Bolsonaro threatens WHO exit as Brazil’s coronavirus toll soars

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has threatened to pull his country out of the World Health Organization (WHO) after the United Nations agency warned governments about the risk of lifting lockdowns before slowing the spread of the new coronavirus.

“I’m telling you right now, the United States left the WHO, and we’re studying that, in the future,” Bolsonaro told journalists outside the presidential palace on Friday. “Either the WHO works without ideological bias, or we leave, too.”

US President Donald Trump, an ideological ally of Bolsonaro, said last month that Washington would end its own relationship with the WHO, accusing the organisation of becoming a puppet of China, where the coronavirus first emerged.

Bolsonaro has followed a similar script to the US president in his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, downplaying its severity, criticising state authorities’ stay-at-home measures and touting the purported effects of the drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine against COVID-19.

His threat to leave the WHO came shortly before Brazil announced that its death toll from the coronavirus had risen above 35,000, the third-highest in the world behind the US and the United Kingdom. 

In an editorial running the length of newspaper Folha de S Paulo’s front page, the Brazilian daily highlighted that just 100 days had passed since Bolsonaro described the virus now “killing a Brazilian per minute” as “a little flu”.

“While you were reading this, another Brazilian died from the coronavirus,” the newspaper said.

On Thursday, Brazil’s Health Ministry reported that confirmed cases in the country had climbed past 600,000 and 1,437 deaths had been registered within 24 hours, the third consecutive daily record. Authorities reported another 1,005 deaths on Friday night, but Bolsonaro continues to argue for quickly lifting state isolation orders, arguing that the economic costs outweigh public health risks.

In Geneva, when asked about efforts to loosen social-distancing orders in Brazil despite rising daily death rates and diagnoses, a WHO spokeswoman said a key criterion for lifting lockdowns was slowing transmission.

“The epidemic, the outbreak, in Latin America is deeply, deeply concerning,” Margaret Harris told a news conference. Among six key criteria for easing quarantines, she said, “one of them is ideally having your transmission declining”.

Bolsonaro’s dismissal of the coronavirus risks to public health and efforts to lift state quarantines have drawn criticism from across the political spectrum in Brazil, where some accuse him of using the crisis to undermine democratic institutions.

But many of those critics are divided about the safety and effectiveness of anti-government demonstrations in the middle of a pandemic, especially after one small protest was met with an overwhelming show of police force last weekend.

In Latin America, the virus has now infected more than 1.1 million people.

While Brazil and Mexico are seeing the highest rates of new infections, the pandemic is also gathering pace in countries such as Peru, Colombia, Chile and Bolivia.

Most Latin American leaders have taken the pandemic more seriously than Bolsonaro, but some politicians who backed strict lockdowns in March and April are pushing to open economies back up as hunger and poverty grow.

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