RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Marcelo Queiroga is the fourth health minister to deal with the coronavirus pandemic in Brazil and, some said, the most serious. But his behavior on a trip to New York this week was anything but serious. He gave the middle finger to a group of protesters just hours before he announced he had tested positive for COVID-19.
Queiroga, a cardiologist, was accompanying President Jair Bolsonaro to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. The trip was supposed to be an opportunity to restore the country’s image abroad, damaged by the government’s disastrous handling of the pandemic and its destructive climate policies.
Instead, marked by repeated blunders, the trip appears to have had the opposite effect.
Queiroga, who received the Chinese Corona Vac jab in January, becomes the second of Bolsonaro’s entourage to have caught COVID-19, after a young diplomat tested positive earlier this week. There are now concerns the virus could spread among world leaders.
The health minister was staying at the same hotel as U.S. President Joe Biden and attended a meeting with Bolsonaro and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in New York on Monday. Both world leaders were unmasked.
Sitting close to members of the British and Brazilian delegation, Queiroga was filmed shaking hands with the British prime minister. On Tuesday, Johnson met with Biden at the White House.
To add insult to injury, Brazil’s health minister was filmed sticking his middle finger up on Monday night at a small group of anti-Bolsonaro protesters.
The video was quickly posted on social media and went viral. It shows the health minister at the window of a mini-bus carrying the presidential entourage and giving the gesture to a dozen protesters gathered outside the residence of Brazil’s ambassador to the UN.
The activists can be heard accusing Brazil’s far-right president of committing “genocide” and calling him a “murderer.” The following day, Bolsonaro opened his speech at the United Nations declaring: “I came here to show a Brazil that is different from what is shown on newspapers and television,” and proclaimed that “Brazil’s international credibility has been restored.”
Brazilian media exploded over the president’s behavior and his speech.
The hashtag, “Que vergonha” (what an embarrassment, in English) had been mentioned tens of thousands of times by Wednesday, according to news outlet O Globo.
The reception towards Queiroga’s positive COVID test and his combative attitude has been no better.
Popular conservative columnist Reinaldo Azevedo called the incident a perfect symbol of Brazil’s response to public health. “Queiroga puts his middle finger up to 600,000 deaths,” wrote Azevedo in Brazilian news outlet UOL.
Meanwhile, Brazilian CNN News Anchor Rafael Colombo joked that the public would rather see the government official’s thumb and index finger “pushing a vaccine.”
Brazilian senators, too, were outraged. During the opening of the investigations into the government’s handling of the pandemic, known as CPI, Omar Aziz, the president of the commission, accused Queiroga of “shaming Brazil abroad.”
Bolsonaro, who proudly claims to be the only G20 leader to “not yet” be vaccinated, met with a frosty reception in New York, and suffered a series of logistical setbacks.
“If you don’t want to be vaccinated, don’t bother coming because everyone should be safe together,” blasted Mayor Bill de Blasio ahead of the UN meeting in a public announcement.
When a defiant Bolsonaro arrived in New York City on Sunday, Brazilian media reported that he had to use the back door of the hotel to avoid booing protestors shouting “Get out Bolsonaro!”
The president has been heavily criticized at home and abroad for his unscientific response to the pandemic, which has been to repeatedly downplay the severity of the virus, sow doubts about vaccines and rail against lockdown measures.
Bolsonaro also faced condemnation for his failure to protect the Amazon rainforest. Campaigners projected images of Bolsonaro on the Brooklyn Bridge that flared onto passing vans with slogans that read, “Bolsonaro is burning the Amazon” and “Liar, Lousy and Loser”.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, the day after an advance member of Bolsonaro’s team was the first to report testing positive for COVID, the president and members of his entourage, including Queiroga, shared a photo of the delegation enjoying pizza slices on a Manhattan sidewalk. New York restaurants require proof of a vaccine in order to dine indoors.
“The president could be dining with a leader or organization to try to improve the country’s situation...But instead, he chooses to eat pizza [on the streets]. It’s the most expensive pizza Brazil has paid”, said Brazilian journalist Leandro Demori on social media.
On taking to the podium, Bolsonaro soon came under fire for delivering a speech that local media equated to “putting lipstick on a pig”, by painting an overly rosy picture of Brazil’s environmental commitments and economy.
To make matters worse, the Brazilian president sparked outrage by doubling-down on defending unproven “early treatment” drugs, like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, both of which the World Health Organization has warned against using for COVID.
Bolsonaro’s former health ministers were quick to mock the health minister’s potential choice of COVID treatments while isolating in New York for the next 14 days. “Will he take early treatment drugs too?”, asked ex-health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta on Twitter.
A botched pandemic response that resulted in the deaths of more than 590,000 Brazilians, soaring inflation and mounting political instability have all taken their toll on Bolsonaro's popularity. A new DataFolha poll found that 53 percent of Brazilians now disapprove of the president.
Bolsonaro cut short his visit to New York after Queiroga’s positive COVID test and arrived back in Brasilia on Wednesday.