Despatch from SAO PAULO | International

Our President is openly sabotaging our efforts to contain coronavirus, says Brazil official

Jair Bolsonaro./ File photo   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

With cameras in tow, Jair Bolsonaro drove to a hospital on Friday. When asked about the visit, Mr. Bolsonaro told reporters that he was there to “have an ice cream”. Pressed further, Mr. Bolsonaro said he was doing a “pregnancy test”. Then he walked into a pharmacy and grabbed a cold drink in a bakery. Returning home, Mr. Bolsonaro, who has tested “negative” thrice for COVID-19 but never released the results, wiped his nose with the back of his wrist and shook hands with an old woman. It was just another day in office for the President of Brazil, a country of 210 million people.

Around the globe, governments are fighting the virus. But Brazil is busy fighting itself as the virus roams freely, infecting about 20,000 people and killing over 1,000 so far. Experts suspect the real figure to be five to 10 times the official numbers. But Mr. Bolsonaro couldn’t care less. As workers dig fresh graves in cemeteries, hospitals run out of test kits, clinics turn away patients with symptoms and the virus reaches tribes in the Amazon, Mr. Bolsonaro is pushing for “ending the quarantine” and “opening the economy”.

Since the virus reached Brazil in February, Mr. Bolsonaro has been attacking his own Health Minister, Luiz Mandetta, who has tried to follow the World Health Organization guidelines on combating COVID-19. Things came to a head on Monday as Mr. Bolsonaro threatened to fire Dr. Mandetta unless he fell in line. After several tense hours, during which people banged pots and shouted against Mr. Bolsonaro, the Health Minister appeared on television. “I am a doctor and doctors never abandon their patient. I will not abandon Brazil,” said Dr. Mandetta.

In his 15 months in power, Mr. Bolsonaro has not been so openly rebuffed by a Minister as done by Dr. Mandetta, a surgeon with an approval rating of 76%. As Dr. Mandetta’s press conference happened after a Cabinet meeting headed by Mr. Bolsonaro, his tough posture had tongues wagging about if the President had been “isolated”. What fuelled the rumours further was the appearance of General Walter Braga Netto, the President’s Chief of Staff, at the presser.

Just a day earlier, veteran Argentinian journalist Horacio Verbitsky had reported that Brazilian Generals had told their Argentine counterparts that Gen. Netto was now the “acting-President” of Brazil as Mr. Bolsonaro was not able to “handle the pandemic”. As several media outlets in Brazil picked the story and social media became hyperactive with stories of a “silent coup”, there was complete radio silence in Brasilia as Mr. Bolsonaro cancelled all his public engagements and kept quiet on Twitter. “Bolsonaro is a former captain. The Army will never depose him. Some Generals, who do not agree with him, seem to have taken control of the situation to save the government and save their faces too,” said a Ministry of Health official, on condition of anonymity. “The President has been openly sabotaging all our efforts against the spread of the virus.”

Attacking China

As if locking horns with his own team was not enough, the Bolsonaro camp has taken the fight to China, the country’s biggest trading partner ($105 billion in 2019). The President’s youngest son, Eduardo, has repeatedly called the coronavirus a “Chinese virus” and the Culture Minister sent out a racist tweet last week, accusing “communist” China of deploying the virus to “destroy capitalism”. Chinese diplomats in Brazil reacted with ferocity, demanding an apology from the Minister and accusing Mr. Eduardo of being an “ignorant person”.

China has also decided to ignore Mr. Bolsonaro’s leadership. Since the diplomatic spat between the two governments, China’s Ambassador to Brazil has been dealing directly with Dr. Mandetta and Rodrigo Maia, the President of the Lower House of Congress. Heavily dependent on China for medical equipment, several State Governors are talking with China directly. “The State Governors are leading the fight against the virus. They have popular support. Bolsonaro is completely isolated and he can’t do anything against China,” said the Health Ministry official.

Isolated he may be, but the President hasn’t stopped firing up his far-right base with dubious information. Following U.S. President Donald Trump’s lead, Mr. Bolsonaro has been promoting hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) as a “wonder drug” against COVID-19. On Thursday, he appeared on social media to prescribe HCQ and take a potshot at Dr. Mandetta. “A doctor never leaves the patient, but a patient can always change the doctor.”

Shobhan Saxena is a Sao Paulo-based journalist.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 8:49:48 PM |

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