May 8, 2020 / 11:50 PM / 23 days ago

UPDATE 1-Biggest threat to Brazil coronavirus response? President Bolsonaro, says The Lancet

(Adds comments from Bolsonaro, updates death toll)

By Jamie McGeever and Stephen Eisenhammer

BRASILIA, May 8 (Reuters) - The biggest threat to Brazil’s ability to successfully combat the spread of the coronavirus and tackle the unfolding public health crisis is the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, according to British medical journal The Lancet.

In an editorial, the Lancet said his disregard for and flouting of lockdown measures is sowing confusion across Brazil, which reported a record number of COVID-19 deaths on Friday, and is fast emerging as one of the world’s coronavirus hot spots.

Brazil’s Health Ministry on Friday registered 10,222 new confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and 751 related deaths. That brought the total of confirmed cases in Brazil to 145,328 and deaths to 9,897, the most deadly outbreak in an emerging market nation.

Bolsonaro, a former army captain, is becoming increasingly hamstrung by political crisis following his recent sacking of popular Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta and the resignation of Justice Minister Sergio Moro, The Lancet said.

“The challenge is ultimately political, requiring continuous engagement by Brazilian society as a whole. Brazil as a country must come together to give a clear answer to the ‘So what?’ by its President. He needs to drastically change course or must be the next to go,” the editorial said.

In response to a journalist’s question last week about the record number of deaths from coronavirus, Bolsonaro said “So what? I’m sorry, but what do you want me to do?”

Bolsonaro’s press office declined to comment on the Lancet editorial. On Friday, the president said he planned to have 30 friends over to the presidential palace for a barbecue. Later in the day, he joked that he may extend the invitation to thousands more, including political supporters and members of the press.

A report by Imperial College London published on Friday showed that “the epidemic is not yet controlled and will continue to grow” in Brazil, in stark contrast to parts of Europe and Asia, where enforced lockdowns have had success.

“While the Brazilian epidemic is still relatively nascent on a national scale, our results suggest that further action is needed to limit spread and prevent health system overload,” the Imperial College report said.

In its editorial, The Lancet noted challenges Brazil faces. About 13 million Brazilians live in shanty town ‘favelas,’ where hygiene recommendations and physical distancing are near impossible to follow.

The country’s indigenous population was also under “severe threat” even before the COVID-19 outbreak due to the government turning a blind eye to or even encouraging illegal mining and logging in the Amazon rainforest.

“These loggers and miners now risk bringing COVID-19 to remote populations,” it said.

Most of Brazil’s 27 state and district governments are taking the threat of the virus more seriously than Bolsonaro.

On Friday, the government of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous state, extended mandatory quarantine orders through to May 31. They had been schedule to expire on May 11. (Reporting by Jamie McGeever and Stephen Eisenhammer; Additional reporting and writing by Gram Slattery; editing by Bill Berkrot and Sonya Hepinstall)

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