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Brazilian President Tests Positive For The Coronavirus


Brazil's president has COVID-19. Jair Bolsonaro revealed his test results live on TV.


PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Portuguese).

BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

KELLY: Since the pandemic began, Bolsonaro has downplayed the virus, even as victim numbers in Brazil went up and up. Sixty-five thousand Brazilians have now died. That is more than anywhere except here in the U.S. There are also some 1.6 million confirmed cases there, now including the president. We're joined by our South America correspondent Philip Reeves.

Hey there, Phil.


KELLY: Hi. So what a turn of events here. Besides positivo (ph), positivo, positivo, what else did Bolsonaro say in this live TV thing today?

REEVES: Oh, he had quite a lot to say. He said that he'd been feeling rough on Sunday and, you know, a little tired with muscle ache and a mild fever. So his medical team sent him to hospital for some tests last night. He got his lungs checked. They're fine, he said. And he took a coronavirus test, which, as we now know, turned out to be positive.

And since then, Bolsonaro says he's taken a couple of doses of hydroxychloroquine. You know, that's the anti-malarial drug that is also favored by Donald Trump, although its effectiveness against COVID-19 isn't decisively proven. And Bolsonaro says he's planning to carry on working, although remotely for now.

KELLY: I mean, as I said, he has downplayed this virus throughout, urging people just to, you know, carry on as you were. Is he showing any sign that he regrets the way he has been handling the pandemic?

REEVES: No, he's not. This was a pretty defensive performance from a man who's, you know, seen around much of the world as a COVID-19 denier. He touched on his, you know, main arguments - that it's all very well for governors and mayors to say everyone should stay home to save lives, but shutting down the economy costs lives, too. He said again that most Brazilians don't need to worry about this virus.

Bolsonaro has a habit of diving into crowds of supporters, often without wearing a mask, even in areas where local laws say it's mandatory to do so. He said he just likes being among people. And today, he actually did wear a mask as he made his announcement. But then he stepped back from the microphones with the mask off and told everyone he feels fine. So this was, you know, pretty much classic Bolsonaro, despite the circumstances.

KELLY: What has been the reaction today in Brazil to all this?

REEVES: Well, it's obviously very big news. Social media is buzzing. His critics see this as hubris - you know, the president who scoffed at COVID-19 and now catches it. There's discussion about who he might have infected, especially other government ministers. He met the U.S. Ambassador Todd Chapman on Saturday for a July the 4 lunch where, judging by the pictures, social distancing and mask-wearing was clearly not on the menu. The embassy says Chapman's been tested and is negative.

KELLY: I mean, I have to ask what this might do to his ability to survive politically. Brazil is the largest nation in Latin America and a nation in deep crisis. How might this imperil his political survival?

REEVES: Well, it obviously depends on what happens now. Bolsonaro is 65. He's inside that age group that's particularly at risk. But he likes to see himself as a tough army captain. Remember, he said a while back that if he got the virus, it wouldn't worry him because of his history as an athlete. It would just be like a little flu. So that's now going to be put to the test.

If he emerges unscathed, he may well say this proves he was right when he said that, you know, for everybody this - for most people, this virus is nothing to worry about. If he's very ill, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was recently, his supporters will rally around. However, things have changed, you know, in recent months. He's lost a lot of credibility. And a lot of Brazilians think he's an embarrassment to their...

KELLY: Right.

REEVES: ...Country on the world stage.

KELLY: All right. That is NPR South America correspondent Philip Reeves.

Thanks, Phil.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.