RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro said Tuesday he has tested positive for the new coronavirus after months of downplaying its severity while deaths mounted rapidly inside the country.
The 65-year-old right-wing populist who has been known to mingle in crowds without covering his face confirmed the results while wearing a mask and speaking to reporters huddled close in front of him in the capital, Brasilia.
He said he is taking hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug that he, like President Donald Trump, has been promoting even though it has not been proven effective against COVID-19.
“I'm, well, normal. I even want to take a walk around here, but I can't due to medical recommendations,” Bolsonaro said. “I thought I had it before, given my very dynamic activity. I’m president and on the combat lines. I like to be in the middle of the people.”
Brazil, the world's sixth-biggest nation, with more than 210 million people, is one of the outbreak's most lethal hot spots. More than 65,000 Brazilians have died from COVID-19, and over 1.5 million have been infected.
Both numbers are the world’s second-highest totals, behind those of the U.S., though the true figures are believed to be higher because of a lack of widespread testing. On Tuesday alone, 1,254 deaths were confirmed.
Other world leaders who have had bouts with COVID-19 include British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Britain's Prince Charles, Prince Albert II of Monaco and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández.
Bolsonaro is “the democratic leader who has most denied the seriousness of this pandemic,” said Maurício Santoro, a political science professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. "Him getting infected is a blow to his credibility. It will be seen as another example of the failure of his coronavirus response.”
Bolsonaro has often appeared in public to shake hands with supporters and mingle with crowds, at times without a mask. He has said that his history as an athlete would protect him from the virus and that it would be nothing more than a “little flu” if he were to contract it.
He has also repeatedly said that there is no way to prevent 70% of the population falling ill with COVID-19 and that local authorities' efforts to shut down economic activity would ultimately cause more hardship than allowing the virus to run its course.
For nearly two months, Brazil’s fight against COVID-19 has been in the hands of an interim health minister with no health experience before April. He took over after his predecessor, a doctor and health care consultant, quit in protest over Bolsonaro’s support for hydroxychloroquine.
Bolsonaro on Tuesday likened the virus to a rain that will fall on most people and said that some, like the elderly, must take greater care.
"You can't just talk about the consequences of the virus that you have to worry about. Life goes on. Brazil needs to produce. You need to get the economy in gear,″ he said.
Brazilian cities and states last month began lifting restrictions that had been imposed to control the spread of the virus, as deaths began to decline along with the caseload in intensive care units.
Bolsonaro supporter Silas Ribeiro said on the streets of Rio that the president is correct in saying the dangers of the virus have been exaggerated.
“Our president is a popular man. He is showing that he isn’t afraid to die,” said Ribeiro, 59. “He is going to have health and get through this sickness.”
Speaking near recently reopened shops in Rio, Wesley Morielo said he hopes Bolsonaro's sickness prompts him to reassess his stance.
"I think everything he said before, of not giving importance to COVID-19, came back against him,″ said Morielo, a 24-year-old student.
The World Health Organization’s emergencies chief, Dr. Michael Ryan, wished Bolsonaro a speedy recovery and said his infection “brings home the reality of this virus" by showing that it doesn't distinguish between “prince or pauper.”
The president told reporters he underwent a lung X-ray on Monday after experiencing fever, muscle aches and malaise. As of Tuesday, his fever had subsided, he said, and he attributed the improvement to hydroxychloroquine.
He stepped back from the journalists and removed his mask at one point to show that he looks well.
Brazil’s benchmark Ibovespa stock index fell after Bolsonaro's announcement, and closed 1.2% down on the day.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly visited the hospital since taking office, requiring several operations to repair his intestines after he was stabbed on the campaign trail in 2018.
He said on Tuesday that he canceled a trip this week to the country's northeast region and will continue working via videoconference and receive rare visitors when he needs to sign a document.
Unlike Britain's prime minister, who moderated his rhetoric after testing positive for the virus, Bolsonaro will probably not change his stance, said Leandro Consentino, a political science professor at Insper, a university in Sao Paulo.
“He's going down a path of trying to indicate to his base of support that COVID-19 is just a little flu and take advantage of the illness to advertise for chloroquine,” Consentino said.
On Tuesday afternoon, Bolsonaro posted a video to Facebook of him taking his dose of hydroxychloroquine. “I trust hydroxychloroquine. What do you think?” he said while laughing.
Over the weekend, the Brazilian leader celebrated American Independence Day with the U.S. ambassador to Brazil, then shared pictures on social media showing him in close quarters with the diplomat, several ministers and aides. None wore masks.
The U.S. Embassy said on Twitter that Ambassador Todd Chapman is not showing any symptoms but would be tested.
Bolsonaro tested negative three times in March after meeting with the Trump in Florida. Members of his delegation to the U.S. were later reported to be infected.
AP video producer Diarlei Rodrigues contributed to this report from Rio.