Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro has launched an attack on ‘tyrant’ politicians who have imposed lockdown measures against his will amid a record surge of Covid-19 cases in the South American nation.
Speaking to supporters outside the presidential palace who brought him a cake on his 66th birthday, Bolsonaro said governors and mayors were ‘picking a fight’ as they bring in stay-at-home orders with their healthcare systems nearing collapse.
‘Some tyrants out there are trying to restrict your freedom,’ he said, after telling the crowd that ‘if anybody thinks we’re going to give up our freedom, they’re wrong’.
‘You can count on our armed forces to defend your freedom and democracy,’ he added.
Bolsonaro, who has defied social distancing advice throughout the pandemic, did wear a mask on Sunday but many of his supporters did not cover their faces.
Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro waves at supporters who gathered outside the presidential palace on Sunday to celebrate his 66th birthday
Bolsonaro has long argued that the economic damage caused by lockdowns is worse than the virus itself, which he has compared to a ‘little flu’.
The former army captain has also touted unproven remedies for the disease and has gone through four health ministers in a year during a chaotic response to the crisis.
But pressure is growing for more co-ordinated action as cases spiral out of control, partly because of the variant that was first detected in the Amazon city of Manaus.
The so-called P1 variant has caused concern because Manaus should have been close to herd immunity after a rash of infections during Brazil’s first wave last year.
Despite this, Manaus ran out of oxygen earlier this year as hospitals were overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases – suggesting that the new strain is able to evade antibodies acquired from earlier infections.
The variant is also blamed for rising infections elsewhere, with authorities saying intensive care units are more than 80 per cent full in 25 out of Brazil’s 27 states.
Hospitals are nearly saturated in key flashpoints including Brazil’s largest cities, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
With cases spiralling, Brazil has piled up a record 515,000 new infections in the last week alone, while average deaths are now above 2,000 per day.
The country’s grim totals of nearly 12million confirmed infections and 294,000 deaths are second only to the United States.
Nearly 200 economists and business leaders published an open letter on Bolsonaro’s birthday urging the government to implement a new social distancing policy.
‘The controversy around the economic impact of social distancing reflects a false dichotomy between saving lives and guaranteeing livelihoods,’ they said.
‘In reality, it is unrealistic to expect an economic recovery in the middle of a runaway epidemic,’ they added, calling the situation in Brazil ‘desolate.’
But Bolsonaro said last week he had asked Brazil’s supreme court to stop what he called ‘abuses’ by governors locking down their states against his will.
Some of Bolsonaro’s supporters – only some of them wearing masks – brought him a cake in the colours of the Brazilian flag to celebrate his birthday
A crowded Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro last month – with the city’s mayor now closing down the famous beaches for the weekend in order to ease the crisis in hospitals
Rio de Janeiro’s mayor Eduardo Paes was among those to bring in new restrictions last week as he closed the city’s famous beaches for the weekend.
Paes said the situation in Rio was ‘very critical’ as he urged residents to stay at home and also banned new arrivals by bus in a bid to slow the contagion.
‘I am calling on all Cariocas’ – the nickname for Rio residents – ‘this is the moment to stay home,’ Paes said.
Paes warned that more restrictive measures could be announced on Monday, after he meets with an expert committee advising him on the pandemic.
The city of 6.7million people had already ordered businesses to close at 9pm in another lockdown measure which took effect on March 5.
Bolsonaro is also under pressure to speed up Brazil’s lagging vaccination campaign, which is using the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot and the Chinese-made CoronaVac.
Brazil is now looking to emulate Britain by handing out as many first doses as possible after lifting requirements for local authorities to half some of their vaccine stockpiles for second doses.
‘By freeing the full stockpile of vaccines for immediate use, we will be able to double the number of doses this week,’ said outgoing health minister Eduardo Pazuello.
Pazuello is the third health minister to have headed for the exit during Brazil’s chaotic response to the pandemic.