Brazil's President Bolsonaro tests positive for COVID-19 after downplaying disease

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro stepped back from the journalists and removed his mask in an effort to show that he is well.

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By Linda Givetash

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro said Tuesday he has tested positive for the novel coronavirus after months of downplaying the severity of the disease.

“I'm well, normal. I even want to take a walk around here, but I can't due to medical recommendations,” Bolsonaro said, according to a translation by The Associated Press. “I thought I had it before, given my very dynamic activity. I’m president and on the combat lines. I like to be in the middle of the people.”

CNN Brasil reported Monday that the president personally told its reporters he was suffering from symptoms of the coronavirus, including a fever.

The presidential palace confirmed that a test took place after he felt unwell and on Monday was running a fever of about 100.4 degrees. The statement added Bolsonaro was at home and “in good health.”

But later, Bolsonaro told supporters outside the presidential palace that while he did visit a hospital for testing, he said his lungs were “clean."

Confirming to reporters Tuesday that he had the virus, Bolsonaro stepped back away from the television crews and removed his mask in an effort to show that he is well.

He also compared the virus to a rain that will fall on most people, and that some, like the elderly, must take greater care, according to The AP.

"You can't just talk about the consequences of the virus that you have to worry about. Life goes on. Brazil needs to produce. You need to get the economy in gear,″ he said, according to the news agency's translation.

Brazil has recorded more than 1.6 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus, second only to the United States, and more than 65,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

More than 23,000 people who had not been diagnosed with COVID-19 died from respiratory infections between Jan. 1 and June 6, according to Fiocruz, one of Brazil’s state-run health research institutes. Experts believe that in fact most of them died from COVID-19.

Executive director of the World Health Organization, Dr. Michael Ryan, said Tuesday that he wished Bolsonaro a speedy recovery.

"It brings home for us all the reality of this virus and no one is special in that regard," he said speaking at a press conference live streamed from Geneva. "The virus does not know really who we are, whether we are a prince or Pope, we are equally vulnerable."

The virus has been spreading fast through Brazil’s indigenous populations, with deaths related to the disease increasing by more than five-fold through May.

Amid the rapid spread, Bolsonaro's handling of the pandemic — from hailing anti-lockdown protesters to refusing to wear a mask — has sparked outrage, including within his own cabinet.

In April, Bolsonaro fired his highly-respected health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who openly contradicted him over the need for social distancing. Bolsonaro has repeatedly spoken against measures including lockdown and social distancing, citing the economic costs.

The nation's doctors have also urged the government for more stringent lockdown restrictions to prevent further infection spread, particularly in parts of the country already lacking in sufficient health resources.

Like President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro also endorsed the use of hydroxychloroquine — a malaria drug — to treat the novel coronavirus, despite a lack of scientific evidence and concerns about serious side effects. Bolsonaro told reporters Tuesday that he is already taking the anti-malarial, according to The AP.

He is not the first national leader to fall ill with the virus. Britain's Boris Johnson spent a week in an intensive care unit in April after he tested positive with the coronavirus.

Before showing symptoms of an illness, Bolsonaro spent the Fourth of July at the U.S. Ambassador's residence. A photo shared on Bolsonaro's Facebook page showed that they were not social distancing nor wearing masks.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Mary Murray, Saphora Smith and Yuliya Talmazan contributed.