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Coronavirus: Revolt in Brazil as governors defy Bolsonaro’s call to lift lockdowns

Brazil’s president said his view on reopening the country was similar to that of US president Donald Trump.

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Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue is lit up with the flags of coronavirus-afflicted countries (Silvia Izquierdo/AP)

Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue is lit up with the flags of coronavirus-afflicted countries (Silvia Izquierdo/AP)

Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue is lit up with the flags of coronavirus-afflicted countries (Silvia Izquierdo/AP)

Brazil’s state governors are defying President Jair Bolsonaro over his call to reopen schools and businesses, dismissing his argument that the “cure” of widespread shutdowns to contain the coronavirus is worse than the disease.

Mr Bolsonaro contends the clampdown already ordered by many governors will deeply wound the already beleaguered economy and spark social unrest.

In a nationally televised address on Tuesday night, he urged governors to limit isolation only to high-risk people and to lift the strict anti-virus measures they have imposed in their regions.

“What needs to be done? Put the people to work. Preserve the elderly, preserve those who have health problems. But nothing more than that,” said Mr Bolsonaro, who in the past has sparked anger by calling the virus a “little flu”.

Jair Bolsonaro
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro puts on a mask during a press conference on Wednesday (Andre Borges/AP)

Mr Bolsonaro told reporters in the capital, Brasilia, on Wednesday that he had listened to his US counterpart, Donald Trump, and found their perspectives to be similar.

The country’s governors protested that his instructions ran counter to health experts’ recommendations and endangered Latin America’s largest population.

They said they would continue with their strict measures. The rebellion even included traditional allies of Brazil’s far-right president.

Governor Carlos Moisés of Santa Catarina state, which gave almost 80% of its votes to Bolsonaro in the 2018 presidential election, complained he was “blown away” by the president’s instructions.

Mr Moisés said he would insist that all residents stay home during the pandemic despite the president’s stand.

Virus Outbreak Brazil
A volunteer gives away soap in an effort to avoid the spread of the coronavirus in one of Rio’s favelas, or slums, areas at great risk from the coronavirus (Leo Correa/AP)

In a videoconference earlier in the day between Mr Bolsonaro and governors from Brazil’s southeast region, Sao Paulo governor João Doria threatened to sue the federal government if it tried to interfere with his efforts to combat the virus, according to video of their private meeting reviewed by The Associated Press.

“We are here, the four governors of the southeast region, in respect for Brazil and Brazilians and in respect for dialogue and understanding,” said Mr Doria, who supported Mr Bolsonaro’s 2018 presidential bid. “But you are the president and you have to set the example. You have to be the representative to command, guide and lead this country, not divide it.”

Mr Bolsonaro responded by accusing Doria of riding his coattails to the governorship, then turning his back.

“If you don’t get in the way, Brazil will take off and emerge from the crisis. Stop campaigning,” the president said.

The governors weren’t the only defiant ones. Virus plans challenged by Mr Bolsonaro were upheld by the Supreme Court. The heads of both congressional houses criticised his televised speech. Companies donated supplies to state anti-virus efforts.

A deserted Sao Paolo Street
An aerial view of the almost empty Paulista Avenue, one of Sao Paulo’s most important financial centres, amid the country’s lockdown on Tuesday (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Mr Bolsonaro has found some support among his base — #BolsonaroIsRight trended atop Brazilian Twitter on Wednesday — though that backing has been countered by a week of nightly protests from many Brazilians respecting the self-isolation rules, who lean from their windows to bang pots and pans.

As of Wednesday, Brazil had about 2,400 confirmed cases and 57 deaths related to the outbreak. Experts say the figures could soar in April, potentially causing a collapse of the country’s health care system.

There is particular concern the virus’ potential damage in the ultra-dense, low-income neighborhoods known as favelas.

Bolsonaro’s administration has also faced criticism from economists, including Armínio Fraga, a former central bank governor, and Claudio Ferraz, a professor at Rio de Janeiro’s Pontifical Catholic University.

“Brazil is seeing something unique, an insurrection of governors,” Mr Ferraz wrote on Twitter.

“This will become a new topic in political science: checks and balances by governors in a Federal System.”

PA