Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Mar 17 – President Jair Bolsonaro condemned what he called “hysteria” over the coronavirus pandemic Tuesday, as Brazil confirmed its first death and Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro declared a state of emergency.
Flying in the face of mounting global alarm over the pandemic, the far-right president lashed out at containment measures he said would hurt the economy.
“People are acting like it’s the end of the world,” he said in an interview with Radio Tupi.
“The economy was doing well, but now some governors are taking measures that are really going to hurt it… It’s not like having groups of people here and there is the problem. What we need to do is reduce the hysteria.”
Bolsonaro has sparked controversy with his response to the pandemic.
He had already drawn criticism for shaking hands and taking selfies with supporters at a rally Sunday, ignoring the recommendation of his own health ministry, which said he should remain in isolation for two weeks after being exposed to several officials who tested positive for COVID-19.
His latest comments came after the South American country confirmed its first COVID-19 fatality: a 62-year-old man with diabetes and high blood pressure who died Monday in Sao Paulo, authorities said.
“Unfortunately, this shows how severe this pandemic is, despite what some would like to believe,” Sao Paulo Mayor Bruno Covas told CBN radio.
– Landmarks closed –
The emergency measures in Rio included closing the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue and the cable car to Sugarloaf Mountain, two of the city’s most famous attractions.
Sao Paulo granted city authorities the right to requisition goods needed to contain the virus from businesses if necessary.
Rio ordered restaurants to reduce the number of tables by 70 percent to increase distance between patrons, closed stores in shopping malls and halved the number of public transport vehicles in circulation, calling on people to remain home when possible.
On Friday, the state had already closed schools, theaters and cinemas for at least 15 days.
Rio Governor Wilson Witzel has also ordered people off the city’s beaches.
The federal government meanwhile announced 147 billion reals (nearly $30 billion) in emergency spending to fend off the economic impact of the pandemic.
– ‘Crime against public health’ –
Brazil — the biggest country in Latin America, with 210 million people — has confirmed 291 coronavirus cases, concentrated in Sao Paulo and Rio.
Health officials are working to convince the population to take the threat seriously, but some Brazilians remain skeptical — not least Bolsonaro.
The man dubbed a “Tropical Trump” has at times caused outrage with his response to the pandemic, both politically and personally.
He tested negative for the virus last week, news he announced on Facebook accompanied by a photo of himself making an obscene gesture.
But under health ministry protocol, he needs further testing to confirm the result, and is supposed to remain in isolation in the meantime. He took a second test Tuesday and is awaiting the result.
Influential Sao Paulo state lawmaker Janaina Paschoal called on him to resign.
The president’s decision to defy health authorities and participate in Sunday’s rallies by his supporters was “a crime against public health,” she said.
“The president does not seem to be taking the outbreak seriously,” newspaper Estado de Sao Paulo said in an editorial.
Bolsonaro was unfazed, saying in his radio interview that he would hold a “small party” to celebrate his 65th birthday Saturday, even though health experts have recommended against such gatherings.
“Life goes on,” he said.