SAO PAULO – Brazil's governors on Wednesday rebelled against President Jair Bolsonaro’s call for life to return to pre-coronavirus normalcy, saying his proposal to reopen schools and businesses runs counter to recommendations from health experts and endangers Latin America’s largest population.
State governors, many of whom have adopted strict measures to limit gatherings in their regions, defied the president's instructions in a nationwide address Tuesday evening that they lift the restrictions and limit isolation only to the elderly and those with longstanding health problems.
The governors weren't the only defiant ones. Virus plans challenged by Bolsonaro were upheld by the Supreme Court. The heads of both congressional houses criticized his televised speech. Companies donated supplies to state anti-virus efforts. And even some of his staunch supporters joined his detractors.
In a videoconference Wednesday between Bolsonaro and governors from Brazil's southeast region, Sao Paulo Gov. João Doria threatened to sue the federal government if it attempted to interfere with his efforts to combat the virus, according to video of their private meeting reviewed by The Associated Press.
“We are here, the four governors of the southeast region, in respect for Brazil and Brazilians and in respect for dialogue and understanding,” said Doria, who supported Bolsonaro's 2018 presidential bid. “But you are the president and you have to set the example. You have to be the representative to command, guide and lead this country, not divide it."
Bolsonaro responded by accusing Doria of riding his coattails to the governorship, then turning his back.
“If you don't get in the way, Brazil will take off and emerge from the crisis. Stop campaigning,” the far-right president said.
Bolsonaro argues that a shutdown of activity would deeply wound the country's already beleaguered economy and spark social unrest worse than the impact of addressing the virus with only limited isolation measures. He told reporters in the capital, Brasilia, that he has listened to his U.S. counterpart, Donald Trump, and found their perspectives to be rather similar.
“What needs to be done? Put the people to work. Preserve the elderly, preserve those who have health problems. But nothing more than that,” Bolsonaro said. “If we cower, opt for the easy discourse, everyone stays home, it will be chaos. No one will produce anything, there will be unemployment, refrigerators will go empty, no one will be able to pay bills.”
He has found some support among his base — #BolsonaroIsRight was trending atop Brazilian Twitter — but such backing has been largely drowned out in public by a week of nightly protests from many of those respecting self-isolation, who lean from their windows to bang pots and pans.
His administration has also faced criticism from economists including Armínio Fraga, a former central bank governor, and Claudio Ferraz, a professor at Rio de Janeiro’s Pontifical Catholic University.
“Brazil is seeing something unique, an insurrection of governors,” Ferraz wrote on Twitter. “This will become a new topic in political science: checks and balances by governors in a Federal System.”
Candido Bracher, president of Brazil’s largest private bank, Itaú Unibanco, criticized Bolsonaro's crisis management in an interview with the newspaper O Globo published Wednesday. His bank and companies like oil giant Petrobras, iron miner Vale and the brewery Ambev have made large donations to state governments for helping fight the outbreak.
Rio de Janeiro Gov. Wilson Witzel, another former ally of Bolsonaro, told the president in the videoconference that he won’t heed the president’s call to loosen social distancing protocols.
Last week, the governor announced he would shut down airports and interstate roads, which Bolsonaro annulled by decree contending that only the federal government can adopt such measures. By the time the president took to the airwaves Tuesday evening, a Supreme Court justice had ruled in favor of Witzel and the governors.
Two days earlier Brazil's top court issued another ruling allowing Sao Paulo state to stop repaying federal government debt amounting to $400 million so that it can beef up its health sector. The decision may set a precedent for other states.
As of Wednesday, Brazil had about 2,400 confirmed coronavirus cases and 57 deaths related to the outbreak. Experts say the figures could soar in April, potentially causing a collapse of the country's health care system. There is particular concern the virus’ potential damage in the ultra-dense, low-income neighborhoods known as favelas.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
Sao Paulo, Brazil’s economic engine, is home to the majority of the coronavirus cases. It has been under partial lockdown since Tuesday, and schools, universities and non-essential businesses have mostly been closed for more than 10 days. Rio state has adopted similar measures, including closing its beaches.
Other governors who hadn’t voiced criticism have begun doing so.
Gov. Ronaldo Caiado of Goiás state, a doctor who had been a close Bolsonaro ally, told reporters Wednesday he is redefining their relationship.
“I cannot allow the president to wash his hands and hold others responsible for coming economic collapse and loss of jobs," Caiado said. "That is not the behavior of a leader.”
Caiado joined a meeting late Wednesday of Brazil's 26 state governors to coordinate their efforts. The federal government wasn’t invited.
Santa Catarina Gov. Carlos Moisés of Santa Catarina state, which gave almost 80% of its votes to Bolsonaro in the 2018 presidential runoff election, issued a statement saying he was “blown away” by the president’s speech. Moisés said he will insist that residents stay home during the pandemic, ignoring the president’s advice.
Associated Press writer Mauricio Savarese reported this story in Sao Paulo and AP writer David Biller reported from Rio de Janeiro.