(Bloomberg) -- Brazil’s state governors continue to defy President Jair Bolsonaro’s call for the country to resume normal routines and safeguard the economy by doubling down on the social distancing measures they imposed to battle the coronavirus outbreak.
The clash between states and the federal government started Tuesday night when Bolsonaro lashed out at the governors during a nationally televised speech, describing their decision to shut down shops and schools as a “scorched-earth policy” aimed at the next presidential election. The situation quickly deteriorated Wednesday when they met for a video conference call that saw barbs exchanged and no consensus reached.
“We can resurrect the economy, but to resurrect those who have already died is impossible,” Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel said after the meeting, repeating his call for people to “stay home.”
Underscoring the gravity of the situation, 26 of the country’s 27 governors met again later Wednesday, without the president, to discuss their joint strategy for addressing the crisis. When the meeting broke up, the governors issued a statement calling upon the president to suspend state debts to the federal government for 12 months and adopt a basic minimum income for the nation’s poor while reaffirming their commitment to maintaining the polciy of social distancing.
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”We will continue to adopt measures based on what science says, following the guidance of health professionals and, above all, the protocols guided by the WHO,” the governors said in their statement.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro said he would ask his health minister to change quarantine recommendations, ensuring they only apply to the elderly and those who are more at risk from a coronavirus infection.
“There’s no other way,” the president told reporters, forecasting job losses and economic catastrophe if the restrictions continue for too long. “People should go back to work and the elderly should be spared.”
Bolsonaro is embarking on a high-stakes gamble to avoid a looming recession that would be very painful for Brazilians still reeling from a previous economic crisis just three years ago. His strategy risks straining the country’s health system, which is underfunded and ill-equipped to handle the potential influx of sick people if coronavirus spreads too quickly. Yet he is not alone in prioritizing the economy: Donald Trump is pushing to reopen the U.S. economy by Easter, even as the number of cases of Covid-19 in the country soars.
The president’s stance is also sending confusing signals to the country of some 210 million, and debate is raging across social media on whether people should stay home or keep the economy running. After endorsing social distancing measures, Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta struck a more balanced tone, saying quarantine “is a very bitter medicine” that’s being imposed in a “messy and rushed fashion.” He said he wouldn’t quit the government either.
As Bolsonaro spoke Tuesday evening, Brazilians banged pots and pans from their windows in several neighborhoods of the country’s main cities, a traditional form of protest in the region which has been going on for days now as criticism of the president mounts.
So far the governors have taken the lead in imposing lockdowns aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. Sao Paulo brought in a full quarantine starting March 24 and Rio de Janeiro restricted public transportation while shutting down shopping malls and even the beach. Bolsonaro has no power to interfere with their decision unless he decrees a state of exception in the country.
As well as deploying police to enforce the measures, firefighters are joining the campaign to persuade the public to observe the guidelines, using megaphones to implore beachgoers to return home and “do your part and help control the coronavirus.”
By contrast, during his Tuesday night speech Bolsonaro said those under 40 rarely die of coronavirus and that even he, at 65, shouldn’t be worried because he was “an athlete” in the past.
Brazil had 2,433 cases identified and 57 deaths due to coronavirus as of Wednesday afternoon. Among those to test positive are Bolsonaro’s press secretary and members of the Senate.
(Updates to add governor’s meeting in fourth, fifth paragraphs)
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