By Lisandra Paraguassu and Anthony Boadle
BRASILIA (Reuters) – Augusto Heleno, a national security advisor to Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, treated Tuesday, March 17 much like any other workday.
The 72-year-old former Army general attended cabinet meetings in the capital of Brasília, embraced colleagues and visited the cafeteria in the presidential palace, according to people familiar with his activities. But there was an unusual piece of business pending: He was awaiting the results of a coronavirus test.
The following day, the test came back positive. Heleno announced it on Twitter. “I am in isolation at home and will not take telephone calls,” he posted. He said he had no fever or symptoms.
Heleno is now one of nearly two dozen confirmed coronavirus cases that have surfaced among Brazilians who traveled to Florida earlier this month to hobnob with U.S. officials. Bolsonaro and senior aides met with U.S. President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, while a larger contingent gathered with lawmakers and business leaders at a Miami hotel and other events.
Some 22 Brazilians who made the journey have confirmed they have tested positive, through public statements or social media accounts. They include two business leaders, a senator, a congressman, two members of Bolsonaro’s cabinet, his chief bodyguard, his head of protocol and a top foreign affairs advisor.
Contagion among Brazil’s political elite, health experts said, is a warning about the country’s lack of readiness to combat the pandemic.
Sixty-five-year-old Bolsonaro, who tested negative, for weeks has described the coronavirus as “a little flu.” He recently asked Congress to declare a state of emergency to free up more funding. Still, he has resisted calling for Brazilians to stay at home and for businesses to close because of his concerns about harming the economy. And he has berated Brazilian governors and mayors who have taken such steps, even as some members of his inner circle have fallen ill.
Bolsonaro, his son Eduardo, security adviser Heleno and two other ministers dined with Trump on Saturday March 7, as cases were rising sharply in the United States. They huddled with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to take photos. One showed the U.S. president holding a cap that said “Make Brazil Great Again.”
The larger group of Brazilians attended meetings the following two days with investors, business people and public officials, including Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who announced March 13 that he had tested positive for coronavirus.
“We caught it on that trip to Miami, in close contact with one another on the same planes, shuttle buses and hotel meeting rooms,” said Brazilian Congressman Daniel Freitas, 37, who tested positive on his return. He is now in quarantine in his Brasília apartment.
Brazilian doctors have not established a definitive transmission chain and cannot say for certain whether the group was infected in the United States.
Fabio Wajngarten, Bolsonaro’s communications secretary, tested positive for coronavirus on March 12, two days after arriving home from Florida. Testing then commenced for other members of the delegation. Bolsonaro and Heleno were among those who continued to circulate in public while awaiting their results, much to the dismay of Brazil’s medical community.
“It is behavior like an ostrich that sticks its head in the sand,” said epidemiologist José Cássio de Moraes, a member of ABRASCO, Brazil’s largest association of public health experts, doctors and researchers. “It’s not acceptable in any form.”
Heleno did not respond to a request for comment. Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Brazil’s federal response to the pandemic has lagged that of other South America countries even as it leads the continent in confirmed cases of coronavirus. As of Monday, Brazil had recorded 1,891 cases, an eight-fold increase in a week, with 34 deaths tied to the virus, according to the latest Health Ministry figures.
The country trailed several of its neighbors in tightening its land borders. Bolsonaro’s administration waited until March 17 to ask Congress to declare the state of emergency. Brazil, like the United State and other late-movers, is now scrambling to produce millions of test kits.
State governors and mayors, meanwhile, have taken the lead in closing public venues and asking Brazilians to stay home. Many private-sector companies have directed employees to work remotely.
Bolsonaro has criticized such measures as “extreme.” He has called on Brazilians to fight the disease without bringing the economy to a halt. He recently shook hands with a throng of supporters and leaned into the crowd for selfies. He said in a Friday television interview that churches should keep holding services. Bolsonaro rose to power with massive support from evangelical Christians due to his conservative social agenda.
Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta has warned that Brazil’s healthcare system could collapse next month under a surge of patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, if Brazilians do not adopt rigorous social distancing. Last week he compared Bolsonaro’s mingling with crowds to a smoker ignoring tobacco warnings.
ANXIETY IN CONGRESS
In the halls of Congress, nervous lawmakers have rushed to protect themselves. Many have fled Brasília to their districts, or are working remotely from their apartments in the capital.
In-person committee hearings have been scrapped and moved online. Plenary sessions cannot have more than 30 lawmakers on the floor, and traditional huddles to discuss legislation are discouraged in both chambers.
“Please keep your distance from one another,” Chamber of Deputies Speaker Rodrigo Maia reminded colleagues over the loudspeaker during Wednesday’s session as they quickly approved the state of emergency.
Bolsonaro’s approval ratings have taken a beating. A survey published Monday by the Datafolha polling firm showed that just 34% of Brazilians polled thought the president’s job performance was “great” or “good.” That’s the lowest level since he took office last year.
In recent days, residents of São Paulo, Rio and Brasília have taken to banging on pot and pans at their windows and balconies, shouting “Bolsonaro Out!”
Bolsonaro has brushed off the protests. “This is not the time for political disputes … to blame me for everything that happens,” he told reporters on Friday. “I am not worried about the pots and pans. I am worried about coronavirus.”
Back at the presidential palace, bottles of hand sanitizer have appeared throughout the building, while pregnant and elderly staff are now working from home, people familiar with the situation told Reuters.
Bolsonaro has begun holding daily coronavirus meetings, according to a presidential staffer.
(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu and Anthony Boadle; Additional reportingby Jake Spring; Editing by Brad Haynes and Marla Dickerson)