Anti-quarantine Bolsonaro isolates himself politically
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro insists the coronavirus is just a "little flu" and opposed the self-isolation measures now observed by half the wold's population Sergio LIMA AFP:File

A new meme on Brazilian social networks shows a dinosaur looking at the meteorite that is about to annihilate his kind and complaining, "God dammit, this is going to be bad for the economy!"

The viral image -- so to speak -- is poking fun at the response to the coronavirus pandemic by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who condemns social distancing measures on the grounds they will wreck the economy.

The far-right leader has compared the new virus to a "little flu," says it triggered an "overblown" reaction, and rejects measures such as closing businesses and schools.

hat view flies in the face of the World Health Organization, his own health ministry and the confinement measures now adopted by nearly half the Earth's population to slow the spread of the virus.

But the man dubbed the "Tropical Trump" for his in-your-face style has only doubled down as the pandemic has taken hold in Brazil, which has reported 4,579 cases, with 159 deaths so far.

On Sunday, rather than stay home, Bolsonaro hit the streets in Brasilia to shake hands, take pictures and chat with supporters, encouraging them to keep the economy going.

"We have to face this virus, but face it like a man, dammit, not a boy. We have to face it with reality. That's life. We're all going to die someday," he said.

"We have to take precautions with the elderly, with people who are at high risk. But protecting jobs is essential."

Twitter, Facebook and Instagram all removed videos Bolsonaro posted that day, saying the content violated their policies on spreading misinformation that could harm people.

But Bolsonaro was back with more on Monday, warning that stay-at-home measures could lead to "chaos, hunger and misery."

- 'Risky view' -

Bolsonaro is increasingly isolated in his anti-isolation views.

Such arguments have been abandoned by the likes of US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson -- the latter now self-isolating after contracting the virus.

Bolsonaro faces a growing firestorm of criticism over his stance.

Brazilians who oppose him have been banging pots out their windows every night in protest. Leftist leaders are calling on him to resign for his "crimes" against public health. State and local authorities are basically ignoring him. Even some key allies are distancing themselves.

"His viewpoint is risky. It creates a false dichotomy between saving lives and protecting the economy," said Thomaz Favaro, of the consulting firm Control Risks.

"Studies show social distancing not only helps prevent the health system from collapsing, it also helps the economic recovery after the pandemic," he told AFP.

Bolsonaro won election in 2018 promising to jump-start Latin America's biggest economy with austerity cuts, privatizations and fiscal reforms.

The pandemic now threatens to derail that project, battering the economy and likely forcing the government to undertake massive stimulus spending.

Experts warned against trying to go on with business as usual.

"If we let the epidemic spiral out of control, the economic fallout could be worse," said Alexandre Schwartsman, a former official at the Brazilian central bank.

"Now is the time to keep people home and think of ways to help them pay the bills. The solution will have to come from the state, and it is going to cost a lot," he told news site G1.

Brazil's government has announced tens of billions of dollars in stimulus spending to help small- and medium-sized businesses and the poor.

But its response is relatively small so far compared to what US and European policy makers are doing.

- 'Vertical isolation' -

Bolsonaro's preferred response to the pandemic is "vertical isolation": confining those at highest risk and letting the rest of society get on with life.

But experts cautioned against that.

"Isolating only the elderly and leaving out the rest, without knowing how the virus is behaving and spreading in Brazil, is not the right approach," said infectious disease specialist Eliana Bicudo.

"We don't know if the virus will spread slower among the young in Brazil. They might get infected more and die at higher rates. We would have to test a large proportion of the population to be able to infer anything about it."