Brazil's Bolsonaro flouts coronavirus social distancing rules, coughs during speech at pro-military protest

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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro broke his own health ministry’s social distancing recommendations amid the coronavirus pandemic Sunday by going out in public to support a small protest demanding the country close its democratic institutions and return to a military dictatorship.

Bolsonaro, a former army captain, coughed repeatedly as he stood on top of a truck and delivered a speech to a small crowd gathered outside the army headquarters in the capital city of Brasilia. Dozens of tightly packed protesters, many of whom were not wearing masks, called for Brazil’s Supreme Court and Congress to be shut down.

“I am here because I believe in you. You are here because you believe in Brazil,” Bolsonaro said in between coughs. “The era of roguery is over. Now it’s the people who are in power. Everyone in Brazil must understand that they must yield to the will of the Brazilian people.”

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Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro speaks to supporters during a protest in front the army's headquarters during the Army day, amid the new coronavirus pandemic, in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, April 19, 2020. Bolsonaro came out in support of a small protest Sunday that defended military intervention, infringing his own ministry's recommendations to maintain social distancing and prompting fierce critics. 

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro speaks to supporters during a protest in front the army's headquarters during the Army day, amid the new coronavirus pandemic, in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, April 19, 2020. Bolsonaro came out in support of a small protest Sunday that defended military intervention, infringing his own ministry's recommendations to maintain social distancing and prompting fierce critics. 

His remarks sparked outrage from lawmakers, and even former Brazilian presidents, who argued Bolsonaro promoted a military coup resembling that of 1969, which launched a 21-year dictatorship in the South American nation before democratic institutions were introduced.

Others condemned Bolsonaro for once again flouting social distancing amid the pandemic. After arguing Brazil’s economy and jobs must return to normal last week, Bolsonaro fired his popular health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who disagreed with his response to the novel virus.

Rodrigo Maia, the leader of Brazil’s lower house, said the country was both fighting the coronavirus and “and the virus of authoritarianism," according to The Guardian.

“In total, 2,462 deaths have been recorded in Brazil. Preaching a democratic rupture in the face of these deaths represents an unforgivable cruelty to the families of victims,” Maia tweeted. “We don’t have time to waste with coup-mongering bombast.”

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro appears at a protest asking for military intervention in front the army's headquarters during the new coronavirus pandemic, in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, April 19, 2020. 

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro appears at a protest asking for military intervention in front the army's headquarters during the new coronavirus pandemic, in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, April 19, 2020. 

Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who served from 1995 until 2003, tweeted that it was “Deplorable for the president to join anti-democratic protests. It’s time to unite around the constitution against all threats to democracy.”

“The same constitution that allows a president to be democratically elected also contains devices to stop them leading the country to the destruction of democracy and a genocide of the population,” said former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who served from 2003 until 2010, said.

Meanwhile, nearly two dozen people in Bolsonaro’s circle, including his U.S. ambassador, chief foreign policy adviser, and communications chief, have contracted the novel virus. All were members of a delegation that traveled to Mar-a-Lago for a dinner on March 7 – prompting fears President Trump or Vice President Mike Pence had been exposed to the virus.

HUNDREDS OF BRAZILIANS HIT THE STREETS TO PROTEST CORONAVIRUS STAY-AT-HOME ORDERS 

Bolsonaro himself denied reports he tested positive for the coronavirus but has refused to publish his medical test results. He had rejected health official’s advice to self-quarantine after his trip to Florida — and instead shook hands and took selfies with crowds of supporters at various events.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Bolsonaro said he supported the Constitution. On Saturday, hundreds of people denouncing pandemic restriction measures opposed by Bolsonaro snarled traffic in major Brazilian cities.

The health care system in Manaus, which is Brazil’s largest city in the Amazon rainforest, was already strained before the coronavirus crisis. It is now buckling under the current onslaught of coronavirus patients.

Ventilators are in critically short supply, doctors bemoan a lack of protective gear, and gravediggers increasingly have their hands full.

Amazonas state had more than 2,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Sunday, the vast majority in Manaus — the only city in the state with intensive care units. The city of 2.2 million has one of the highest rates of infection in Brazil, where more than 38,600 cases have been confirmed, though experts say the total greatly under-represents the true number of infections.

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Manaus could provide a grim glimpse of what lies ahead for Brazil, particularly as Bolsonaro flouts stay-at-home orders issued by governors in several states, and instead hosts public rallies across the country, referring to COVID-19 as just a “little flu,” and calling for confining only “high-risk” Brazilians because broader restrictions would cause too much economic damage.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.