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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has said he wants to see the country’s professional soccer leagues restart soon despite the coronavirus pandemic, claiming without evidence that athletes are unlikely to die from coronavirus because of their fitness.
“Footballers, if infected with the virus, have a small chance of dying. That's because of their physical state, because they are athletes,” Bolsonaro told Brazil’s Radio Guaiba on Thursday, echoing his previous comments that he personally didn't have to worry about the virus due to his “track record as an athlete.”
The call for a hasty return to the pitch was true to form for the far-right leader, who has consistently downplayed the threat of the virus and called for the swift reopening of the economy, even as his country’s major outbreak has made it Latin America’s epicenter. Brazil has recorded more than 6,000 deaths and confirmed nearly 90,000 cases so far, although a study last month found that because of inadequate testing, the true number of infections could be 12 times the official count.
In his comments Thursday, Bolsonaro also claimed that many in the sport were in favor of a return to play “because unemployment is knocking on clubs' doors too.” But despite the president’s enthusiasm for a restart, plenty of players and officials are wary of resuming play, even in closed stadiums, while the pandemic is raging.
Bolsonaro acknowledged that a coach at one club, Gremio, had told him his players were worried about playing during the outbreak. Raí, the former Brazilian player who is executive director at Sao Paulo FC, said Thursday he was against any return to play during the pandemic, condemning Bolsonaro’s “irresponsible” handling of the coronavirus response and calling for his resignation.
Bolsonaro’s comments were just the latest in a string of baffling and reckless responses to the coronavirus crisis in recent days. Bolsonaro has diminished coronavirus as “a little flu,” and last month sacked his health minister who advocated for lockdown restrictions. On Tuesday, he caused outrage when he brushed off a journalist’s questions about the rising death toll, saying: “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?”
Late Wednesday, he made a bizarre Facebook post attacking the credibility of the World Health Organization by claiming the group encouraged homosexuality, masturbation, and other sexual activity in children. Bolsonaro, who has frequently challenged world health guidelines on social distancing, clashing with state governors and even his own health officials in the process, wrote: “This is the World Health Organisation whose advice on coronavirus some people want me to follow,” before deleting the post.
The post was an apparent reference to a sex education document published by the WHO’s European office, which said sexual curiosity was normal in children but did not encourage any of the behaviors listed by Bolsonaro.
The 65-year-old former military officer has repeatedly outraged Brazilians with his attacks on social distancing measures, repeatedly breaching the restrictions himself by making physical contact with supporters around the country. Footage circulated on social media of Brazilian soldiers and officials resisting his greetings at a ceremony in Porto Alegre Thursday, pulling back from Bolsonaro’s outstretched hands and offering him an elbow bump instead.
“Embarrassing,” wrote Ricardo Cappelli, an official in Maranhão state who posted the link, expressing the frustration of many Brazilians towards a president who still hasn’t gotten the message about hand-shaking during a pandemic.
Cover: President Jair Bolsonaro attends and speaks during inauguration of the new Minister of Justice, André Mendonça, that took office on Wednesday, April 29, 2020 in Brasília, Brazil. (Photo by Edu Chaves/Fotoarena/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)