Bolsonaro's COVID-19 diagnosis brings new uncertainty to Brazil

Bolsonaro's COVID-19 diagnosis brings new uncertainty to Brazil

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's announcement Tuesday that he tested positive for COVID-19 raised further doubts about the South American giant's ability to cope with the pandemic as the country grapples with a rising death toll.

Bolsonaro, one of the world's most prominent coronavirus deniers, became symptomatic after attending a Fourth of July lunch at U.S. Ambassador Todd Chapman's residence on Saturday.

Chapman tested negative for the disease and is in quarantine, according to the embassy.

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Bolsonaro, who was pictured at the lunch with Chapman and Foreign Minister Nestor Araújo without face masks, received a COVID-19 test and a lung scan Monday.

The diagnosis comes after the 65-year-old Bolsonaro spent a month in the hospital during his presidential campaign in 2018 after an assailant stabbed him, injuring his intestine, liver and lung.

On Tuesday, the Brazilian president was his usual self as he personally announced the test's positive results.

"I've come back from the hospital now, I've done a lung screening, my lung is clean, OK? I went to do a COVID exam a while ago, but everything is okay," Bolsonaro told supporters outside the presidential palace in Brasilia.

He later removed his mask while speaking to reporters about his diagnosis.

“Let’s be cautious with people who are older and have comorbidities. 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,” Bolsonaro told reporters.

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Bolsonaro's continued minimization of the disease signals business as usual for a country with more than 1.6 million confirmed cases and more than 66,000 deaths.

"Assuming the president makes a recovery, there will be no change in his management of the national epidemic which has been to stand out of the way … and let state governors and local officials take measures affecting their localities," said Robert Wood, principal economist for Latin America and the Caribbean at The Economist Intelligence Unit.

Bolsonaro, who initially dismissed the danger of COVID-19 entirely, said he is taking hydroxychloroquine as a treatment.

Hydroxychloroquine, a malaria treatment with serious side effects, has been touted by President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrat calls on White House to withdraw ambassador to Belarus nominee TikTok collected data from mobile devices to track Android users: report Peterson wins Minnesota House primary in crucial swing district MORE as a treatment for COVID-19. At least one study has shown its potential effectiveness, although the medical community has been near-unanimous in stating it’s not a proven treatment for coronavirus and could be dangerous.

"From a local political perspective this non-leadership approach has so far led to little negative political costs for Mr. Bolsonaro and so he is unlikely to change anything. Assuming he recovers, he will continue touting hydroxychloroquine as a remedy, since he has begun to take it," said Wood.

Even before his diagnosis, Bolsonaro had toned down his public appearances and sometimes-outrageous statements as the disease spread through Brazil.

A poll in May showed Bolsonaro's approval ratings fall below 40 percent at a time when 11,000 Brazilians had succumbed to the disease.

Still, the populist president's political base remains supportive of him.

A poll in late June showed 32 percent of Brazilians believe the government has done a good or very good job — a number that has remained constant throughout the crisis.

The strong base support could help Bolsonaro fend off political attacks in a country that has not been coy in prosecuting its political leaders. Of his three immediate predecessors, two have spent time in jail post-presidency and the other was impeached and removed.

And Bolsonaro's health is a concern given both his age and the 2018 attack, despite the president's claim that his "history as an athlete" would prevent him from becoming seriously ill. Tuesday’s diagnosis has raised questions about the country’s future should Bolsonaro’s condition deteriorate.

"If he unexpectedly does not make a recovery, then power would pass to the vice-president, Hamilton Mourão, a retired general," said Wood.

Mourão's profile could ease relations with state and local governments, according to Wood.

"However, a political transition of this nature would cause a fight for power between the different factions in Bolsonaro's administration — right-wing ideologues, retired military officials, centrist figures gaining greater influence recently in his cabinet and free-market thinkers. This would create considerable political uncertainty in the short term," added Wood.