RIO DE JANEIRO — As coronavirus cases and deaths mount in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has remained defiant, the last notable holdout among major world leaders in denying the severity of the coronavirus.
Brazilians, he declared last week, are uniquely suited to weather the pandemic because they can be dunked in raw sewage and “don’t catch a thing.”
Defying guidelines issued by his own health ministry, the president on Sunday visited a busy commercial district in Brasília, the capital, where he called on all but elderly Brazilians to get back to work.
Then he insisted that an anti-malaria pill of unproved efficacy would cure those who fall ill with the virus that has killed more than 43,000 people worldwide.
“God is Brazilian,” he told a throng of supporters. “The cure is right there.”
Several world leaders — among them President Trump and Prime Minister Boris Johnson — were slow to grasp the menace of the highly contagious virus, and reluctant to embrace disruptive and economically painful social distancing measures that have become the norm in much of the world.
But Mr. Bolsonaro remains the highest profile holdout in eschewing the scientific consensus on the lockdown measures required to keep health care systems from being overwhelmed.
His handling of the crisis has led to consternation across the country’s political spectrum as congressional leaders, editorial boards and the head of the Supreme Court have essentially beseeched Brazilians to ignore their president. A movement to impeach Mr. Bolsonaro is gaining popular support, with Brazilians banging pots from their windows nightly to repudiate their president.
“He has demonstrated that he is unfit to be president,” said Maria Hermínia Tavares de Almeida, a political scientist at the University of São Paulo. “He remains in power for one very simple reason: No one wants to create a political crisis to oust him in the midst of a health emergency.”
Since the new coronavirus was first detected in Brazil in late February, the virus has spread quickly across the country, with large clusters in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the country’s most populous states. As of Wednesday, there were 5,812 confirmed cases in Brazil, where testing is limited, and 202 recorded deaths.
In a televised address Tuesday night, Mr. Bolsonaro spoke about the virus in graver terms, calling it “the greatest challenge of our generation.”
But the president notably did not endorse strict quarantine measures and misleadingly paraphrased remarks by the head of the World Health Organization to assert that informal workers should continue to toil.
“The collateral effects of the measures to fight the coronavirus cannot be worse than the actual illness,” he said.
In much of the country, his words were drowned out by protesters banging pans and chanting “Down with Bolsonaro!”
In mid-March, governors started urging Brazilians to stay indoors unless they work in critical sectors and called on several business categories to shut down. Since then, commerce, transit and flights have been sharply reduced, throttling Latin America’s largest economy, which has yet to recover from a brutal recession in 2014.
As the patchwork of lockdown measures hardened, Mr. Bolsonaro lashed out at governors for falling into a state of “hysteria” and asserted, without proof, that they were inflating coronavirus figures for political gain. He attacked journalists, accusing them of drumming up panic in an effort to undermine his government. He has called the virus a “measly cold.”
“Some will die” from it, he said, because “such is life.”
Over the weekend, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram deleted posts by Mr. Bolsonaro in which he questioned social distancing measures, deeming the posts in violation of guidelines prohibiting content that endangers public health.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization urged leaders in the Americas to urgently expand patient-care capability while implementing social distancing measures that may have to remain in place for at least three months.
“Such measures might seem drastic but they are the only way to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by too many sick people,” Dr. Carissa F. Etienne, the director of the Pan American Health Organization, the regional office of the World Health Organization, told reporters in Washington. She added that social distancing protocols “remain our best bet” to fight the virus.
Mr. Bolsonaro and his allies say he is unfairly being portrayed as reckless for positing that the strict isolation measures could be more detrimental to the welfare of Brazilians than allowing the virus to crest more quickly.
“The president and the government are working on two fronts: saving lives and saving jobs,” said Victor Hugo de Araújo, a federal lawmaker who serves as Mr. Bolsonaro’s main conduit to Congress. “What the government is doing is trying to find middle ground between total lockdown and allowing the economy and commerce to continue.”
While Mr. Bolsonaro’s conduct may appear politically self-destructive, he is probably making a calculated bet, said Malu Gatto, an assistant professor of Latin American politics at University College London.
“Governors are taking action, effectively ensuring isolation practices, while Bolsonaro can continue to preach that the federal government is focused on promoting economic growth,” Ms. Gatto said. That positions the president to “reap the benefits,” she added, of lockdown measures while publicly portraying himself as a champion of Brazilians who are out of work.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s response to the pandemic has made him an aberration in a region where most leaders moved swiftly to implement stay-at-home measures, shut down borders and close businesses. Such measures have been adopted in other politically polarized nations including Chile, Argentina and Colombia, with little discord.
Another outlier is Nicaragua, where the socialist government of Daniel Ortega has kept schools open and convened mass rallies. Rosario Murillo, Nicaragua’s vice president and its first lady, said on Sunday that the nation could not come to a standstill and that “with faith we can conquer fear.”
While the virus has devastated the global economy, countries in Latin America stand to take particularly painful hits because several were struggling to lift growth, curb inflation and pay off debt well before the pandemic plunged them into crisis mode.
Brazil’s Senate last week passed an assistance package to give an estimated 30.8 million informal workers a $115 monthly subsidy for three months. Earlier in the month, Brazil declared a state of public calamity, which allows the government to exceed spending caps and boost spending on health care.
In the face of the mixed messages coming from the capital, Brazilians in vulnerable communities have been taking matters into their own hands in recent days in an effort to shield themselves from the virus.
Indigenous leaders have shut off access to remote villages, in some cases barricading roads, fearing the coronavirus could wipe out entire communities that have limited access to medical care.
“They’ve been trying to adhere to isolation guidelines and restrict the comings and goings of Indigenous people to and from the cities,” said Márcio Santilli, an Indigenous rights activist.
But Mr. Santilli said there is grave danger in Indigenous territories that have been overrun by wildcat miners and loggers, whose trespasses are impossible to curb. And he also expressed concern about uncontacted tribes, whom Evangelical missionaries have been trying to reach.
The first two cases of the coronavirus were confirmed among Colombia’s Indigenous people on Tuesday, according to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia. The cases were found in the Yukpa group who live near the border with Venezuela.
In favelas in Rio de Janeiro, drug gangs have imposed nightly curfews and community leaders have launched campaigns to persuade people to limit their movement to essential tasks.
Verônica Brasil, an activist in the City of God favela, one of the city’s largest, said volunteers had been collecting hygiene products and food baskets to help families already struggling to get by before businesses started closing.
“Despair is growing,” Ms. Brasil said. “People are running out of food and losing jobs.”
Ernesto Londoño and Manuela Andreoni reported from Rio de Janeiro and Letícia Casado reported from Brasília.