SAO PAULO/BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said on Tuesday he tested positive for the novel coronavirus after months minimizing the severity of the pandemic and defying medical experts, even as the virus killed more than 65,000 people in his country.
The right-wing populist gave the news to reporters at his official residence standing just inches away from him, adding to criticism of his cavalier approach to the outbreak in Brazil, the world’s worst outside the United States.
Even as he announced his infection, the 65-year-old former army captain dismissed the dangers of the virus and credited unproven treatments for his mild symptoms, echoing his political role model U.S. President Donald Trump.
“If it weren’t for the test, I wouldn’t know the result. And it turned out positive,” he told the television cameras, adding he had started to feel sick on Sunday and grown worse on Monday, with a fever, muscle pains and exhaustion.
The president said he was taking hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug with unproven effectiveness against COVID-19 that has been touted by Trump and some of his supporters and pro-government factions in Brazil as a potential cure.
Finishing the interview with three TV channels, Bolsonaro stepped back and removed his mask to reveal a smile, adding: “You can see from my face that I’m well and I’m calm.”
Bolsonaro, like Trump, has blasted experts at the World Health Organization and voiced skepticism about the virulence of the virus, although the U.S. president has moderated his tone.
The Brazilian leader repeated his claim on Tuesday that the risks of COVID-19 were exaggerated and most Brazilians did not need to worry: “Be assured that for you the chance of something more serious is close to zero.”
With more than 1.6 million confirmed coronavirus cases in Brazil, Bolsonaro’s handling of the crisis has drawn criticism from public health experts as he fought state and city efforts to impose social distancing, arguing that the economic damage would be worse than the disease itself.
He has fired two health ministers during the pandemic, both trained doctors, and replaced them with an active-duty army general on an interim basis.