World

Bolsonaro catches virus, shrugs off risks

By AAP Newswire

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro says he has tested positive for the coronavirus after months minimising the severity of the pandemic and defying medical experts, even as the virus has killed more than 66,000 Brazilians.

The right-wing populist gave the news to reporters at his official residence standing just inches away from him, adding to criticism of his cavalier approach to the outbreak in Brazil, the world's worst outside the United States.

Even as he announced his infection, the 65-year-old former army captain dismissed the dangers of the virus and credited unproven treatments for his mild symptoms, echoing his political role model US President Donald Trump.

"If it weren't for the test, I wouldn't know the result. And it turned out positive," he told the television cameras, adding he had started to feel sick on Sunday and grown worse on Monday, with a fever, muscle pains and exhaustion.

The president said he was taking hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug with unproven effectiveness against COVID-19 that has been touted by Trump and some of his supporters and pro-government factions in Brazil as a potential cure.

Finishing the interview with three TV channels, Bolsonaro stepped back and removed his mask to reveal a smile, adding: "You can see from my face that I'm well and I'm calm."

Bolsonaro, like Trump, has blasted experts at the World Health Organisation and voiced scepticism about the virulence of the virus.

The Brazilian leader repeated his claim on Tuesday that the risks of COVID-19 were exaggerated and most Brazilians did not need to worry: "Be assured that for you the chance of something more serious is close to zero."

He has regularly appeared in public without a mask and on Friday vetoed parts of a bill that made the use of masks mandatory in public places.

His veto removed the requirement to wear a mask in enclosed spaces such as churches, factories, commercial or educational locations. He also blocked the stipulation that masks be provided on such premises and people removed if they are not using them.

With more than 1.6 million confirmed coronavirus cases in Brazil, Bolsonaro's handling of the crisis has drawn criticism from public health experts as he fought state and city efforts to impose social distancing, arguing that the economic damage would be worse than the disease itself.

He has fired two health ministers during the pandemic, both trained doctors, and replaced them with an army general on an interim basis.

Over the weekend, Bolsonaro was in close contact with US Ambassador Todd Chapman during July 4 celebrations, and pictures showed neither wearing a mask. The US embassy said Chapman had tested negative, but would remain in quarantine.

After his diagnosis, Bolsonaro said he would keep working via videoconference and "rarely receive one person or another to sign a document."

Pan American Health Organisation director for communicable diseases Marcos Espinal wished Bolsonaro a "speedy recovery" but said his infection carried a message.

"For Brazil, the infection of its president should reinforce the need to strengthen implementations of social distancing recommendations and the use of masks to mitigate the spread of coronavirus."

In March, Bolsonaro suggested in a televised national address that he was not concerned by the idea of contracting the coronavirus.

"With my history as an athlete, if I were infected by the virus, I would not have to worry. I would feel nothing or, at most, it would be a little flu or a little cold," he said.