RIO DE JANEIRO (UPDATE) — President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who has railed against social distancing measures and repeatedly downplayed the threat of the coronavirus as the epidemic in his country became the second-worst in the world, said Tuesday that he, too, has been infected.
Critics at home and abroad have called Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic cavalier and reckless, allowing the virus to surge across Brazil, Latin America’s largest nation. At one point he dismissed it as “a measly cold,” and when asked in late April about the rising death toll, he replied: “So what? Sorry, but what do you want me to do?”
As the caseload has skyrocketed, Bolsonaro has shunned masks, attended mass rallies of his supporters, insisted that the virus poses no threat to healthy people, championed unproven remedies and shuffled through health ministers who disagreed with him.
Brazil now has more than 1.6 million confirmed cases and more than 65,000 deaths — more than any country except the United States.
Bolsonaro fell ill two days after he and a handful of his ministers attended a Fourth of July luncheon at the residence of Todd Chapman, the U.S. ambassador in Brazil. Bolsonaro and other attendees sat shoulder-to-shoulder, embracing with no masks.
Speaking to journalists outside the presidential palace in Brasília shortly after noon Tuesday, Bolsonaro said he had taken a test Monday after experiencing fatigue, muscle pain and a fever.
He said he was feeling “very well,” which he credited to having taken hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug he has endorsed but which studies show does not ward off the virus. COVID-19 cases that become serious often take a turn for the worse about a week after symptoms emerge.
Bolsonaro did not express contrition for his handling of the pandemic and doubled down on his assertion that the virus poses little risk to healthy people. He characterized the diagnosis as a predictable outcome of a leadership style that requires him to be among the people.
“I am the president; I have to be on the front lines of the fight,” he said, comparing the virus to “rain, which is going to get to you.”
After taking questions from journalists, Bolsonaro stepped back a few feet, removed the mask he had been wearing and smiled.
“Thank you to all those who prayed for me and rooted for me,” he said. “I’m fine, thank God. Those who have criticized me, that’s fine, they can continue to criticize me.”
Even as several of Bolsonaro’s aides have tested positive for the virus in recent months, the president has often eschewed precautions, boasting of how his athletic background would protect him and encouraging his supporters to flout lockdown measures imposed by city and state officials.
His management of the virus has deeply divided the country, with many opponents expressing their rage at his heedless approach by banging pots and pans at their windows in the evenings. As Brazilians awaited the results of the president’s latest coronavirus test, messages posted on social media illustrated how politically polarized the country had become.
Two trending hashtags on Twitter on Tuesday morning were #ForçaBolsonaro and #ForçaCorona — the first sending the president strength and the other effectively expressing hope that the president would fall ill.
When she heard the news, Day Medeiros, a 31-year-old community activist in Santa Cruz, a working-class neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, said she was immediately worried about how Bolsonaro supporters there would receive it. Hers is one of the neighborhoods with the highest contingent of Bolsonaro voters in the city.
“My concern is that he will use this to say, ‘See, I’m fine; if you catch this you will survive,’” she said. “Everything that happens to him has real repercussions in how people behave here. This is really serious.”
Bolsonaro’s diagnosis is the latest challenge for a government that has been rocked in recent months by abrupt Cabinet departures and a series of legislative and criminal investigations targeting the president and his relatives.
As the country’s coronavirus caseload ballooned, Bolsonaro fired his first health minister in April over disagreements about the response to the virus and drove his second one to quit less than a month into the job.
Since mid-May, an active-duty army general with no experience in health care has headed the ministry, which has been faulted for failing to mount a robust testing and contact tracing strategy.
As the health crisis worsened, Bolsonaro sparred with governors and mayors who imposed loosely enforced lockdowns and quarantines. Claiming that local officials were presenting an unduly grim picture of the pandemic, Bolsonaro in June called on supporters to break into hospitals and film what they saw.
Sen. Alessandro Vieira, an opposition lawmaker, said he did not expect the president’s illness to change the government’s response.
“The best-case scenario would be for Bolsonaro to remain quiet for a few days,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll see any significant changes. Their denial is absolute, a bizarre thing.”
The president said Tuesday that his illness does not alter his view that Brazilians need to continue working.
“There is no need to panic,” he said. “Life goes on.”
A bigger threat than the virus, he said, was failure to get workers back on the job in an economy that is expected to contract by up to 10 percent this year.
“Brazil needs to get back to work,” he said. “Otherwise the economy will enter a very complicated phase.”