Bolsonaro triggers backlash for downplaying coronavirus

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, pictured on March 20, 2020, has sparked outrage among critics with a national address condemning "scorched-earth" containment measures such as closing businesses and confining people

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro drew blistering criticism from the medical community and opponents Wednesday for downplaying the coronavirus pandemic, but renewed his attacks on containment measures to slow its spread.

The far-right leader has repeatedly lashed out at restrictive measures to fight the virus, which he has called a "little flu" that caused an "overblown" reaction.

He triggered new outrage among critics with a national address Tuesday night condemning "scorched-earth" containment measures by local authorities, such as closing businesses and confining people in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's biggest cities.

He said such measures risked wrecking the Brazilian economy, Latin America's largest.

His stance, which flies in the face of World Health Organization recommendations, drew a strongly worded letter of condemnation from a group of eight medical professional associations.

They called Bolsonaro an "enemy of the people's health" whose response to the crisis was "incoherent and criminal."

"He denies the body of scientific evidence guiding the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide, disdaining the serious and dedicated work by a national and global network of researchers and health technology professionals," it said.

Politicians of various stripes also attacked Bolsonaro, including center-right Senate president Davi Alcolumbre, who said Brazil "needs a serious, responsible leader who cares about the people's lives and health."

Undeterred, Bolsonaro doubled down.

"Companies aren't producing anything. They can't pay their employees... We are facing chaos," he told journalists outside the presidential residence in Brasilia.

"We could end up with problems like people looting supermarkets... What do we need to do? Get people back to work. Protect the elderly, protect people with health problems, but that's it."

Bolsonaro, a former army captain who has been criticized for praising Brazil's brutal military dictatorship (1964-1985), also warned the fallout of the coronavirus crisis could put democracy at risk.

"What if this derails the 'democratic norm' you all defend so staunchly?" he asked, adding: "It wouldn't come from me, don't worry."

He compared his approach to the pandemic to that of US President Donald Trump, whom he admires.

"We're following a similar line," he said.