Brazil's Government Officials Send Mixed Signals On COVID-19 Crisis

May 19, 2020
Originally published on May 19, 2020 7:13 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Brazil is becoming the world's latest coronavirus hot spot. It is now No. 3 in the world, with more confirmed COVID-19 cases than any other country except for two. The United States is the world leader in coronavirus cases, followed by Russia. In Brazil's largest city, Sao Paulo, the mayor is warning the health care system is near collapse. He and other officials are begging people to stay inside, even though the president, Jair Bolsonaro, is urging just the opposite. NPR's Philip Reeves is in Rio de Janeiro. Hi there, Phil.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: What's the situation in Sao Paulo?

REEVES: Well, it's pretty serious. The state's been scrambling to set up field hospitals and adding intensive care beds and buying respirators. It's got nearly 5,000 registered deaths and more than 60,000 recorded cases. There's been a sharp rise in the coastal areas and out in the interior of the state. And, you know, they're struggling to cope. In the greater Sao Paulo metropolitan area, almost 90% of intensive care beds are already occupied.

And as you mentioned, the mayor of Sao Paulo is warning that the health system could collapse completely in two weeks if people don't start taking social isolation more seriously. Every day, he and the state government go on the media to urge people to stay at home.

INSKEEP: So Sao Paulo, a giant city, even bigger than New York, facing the kind of calamity that New York faced. And what is the president of Brazil saying?

REEVES: Well, there is an open conflict between the state and particularly its governor, Joao Doria, and Bolsonaro over this, and it's getting more acrimonious by the day. Bolsonaro opposes social isolation. Brazil's heading for a very severe recession. He wants the economy to open up now, yet we're in the middle of a worsening pandemic. He doesn't even have a health minister right now. The last one resigned last week after less than a month in the job. The one before that was fired by Bolsonaro. Both those previous health ministers favored social isolation measures.

But Bolsonaro is against them, and he's also treating social distancing with contempt. He encourages crowds of his supporters to gather outside the presidential palace. He goes out to greet them. He did this Sunday and wound up doing pushups with some guys dressed in military uniforms, trying to project the myth, I think, that, you know, if you're a fit, tough Brazilian, this virus - a little flu, as Bolsonaro has called it - won't hurt you, as it only impacts the old or people with preexisting medical conditions.

INSKEEP: OK. When President Trump has said some things dismissing the social isolation or keeping it in place so long, it was pointed out that state governors made the decision in the U.S. What about in Brazil when there's a conflict between state and national authority?

REEVES: Well, it's the same. The Supreme Court's actually put the management of the pandemic into the hands, in many ways, of the governors and the mayors. And in some areas, in the north and northeast, where health systems are already overwhelmed, they have lockdowns. But in much of the country, the governors are urging people to stay inside but not enforcing this very strongly. So a lot of people are still going out. A lot of areas have shops that are still open.

In Sao Paulo, for example, they've only managed to reduce numbers on the streets by about 50%. The governor says that's not enough, and he's considering imposing a much stricter lockdown. And if that happens, the conflict between the state and Bolsonaro would sharply escalate.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves. Thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.