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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said on Tuesday he tested positive for the novel coronavirus, after months of playing down the severity of the virus which he has called a 'little flu.'

-/AFP/Getty Images

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who said he is infected with the coronavirus, on Wednesday defended his government’s handling of the pandemic that has killed tens of thousands of Brazilians and touted his use of a contentious anti-malaria drug.

Bolsonaro posted a photo of himself eating breakfast on Facebook, and a message that said his government provided payouts to informal sector labourers, thereby saving jobs and lives without spreading panic about the pandemic. The nation’s confirmed death toll from COVID-19 is the second highest in the world after the United States.

“No country in the world did it like Brazil,” Bolsonaro said. “For those who root against hydroxychloroquine, but don’t present alternatives, I regret to inform you that I’m very well with its use and, with God’s grace, I will live for a long time still.”

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Bolsonaro said Tuesday that he tested positive for the virus, after months of downplaying its severity while deaths mounted rapidly inside the country. He repeatedly touted chloroquine, a more toxic version of the anti-malarial drug.

A string of studies in Britain and the United States, as well as by the World Health Organization, have found it ineffective and sometimes deadly because of its effects on the heart. Several studies were cancelled early because of that.

The president told reporters he underwent a lung X-ray on Monday after experiencing fever, muscle aches and malaise. As of Tuesday, his fever had subsided, he said, and he attributed the improvement to hydroxychloroquine.

He stepped back from the journalists and removed his mask at one point to show that he looked well.

The 65-year-old right-wing populist who has been known to mingle in crowds without covering his face confirmed the results while wearing a mask and speaking to reporters huddled close in front of him in the capital, Brasilia.

“I’m, well, normal. I even want to take a walk around here, but I can’t due to medical recommendations,” Bolsonaro said.

Later Tuesday, he posted a video to Facebook of him taking his third dose of hydroxychloroquine, which has also been promoted by President Donald Trump.

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Brazil, the world’s sixth-biggest nation, with more than 210 million people, is one of the outbreak’s most lethal hot spots. More than 65,000 Brazilians have died from COVID-19, and over 1.5 million have been infected.

The true figures are believed to be higher because of a lack of widespread testing. On Tuesday alone, 1,254 deaths were confirmed.

Other world leaders who have had bouts with COVID-19 include British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Britain’s Prince Charles, Prince Albert II of Monaco and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez.

Bolsonaro is “the democratic leader who has most denied the seriousness of this pandemic,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political-science professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. “Him getting infected is a blow to his credibility. It will be seen as another example of the failure of his coronavirus response.”

Bolsonaro has often appeared in public to shake hands with supporters and mingle with crowds, at times without a mask. He has said that his history as an athlete would protect him from the virus and that it would be nothing more than a “little flu” if he were to contract it.

He has also repeatedly said that there is no way to prevent 70 per cent of the population falling ill with COVID-19 and that local authorities’ efforts to shut down economic activity would ultimately cause more hardship than allowing the virus to run its course.

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For nearly two months, Brazil’s fight against COVID-19 has been in the hands of an interim health minister with no health experience before April. He took over after his predecessor, a doctor and health care consultant, quit in protest over Bolsonaro’s support for hydroxychloroquine.

Brazilian cities and states last month began lifting restrictions that had been imposed to control the spread of the virus, as deaths began to decline along with the caseload in intensive care units.

Bolsonaro supporter Silas Ribeiro said on the streets of Rio that the president is correct in saying the dangers of the virus have been exaggerated.

“Our president is a popular man. He is showing that he isn’t afraid to die,” said Ribeiro, 59. “He is going to have health and get through this sickness.”

Speaking near recently reopened shops in Rio, Wesley Morielo said he hopes Bolsonaro’s sickness prompts him to reassess his stance.

“I think everything he said before, of not giving importance to COVID-19, came back against him,? said Morielo, a 24-year-old student.

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The World Health Organization’s emergencies chief, Dr. Michael Ryan, wished Bolsonaro a speedy recovery and said his infection “brings home the reality of this virus” by showing that it doesn’t distinguish between “prince or pauper.”

Bolsonaro has repeatedly visited the hospital since taking office, requiring several operations to repair his intestines after he was stabbed on the campaign trail in 2018.

He said he cancelled a trip this week to Brazil’s northeast region and will continue working via video conference and receive rare visitors when he needs to sign a document.

Unlike Britain’s prime minister, who moderated his rhetoric after testing positive for the virus, Bolsonaro will probably not change his stance, said Leandro Consentino, a political-science professor at Insper, a university in São Paulo.

“He’s going down a path of trying to indicate to his base of support that COVID-19 is just a little flu and take advantage of the illness to advertise for chloroquine,” Consentino said.

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