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Analysis: Brazil and its lack of leadership amid COVID-19 crisis

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Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro rides a horse greeting supporters outside the presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, May 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Andre Borges)
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro rides a horse greeting supporters outside the presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, May 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Andre Borges)   -   Copyright  AP Photo
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In early April, as coronavirus deaths spiralled in Europe and in the US, Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, downplayed the crisis, saying the new virus was nothing but a "little flu" that has to be faced “realistically”. “That's life," he said. "We're all going to die someday."

On Saturday, the health ministry removed data documenting the COVID-19 outbreak over time and by state and municipality from its official website.

Why? Well because Brazil is now at the global epicentre of a new coronavirus outbreak. The removal of the data came after the country reported more than 1,000 deaths for four consecutive days. The number of confirmed cases is fewer only than in the US, and infections are expected to rise even further as the outbreak is still weeks away from its peak, health experts say. Last week, Brazil's death toll surpassed that of Italy, placing the nation third in the world, behind only the US and the UK.

But the President took to Twitter (sounds familiar) to defend the government's action. Bolsonaro said "the cumulative data... does not reflect the moment the country is in" but did not explain why the information had to be removed or could not be released. He said additional measures were being taken to "improve the reporting of cases."

'Totalitarian' manoeuvre

The president of Brazil’s national council of state health secretaries reacted angrily. In a statement, Alberto Beltrame said: “The authoritarian, insensitive, inhuman and unethical attempt to make those killed by COVID-19 invisible will not succeed. We and Brazilian society will not forget them, nor the tragedy that befalls the nation.”

Federal prosecutors announced an investigation and gave the interim health minister 72 hours to explain the move, using the Brazilian constitution and freedom of information law as justification. “The manipulation of statistics is a manoeuvre of totalitarian regimes,” Gilman Mendes, a supreme court judge tweeted. “The trick will not exempt responsibility for the eventual genocide,” added Rodrigo Maia, the speaker of the lower house of Congress.

Many Brazilians are also simply not buying it. Thousands took to the streets over the weekend to denounce the president’s action. In the capital, Brasilia, his opponents gathered in front of the National Library and from there they marched to the Ministries Esplanade, at the heart of the country’s national government, demanding change.

But the president is not without his supporters. At the other end of the Ministries Esplanade, a smaller group gathered in favour of the far-right leader, wearing their usual Brazilian football team jerseys and carrying the country's flag. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro left his official residence to greet some of his allies without wearing a mask.

Putting lives at risk

It is difficult not to conclude that the actions of the president have endangered many of his fellow citizens' lives. He sacked his health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, for supporting isolation measures while resisting Bolsonaro’s attempts to promote chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as treatments for COVID-19. Another one has since resigned. Along the way, the president has continued to attend pro-government street rallies, shaking the hands of his supporters and drawing large crowds just to appease his ego.

This is all having an effect on how Brazilians behave. As the cases spread, some people seem determined not to adhere to social distancing measures, and many businesses are operating illegally. This despite reports that many hospitals are on the verge of collapse and, in the Amazonian city of Manaus, deaths have soared so much that the main cemetery has begun burying five coffins at a time in shared graves.

Contrast what has happened in Brazil to New Zealand. There, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters she did "a little dance" when she was told that the country no longer had any active cases. The last known transmission of the virus occurred 17 days ago. The country will now move to alert level 1, which means all domestic restrictions will be lifted. The only things that won't change are quarantine measures for returning New Zealanders and a ban on foreign arrivals to stop the virus from coming back into the country.

Leadership in times of crisis does matter. President Bolsonaro is - devastatingly for Brazil - testament to this.

Darren McCaffrey is Euronews' political editor