Brazil’s Bolsonaro tests positive for coronavirus

“There’s no problem,” he told reporters Tuesday. “It’s natural. There’s no dread. It’s life.”

The result adds one more case to what has become the world’s second-worst outbreak, after that of the United States. Brazil has reported more than 1.6 million cases and 65,000 deaths — both believed to be undercounts — an escalating disaster that scientists and health officials say has been exacerbated by Bolsonaro’s frequent dismissal of it.

Bolsonaro, 65, has described covid-19, the disease the virus causes, as a “little cold,” repeatedly waded into crowds of supporters, threatened to host a large barbecue to defy health measures, and as recently as last week attended a Fourth of July party at the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia without wearing a mask. A Brazilian court last month ordered Bolsonaro to wear one while in public.

“In my particular case,” the former army officer said in a national address in March, “with my history as an athlete, if I were infected by the virus, I wouldn’t need to worry. I wouldn’t feel anything or, if very affected, it would be like a little flu or little cold.”

Bolsonaro is at least the fourth world leader to test positive for the virus. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was treated in intensive care in April; he has since recovered. Guinea-Bissau’s prime minister, Nuno Gomes Nabiam, tested positive in April. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was hospitalized last month. He announced last week he was leaving the hospital and resuming work.

Bolsonaro shared the news that he had contracted a highly infectious and potentially fatal virus at a news conference with reporters huddled near him. He wore a mask.

He repeated the talking points he has used since the beginning of the outbreak. He said some of the preventive measures have been exaggerated and urged Brazilians to prioritize the economy. He again hailed the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, which scientists say is unproven for the treatment of covid-19 and potentially harmful. He said he’s been taking it for days.

“Life will continue, and Brazil needs to produce,” he said. “If the economy isn’t functioning, it will create other problems that will lead to more death.”

He said he planned to continue working in isolation but has canceled travel. Then he stepped several feet away and removed his mask to address the reporters.

“I’m good, relaxed,” he said. “Let’s be cautious with people who are older and have co-morbidities. And for people who are younger, if you get the virus, stay calm. Because for you, the chance of it being more grave is practically zero.”

But data scientists say the situation in Brazil is much more complicated. Among the young, Brazil has a significantly higher mortality rate than those of its developed peers. In Rio de Janeiro state, more than two-thirds of hospitalizations are of people younger than 50.

U.S. Ambassador Todd Chapman, who hosted Bolsonaro at the July 4 barbecue, has tested negative for the virus and is now in quarantine at home, the embassy tweeted Tuesday. Images on social media showed Bolsonaro and Chapman arm in arm at the event, without masks.

Other embassy officials who might have been exposed are being tested. The embassy did not immediately respond to questions about policies on masks. The State Department says its employees should wear masks when social distancing isn’t possible. A department spokesperson said Chapman was “taking appropriate precautions,” and all embassy staff must follow the protocols of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bolsonaro, once a fringe lawmaker, won the presidency in 2018 on a populist message of cracking down on crime and corruption. But he has lost significant political support since the start of the outbreak here. Former allies have turned against him, his middle class base is expressing increasing disapproval, and some of the most powerful voices in the country have called for his resignation or impeachment.

Adding to the uncertainty has been the persistent guessing game of whether Bolsonaro had the coronavirus. In March, his communication secretary tested positive after President Trump hosted Bolsonaro, the secretary and others at a dinner at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. It sparked intense speculation — and widely shared but inaccurate news accounts — that Bolsonaro had contracted the virus.

Even after Bolsonaro said he had tested negative — twice — skepticism persisted. More than a dozen members of his presidential entourage had tested positive for the virus. He refused to release his test results until he was ordered to do so by a court.

Late last month, he again wondered aloud whether he did have the coronavirus and said he intended to take another test.

He has meanwhile urged Brazilians to disobey local orders to close businesses and isolate themselves. He is on his third health minister since the start of the pandemic. He fired the first after they clashed over the need for social isolation. He pushed out the second after he disagreed with Bolsonaro over liberally using hydroxychloroquine.

As his next health minister, Bolsonaro installed a military man who is not a doctor.

Without a coordinated federal strategy, the country has drifted. Governors and mayors have been left to make decisions on their own, often in conflict with Bolsonaro’s desire to keep the economy open. Responses did not vary only among states and cities, but neighborhood by neighborhood. The disorganization has abetted widespread contamination and left many Brazilians unsure of which officials to trust.

In recent weeks, cities have started to reopen. Scientists now fear cases in the coming weeks will surge as bars, restaurants and other meeting places fill up again.

Carol Morello contributed to this report.