Brazil’s health minister has publicly defied President Jair Bolsonaro over coronavirus, accusing him of sowing doubt in Brazilian minds over the need for physical distancing.
In a Sunday night interview with Brazil’s most-watched television network, Luiz Henrique Mandetta signalled that Bolsonaro’s insistence on snubbing health ministry distancing recommendations was confusing the country’s 210 million citizens.
“They don’t know whether to listen to the health minister or to the president,” Mandetta said. He urged Bolsonaro’s administration to present “a single, united line” on how to tackle the pandemic.
In a clear dig at Bolsonaro’s repeated defiance of distancing guidelines, Mandetta said: “When you see people going into bakeries, to supermarkets … this is clearly something that is wrong.”
“No one will hinder my right to come and go,” Bolsonaro vowed at a pharmacy on Friday.
During Mandetta’s interview – which Bolsonaro reportedly took badly – he also appeared to liken his boss’s aversion to distancing to the behaviour of an uncooperative diabetic who refused to follow doctor’s orders not to eat sweets.
“We can say to them: ‘This is going to cause you problems, your kidneys will fail, you might suffer vision loss, or have your leg amputated’,” the health minister said. But some would insist on eating sweets.
Others have harsher words for Bolsonaro, who experts fear is hastening Brazil’s march towards a healthcare calamity.
On Saturday, Merval Pereira, a prominent political commentator, accused the president of behaving like “a mystical leader leading his followers to collective suicide”.
Bolsonaro, who claims to be defending Brazil’s economy, has championed what he calls “vertical isolation” – the domestic shielding of only the elderly and at-risk groups.
Within Brazil’s medical community, that suggestion has been opposed as ineffectual and misguided.
“It doesn’t make much sense to me. To me it is like a swimming pool with four people in it – and only two of those people are allowed to urinate,” said Ricardo Sobhie Diaz, an infectious diseases specialist from São Paulo’s Federal University.
On Sunday, as Brazil’s recorded 99 new Covid-19 deaths, taking the death toll to 1,223, Bolsonaro falsely claimed “this matter of the virus appears to be going away”.
Mandetta warned “very tough days” lay ahead, with May and June likely to be critical months.