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Brazil’s people fear a COVID-19 threat their president denies

How does a country mobilize to fight COVID-19 when its own president says the virus isn’t a serious matter? Brazil is in the process of finding out, as President Jair Bolsonaro prioritizes Latin America’s largest economy in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    How does a country fight COVID-19 when its own president says it's not a serious matter?

    Intensive care beds in the capital are almost out. Health care systems in multiple states are overwhelmed. And Brazil now has 40,000 COVID-19 cases, the highest number in Latin America.

    But president Jair Bolsonaro prioritizes Latin America's largest economy, in the face of the pandemic.

    Nick Schifrin reports.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This weekend, the head of Brazil's government led a protest against his own government. President Jair Bolsonaro rallied supporters, practicing no social distancing, and invoked Brazil's past military dictatorship to disparage the government's COVID-19 restrictions.

  • President Jair Bolsonaro (through translator):

    I'm sure that all of us will one day swear to give our lives for our country, and we will do whatever is possible to change the destiny of Brazil. Enough of the old policy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Bolsonaro has repeatedly called COVID-19 a little flu. His rhetoric has been as dismissive as his actions.

  • President Jair Bolsonaro (through translator):

    Given my athletic history, if I was to be infected, it wouldn't necessarily concern me. I wouldn't feel anything, other than at most a little cold.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Echoing President Trump, he criticized governors who ordered lockdowns, including of Rio's famous beaches.

    But many Brazilians think there's something rotten in Rio, and have spent their evenings protesting Bolsonaro.

  • Ivan Franca Jr.:

    We are in a dark situation. We don't have a clue of how many affected people we have in Brazil.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ivan Franca Jr. is an epidemiologist at the University of Sao Paulo. He says the official death toll is a vast underreporting.

  • Ivan Franca Jr.:

    The federal governments have been very slow to buy and to distribute new coronavirus test.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Brazil has several communities at particular risk. Social distancing is impossible in the sprawling low-income neighborhoods known as favelas.

    There are six confirmed cases in Paraisopolis, with a population of 120,000. A former soccer star hired round-the-clock medical service, the favela's only health care, says ambulance company owner Diego Cabral.

  • Diego Cabral (through translator):

    Due to the deficiencies of the public system, the overload of the public health system was directed all towards us.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And Brazil has 305 indigenous tribes, whom Bolsonaro has disparaged with racist language, and opened their land to commercial mining. Now indigenous leaders say Bolsonaro's policies make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

  • Tehe Pataxo (through translator):

    Our soil is contaminated. We can't farm. We're here fearing that our people will die of hunger, and we don't know how long the coronavirus will last.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Earlier this month, Bolsonaro flaunted his own government's social distancing orders. Those orders were implemented by Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who criticized Bolsonaro.

  • Luiz Henrique Mandetta (through translator):

    When you see people entering a bakery, entering a supermarket, lining up one after another, leaning against each other, this is clearly the wrong thing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Four days later, Mandetta fired him. And when Bolsonaro announced a new health minister, he emphasized the economy.

  • President Jair Bolsonaro (through translator):

    Life has no price, but the economy, the employment has to go back to normal.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Unemployment is growing, leading to growing crowds at vendors who give away unsold food.

  • Man (through translator):

    I have four children, and I have to go out and find food. The government doesn't give us a solution, and the people suffer.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Every day in Rio, firefighter Elielson Silva climbs his ladder to serenade the city. He plays elegies for a time before corona, a time before the government's disdain for its own policies threatened its citizens' lives.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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