March 20, 2020 / 12:34 PM / 20 days ago

Brazil calls COVID-19 state of emergency as Bolsonaro approval slips

BRASILIA/SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil declared a state of emergency on Friday, freeing up funds for the federal government to fight the coronavirus pandemic, as President Jair Bolsonaro’s popularity declined over his handling of the crisis.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro wearing a protective face mask reacts during a news conference to announce measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Brasilia, Brazil March 18, 2020. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

The Senate approved a measure letting the government waive fiscal targets this year, with senators voting remotely after two of them tested positive for the virus causing the COVID-19 respiratory disease.

Bolsonaro is wrestling to balance mounting public health concerns while shielding an economy he had vowed to revive. In comments to journalists he slammed state governors for taking “extreme measures” against the pandemic that hurt the economy.

The president said he expected June to be the most critical month for the coronavirus outbreak in Latin America’s largest country, where seven people have already died of the disease and over 600 cases have been confirmed, doubling in two days.

Brazil’s two biggest cities, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and their surrounding states have moved to slow the outbreak by restricting social gatherings in a push to empty shopping malls, beaches and public transportation.

Bolsonaro has banned entry for citizens from China and the European Union, but has held back from closing international airports as Latin American neighbors Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Venezuela have done.

The epidemic poses serious political risks for the far-right populist Bolsonaro, who has been criticized for his handling of the outbreak, which he initially labeled a “fantasy.”

Approval of Bolsonaro’s government fell to a record low this week, according to XP Investimentos poll released on Friday. Just 30% of those surveyed rated his administration “good” or “great,” compared with 36% calling it “bad” or “awful.”

A record-high 17% said his government is to blame for the current economic situation, as blame attached to the previous three administrations slowly evaporates, the poll showed.

Many Brazilians have been drumming pots and pans in their homes nightly in a traditional protest against Bolsonaro, who ignored medical advice to meet crowds of supporters on Sunday despite having several aides diagnosed with virus.

Bolsonaro, who was already struggling to resuscitate a weak economy, looked to blame state governors on Friday for the economic impact of the virus. Brazil’s currency and stock market were among the world’s biggest losers over the past two weeks.

“(Governors) are taking extreme measures that aren’t in their purview ... commerce stops and people don’t have anything to eat,” he told reporters outside his official residence, “the medicine has to be proportional (to the illness), or it kills.”

Rio Governor Wilson Witzel on Thursday said he would cancel all international flights in and out of the state, as well as domestic flights to Brazilian states with coronavirus cases.

But airlines and federal regulators said he does not have the power to do it. Infrastructure Minister Tarciso Freitas said the federal government will not close airports and bus stations.

“We can’t enter into a state of panic,” Bolsonaro said.

The president also looked to defuse a diplomatic spat with No.1 trading partner China that began when his son, lawmaker Eduardo Bolsonaro, blasted the Asian country for how it handled the initial outbreak of the virus.

“There is no problem with China,” Bolsonaro told reporters outside his official residence. He said he might reach out to China to get equipment for fighting the outbreak. “If I have to call the Chinese president, I’ll call. No problem,” he said.

The governor of Brazil’s capital district, Ibaneis Rocha, has already asked China for help.

Rocha wrote to Chinese Ambassador Yang Wanming in a letter seen by Reuters, asking for advice and equipment to fight the disease in Brasilia, where there are 84 confirmed cases.

Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu and Jamie McGeever in Brasilia, Stephen Eisenhammer and Paula Laier in Sao Paulo; Writing by Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Brad Haynes, Marguerita Choy and Diane Craft

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