BRASILIA (Reuters) – Wearing a face mask, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro posed for photographs with kids plucked out of a crowd of supporters on Sunday, disregarding public health advice aimed at containing one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks.
Bolsonaro’s latest flouting of social distancing guidelines comes after he lost two health ministers in a month, both of whom resisted his fight against quarantines. Brazil’s confirmed cases of the virus passed Spain and Italy on Saturday, making it the world’s fourth-largest outbreak.
In an online video, Bolsonaro said he welcomed the demonstration at the presidential palace in what has become a nearly biweekly affair, with the president and supporters defying quarantines that have the support of most Brazilians.
“Above all (the people) want freedom, they want democracy, they want respect,” he said, adding that Brazilians want to get the economy back up and running as quickly as possible.
A poll this week showed two-thirds of Brazilians agree with the need for social distancing to contain the outbreak, which governors and health experts recommend, while Bolsonaro tries to open gyms, hair salons and other businesses.
On Friday, former health minister Nelson Teich resigned as he and the president showed themselves increasingly out of step, with Bolsonaro calling for a rollback of state quarantines and widespread use of unproven drugs, such as chloroquine to fight the virus.
“Chlo-ro-quine! Chlo-ro-quine!” chanted Bolsonaro’s supporters outside the presidential palace in Sunday, as well as “We want to work!”
Banging drums, blowing horns and letting off fireworks, the crowd created a carnival atmosphere.
Wearing a white face mask and flanked by ministers, security and friends, including a child at his side dressed head to toe in army fatigues, Bolsonaro approached his fans, waving, smiling and giving them thumbs up.
He mingled with the crowd less than he has during other recent demonstrations, but he did pose for photographs with at least three young children.
Vice President Hamilton Mourao, who went into isolation after the diagnosis of a public servant near him last week, has tested negative for coronavirus, his office said in a statement on Sunday.
Nationwide testing in Brazil still lags far behind European nations. Brazil had processed nearly 338,000 novel coronavirus tests in official labs by the beginning of the week, according to the Health Ministry. Another 145,000 tests were under analysis or waiting in line.
By contrast, Italy and Spain have each run some 1.9 million official diagnostic tests for the virus.
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