The leader at the epicenter of Brazil's COVID-19 battle says President Jair Bolsonaro is "washing his hands" of the new coronavirus, and he doesn't mean that in the "Safe Hands Challenge" kind of way.
Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria, a former ally of the far-right president, is the man running the response to the coronavirus pandemic in the hardest-hit place in Latin America, his home state.
Sao Paulo state, a teeming industrial center with roughly the same population as Spain, has registered three-quarters of the 77 deaths from COVID-19 in Brazil, where the total number of confirmed cases is nearing 3,000.
Adding to his daily challenges, he is dealing with a president who regularly attacks him for following World Health Organization guidelines on closing businesses and telling people to stay home in a bid to stop the sp read of the virus.
Bolsonaro, whose in-your-face style has earned him the nickname "Tropical Trump," says there is no need for such "scorched-earth" policies, which he warns will wreck the economy in the name of stopping a disease he has compared to "a little flu."
In an interview with AFP, Doria, a 62-year-old conservative touted as a likely contender to face Bolsonaro in Brazil's 2022 presidential election, said the president's response to the pandemic has left the country with a leadership void.
Q: Local authorities have been the ones running the fight against COVID-19 on the ground in Brazil. You recently had a video conference with your fellow governors to talk about the best ways to respond. What did they have to say?
"They were unanimous in saying they will continue taking social distancing measures, gradually, depending on the characteristics (of the outbreak) in each region. No governor is going to accept the anti-isolation recommendation made by President Jair Bolsonaro. They all understand the measure is necessary and that the coronavirus crisis is serious.
"There has been a real lack of leadership. The president has given up leading the country at a very difficult time... He says coronavirus is a little flu and accuses governors of paralyzing the country.... But the vast majority of people understand the importance of this (isolation) period, which could last until late July."
Q: Bolsonaro has warned Brazil is facing "chaos" if containment measures damage the economy. Do you think that's the case?
"I don't think so. Brazil has mechanisms, particularly if the federal government acts, to launch an emergency spending program that guarantees a minimum income so Brazilians can get through the next four months.... And even if the federal government fails to act, each governor will know how to step up. The president has washed his hands of the crisis and isn't leading the country... But that lack of leadership has been filled by governors and mayors who have worked hard to guarantee we are taking care of the poor, the unemployed, small businesses and workers in the informal sector."
Q: Do you think you risk losing political capital over this?
"I'm not worried about political capital, I'm worried about saving lives."