RIO DE JANEIRO - Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro said Tuesday he has tested positive for COVID-19 after months of downplaying the coronavirus's severity while deaths mounted rapidly inside the country.
The 65-year-old populist who has been known to mingle in crowds without covering his face confirmed the results while wearing a mask and speaking to reporters huddled close in front of him in the capital, Brasilia. He said he is taking hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug that has not been proven effective against COVID-19.
“I'm, well, normal. I even want to take a walk around here, but I can't due to medical recommendations,” Bolsonaro said. “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.”
Brazil, the world's sixth-biggest nation, with more than 210 million people, is one of the outbreak's most lethal hot spots. More than 65,000 Brazilians have died from COVID-19, and over 1.5 million have been infected.
Both numbers are the world’s second-highest totals, behind those of the U.S., though the true figures are believed to be higher because of a lack of widespread testing.
Bolsonaro has often appeared in public to shake hands with supporters and mingle with crowds, at times without a mask. He has said that his history as an athlete would protect him from the virus and that it would be nothing more than a “little flu” if he were to contract it.
He has also repeatedly said that there is no way to prevent 70% of the population falling ill with COVID-19 and that local authorities' efforts to shut down economic activity would ultimately cause more hardship than allowing the virus to run its course.
Bolsonaro repeated those sentiments Tuesday, likening the virus to a rain that will fall on most people and saying that some, like older people, must take greater care.
"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.
Cities and states last month began lifting restrictions that had been imposed to control the spread of the virus, as deaths began to decline along with the occupancy rate in intensive care units.
The World Health Organization’s emergencies chief, Dr. Michael Ryan, wished Bolsonaro a speedy recovery and said his infection “brings home the reality of this virus" by showing that it doesn't distinguish between “prince or pauper.”
The president told reporters he underwent an X-ray of his lungs on Monday after experiencing fever, muscle aches and malaise. As of Tuesday, his fever had subsided, he said, and attributed the improvement to hydroxychloroquine, which he, like President Donald Trump, has long promoted.
He stepped back from the journalists and removed his mask at one point to show that he looks well.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly visited the hospital since taking office, requiring several operations to repair his intestines after he was stabbed on the campaign trail in 2018.
He said he canceled a trip this week to the country's northeast region and will continue working via videoconference and receive rare visitors when he needs to sign a document.
Over the weekend, the Brazilian leader celebrated American Independence Day with the U.S. ambassador to Brazil, then shared pictures on social media showing him in close quarters with the diplomat, several ministers and aides. None wore masks.
The U.S. Embassy said on Twitter that Ambassador Todd Chapman is not showing any COVID-19 symptoms but would be tested.
Bolsonaro tested negative three times in March after meeting with the Trump in Florida. Members of his delegation to the U.S. were later reported to be infected.