RIO DE JANEIRO — President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who has railed against social distancing measures and repeatedly downplayed the threat of the coronavirus as the epidemic in his country became the second-worst in the world, said Tuesday that he, too, has been infected.
Critics at home and abroad have called Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic cavalier and reckless, allowing the virus to surge across Brazil, Latin America’s largest nation. At one point he dismissed it as “a measly cold,” and when asked in late April about the rising death toll, he replied: “So what? Sorry, but what do you want me to do?”
As the caseload has skyrocketed, Bolsonaro has shunned masks, attended mass rallies of his supporters, insisted that the virus poses no threat to healthy people, championed unproven remedies, and shuffled through health ministers who disagreed with him.
Brazil now has more than 1.6 million confirmed cases and more than 65,000 deaths — more than any country except the United States.
Bolsonaro fell ill two days after he and a handful of his ministers attended a Fourth of July luncheon at the residence of Todd Chapman, the US ambassador in Brazil. Bolsonaro and other attendees sat shoulder-to-shoulder, embracing with no masks.
Speaking to journalists outside the presidential palace in Brasília shortly after noon Tuesday, Bolsonaro said he had taken a test Monday after experiencing fatigue, muscle pain, and a fever.
He said he was feeling “very well,” which he credited to having taken hydroxychloroquine, an antimalaria drug he has endorsed but which studies show does not ward off the virus. COVID-19 cases that become serious often take a turn for the worse about a week after symptoms emerge.
Bolsonaro did not express contrition for his handling of the pandemic and doubled down on his assertion that the virus poses little risk to healthy people.
He characterized the diagnosis as a predictable outcome of a leadership style that requires him to be among the people.
“I am the president; I have to be on the front lines of the fight,” he said, comparing the virus to “rain, which is going to get to you.”
As the country’s coronavirus caseload ballooned, Bolsonaro fired his first health minister in April over disagreements about the response to the virus and drove his second one to quit less than a month into the job.
Since mid-May, an active-duty army general with no experience in health care has headed the ministry, which has been faulted for failing to mount a robust testing and contact tracing strategy.