Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro, who has consistently belittled the threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic while his country has soared to the world’s second-most cases and deaths, tested positive for Covid-19.
“I’m perfectly well,” Bolsonaro told journalists in a live interview on Tuesday, after announcing the result of his test. He’s taking hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria medicine that he has touted as being effective against the virus though its use hasn’t been authorized by most health experts globally and could carry dangerous side effects.
He joins other world leaders who have been contaminated by the virus, including Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, both of whom were hospitalized during the treatment.
“Everyone knew that sooner or later it would affect a good part of the population,” he said. “Life continues. But if the economy doesn’t work it will bring new forms of death and suicide.”
He told reporters his latest temperature reading was 36.7 degrees Celsius, or 98 Fahrenheit.
He asked reporters to step away and then pulled off his face mask to say, “See, I am fine. See you next week, God willing.”
Bolsonaro has refused to use a mask in public and even battled the court over an order forcing him to. During the announcement of his test results, he refrained from suggesting that Brazilians use masks, saying that any precautions should be weighed against the economic damage they might cause.
The 65-year-old president, who during his campaign to reopen the economy called the virus “just a little flu,” has repeatedly disobeyed medical recommendations to avoid contamination, mingling in crowds without a face mask and shaking hands.
Late on Monday, however, a video posted on YouTube showed a masked Bolsonaro trying not to get too close to supporters who awaited him in front of the presidential palace. He told them he was following social distancing orders from a doctor after showing symptoms of the virus, and added that an exam had shown his lungs were “clean.”
But Bolsonaro has had recent health troubles. In September 2018 while campaigning for president, he was stabbed in the abdomen, leading to multiple surgeries. For months, he relied on a feeding tube and colostomy bag. During his interview Tuesday he appeared weary with dark circles around his eyes.
Brazil has become a global hotspot for the virus, trailing only the U.S. with more than 65,000 confirmed deaths and over 1.62 million total cases. Its response has been erratic, with the president often clashing with state governors and other officials over quarantine measures and possible treatments. Brazil’s health ministry is currently headed by an army general after Bolsonaro fired his first minister and a second resigned.
The Brazilian real, which was leading gains earlier in the day, fell after the announcement, joining a slide in other emerging-market currencies. Stocks held onto losses.
Bolsonaro has downplayed the virus since Brazil confirmed its first case in late February. In a televised speech in March, he said he wasn’t worried about being infected by the illness because he was “an athlete” in the past.
“If I am infected by the virus, I wouldn’t have to worry,” Bolsonaro said at that time. “I wouldn’t feel anything. I would be affected by only a little flu.”
In April, when questioned about news that Brazil surpassed had China in terms of virus deaths, Bolsonaro replied by saying, “so what?” When asked about virus fatalities at another point in the same month, he said “I’m not a gravedigger, ok?”
Still, Bolsonaro could be seen coughing during a Thursday broadcast on his social networks, when he sat next to six other people, none of whom wore a mask. Officials who were present included Regional Development Minister Rogerio Marinho and the chief executive officer of state-owned bank Caixa Economica Federal, Pedro Guimaraes. Guimaraes was tested for the virus on Tuesday, his office said.
Since then, Bolsonaro has mingled with members of his administration and the general public, and had lunch with the U.S. ambassador to Brazil on Saturday. That day, Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo tweeted an image from the lunch showing the president with his arm around the minister and seated beside the ambassador, Todd Chapman. Both the ambassador and his wife tested negative and will remain under quarantine, the U.S. embassy said on Tuesday.
On Monday, Bolsonaro didn’t participate in a ceremony that he was supposed to host, opting instead to go to the hospital. The president later canceled most of his agenda for the rest of the week, including a scheduled trip to the state of Bahia.
It is not the first time Bolsonaro has been tested for Covid-19. In March, after multiple members of his delegation to a U.S. visit contracted the virus, he said he tested negative.
On June 25, he said during a Facebook live broadcast that he thought he had already contracted the virus.
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