brazil more than the virus itself. As the total of known cases approaches half a million, it is not clear whether a number of graves could reverse this calculation for him.

Report by Taylor Barnes, Flora Charner, Claudia Dominguez, Helena DeMoura, Maija Ehlinger, Jonny Hallam and Jennifer Hauser in Atlanta. Shasta Darlington and Nick Paton Walsh reported from Sao Paulo and Manaus. Written by Caitlin Hu in New York.

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