As Bolsonaro flouts warnings, coronavirus spreads in Brazil
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[March 24, 2020]
By Lisandra Paraguassu and Anthony Boadle
BRASILIA (Reuters) - Augusto Heleno, a
national security advisor to Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, treated
Tuesday, March 17 much like any other workday.
The 72-year-old former Army general attended cabinet meetings in the
capital of Brasília, embraced colleagues and visited the cafeteria in
the presidential palace, according to people familiar with his
activities. But there was an unusual piece of business pending: He was
awaiting the results of a coronavirus test.
The following day, the test came back positive. Heleno announced it on
Twitter. "I am in isolation at home and will not take telephone calls,"
he posted. He said he had no fever or symptoms.
Heleno is now one of nearly two dozen confirmed coronavirus cases that
have surfaced among Brazilians who traveled to Florida earlier this
month to hobnob with U.S. officials. Bolsonaro and senior aides met with
U.S. President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach,
while a larger contingent gathered with lawmakers and business leaders
at a Miami hotel and other events.
Some 22 Brazilians who made the journey have confirmed they have tested
positive, through public statements or social media accounts. They
include two business leaders, a senator, a congressman, two members of
Bolsonaro's cabinet, his chief bodyguard, his head of protocol and a top
foreign affairs advisor.
Contagion among Brazil's political elite, health experts said, is a
warning about the country's lack of readiness to combat the pandemic.
Sixty-five-year-old Bolsonaro, who tested negative, for weeks has
described the coronavirus as "a little flu." He recently asked Congress
to declare a state of emergency to free up more funding. Still, he has
resisted calling for Brazilians to stay at home and for businesses to
close because of his concerns about harming the economy. And he has
berated Brazilian governors and mayors who have taken such steps, even
as some members of his inner circle have fallen ill.
Bolsonaro, his son Eduardo, security adviser Heleno and two other
ministers dined with Trump on Saturday March 7, as cases were rising
sharply in the United States. They huddled with Trump and Vice President
Mike Pence to take photos. One showed the U.S. president holding a cap
that said "Make Brazil Great Again."
The larger group of Brazilians attended meetings the following two days
with investors, business people and public officials, including Miami
Mayor Francis Suarez, who announced March 13 that he had tested positive
"We caught it on that trip to Miami, in close contact with one another
on the same planes, shuttle buses and hotel meeting rooms," said
Brazilian Congressman Daniel Freitas, 37, who tested positive on his
return. He is now in quarantine in his Brasília apartment.
Brazilian doctors have not established a definitive transmission chain
and cannot say for certain whether the group was infected in the United
Fabio Wajngarten, Bolsonaro's communications secretary, tested positive
for coronavirus on March 12, two days after arriving home from Florida.
Testing then commenced for other members of the delegation. Bolsonaro
and Heleno were among those who continued to circulate in public while
awaiting their results, much to the dismay of Brazil's medical
"It is behavior like an ostrich that sticks its head in the sand," said
epidemiologist José Cássio de Moraes, a member of ABRASCO, Brazil's
largest association of public health experts, doctors and researchers.
"It's not acceptable in any form."
Heleno did not respond to a request for comment. Bolsonaro's office did
not respond to a request for comment.
Brazil's federal response to the pandemic has lagged that of other South
America countries even as it leads the continent in confirmed cases of
coronavirus. As of Monday, Brazil had recorded 1,891 cases, an
eight-fold increase in a week, with 34 deaths tied to the virus,
according to the latest Health Ministry figures.
[to top of second column]
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro meets supporters during a protest
against Brazil's Congress and Brazilian Supreme Court, in front of
the Planalto Palace, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
outbreak, in Brasilia, Brazil March 15, 2020. REUTERS/Adriano
The country trailed several of its neighbors in tightening its land
borders. Bolsonaro's administration waited until March 17 to ask
Congress to declare the state of emergency. Brazil, like the United
State and other late-movers, is now scrambling to produce millions
of test kits.
State governors and mayors, meanwhile, have taken the lead in
closing public venues and asking Brazilians to stay home. Many
private-sector companies have directed employees to work remotely.
Bolsonaro has criticized such measures as "extreme." He has called
on Brazilians to fight the disease without bringing the economy to a
halt. He recently shook hands with a throng of supporters and leaned
into the crowd for selfies. He said in a Friday television interview
that churches should keep holding services. Bolsonaro rose to power
with massive support from evangelical Christians due to his
conservative social agenda.
Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta has warned that Brazil's
healthcare system could collapse next month under a surge of
patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, if
Brazilians do not adopt rigorous social distancing. Last week he
compared Bolsonaro's mingling with crowds to a smoker ignoring
ANXIETY IN CONGRESS
In the halls of Congress, nervous lawmakers have rushed to protect
themselves. Many have fled Brasília to their districts, or are
working remotely from their apartments in the capital.
In-person committee hearings have been scrapped and moved online.
Plenary sessions cannot have more than 30 lawmakers on the floor,
and traditional huddles to discuss legislation are discouraged in
"Please keep your distance from one another," Chamber of Deputies
Speaker Rodrigo Maia reminded colleagues over the loudspeaker during
Wednesday's session as they quickly approved the state of emergency.
Bolsonaro's approval ratings have taken a beating. A survey
published Monday by the Datafolha polling firm showed that just 34%
of Brazilians polled thought the president's job performance was
"great" or "good." That's the lowest level since he took office last
In recent days, residents of São Paulo, Rio and Brasília have taken
to banging on pot and pans at their windows and balconies, shouting
Bolsonaro has brushed off the protests. "This is not the time for
political disputes ... to blame me for everything that happens," he
told reporters on Friday. "I am not worried about the pots and pans.
I am worried about coronavirus."
Back at the presidential palace, bottles of hand sanitizer have
appeared throughout the building, while pregnant and elderly staff
are now working from home, people familiar with the situation told
Bolsonaro has begun holding daily coronavirus meetings, according to
a presidential staffer.
(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu and Anthony Boadle; Additional
reportingby Jake Spring; Editing by Brad Haynes and Marla Dickerson)
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