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Brazilians start defying isolation, egged on by Bolsonaro

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Divina Baldomero awoke, looked out the window at Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach under a cloudless sky, and decided to take her first stroll in 40 days. The 75-year-old restaurant owner, like most Brazilians, had been adhering to her governor's call to stay home to contain the spread of the coronavirus. But on this day she decided to ignore that, urged on by the view of President Jair Bolsonaro that the shutdown is wrongheaded, will wreck the economy and that anyway, the virus isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“At first I thought (the shutdown) was viable. Later, I came to think we will have more economic difficulties, with the poverty there is. There should be a different way so we can be free of this,” said Baldomero, speaking Wednesday in front of the shuttered Copacabana Palace hotel. Her legs, virtually unused for more than a month, began trembling after seven minutes of standing.

Egged on by Bolsonaro, who has routinely scoffed at both the virus and stay-at-home policies, Brazilians are heeding his call for revolt. Support for isolation is faltering, particularly among the wealthy, and more people are milling and mixing. From the sun-worshipers to the Instagram influencers and pro-Bolsonaro protesters, denial is spreading and quarantine is coming apart. But, unlike other countries looking to ease restrictions, Latin America’s largest nation is still weeks from the peak in its viral curve.

Bolsonaro first staked out his argument that the economy needs to get back to work in a national address at the end of March, when he referred to the coronavirus as “a little flu” and said his history as an athlete would protect him.

Since then, he has doubled down time and again, saying only high-risk Brazilians need to be isolated, even as the official count of cases rockets past 85,000 and deaths surpass 5,900 — more than the amount suffered by China. Experts consider both figures to be significant under-counts due to a lack of widespread testing.

Asked about the grim milestone Bolsonaro responded, “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?” Personal trainer Gabriela Pugliesi would seemingly have little reason to question risks posed by the virus. The 34-year-old was infected last month at her sister’s wedding. Several other guests also contracted COVID-19 at the five-star resort with beachfront bungalows.

Coughing and feverish — yet no less bronzed and blonde — Pugliesi repeatedly told her 4.5 million followers on Instagram to stay home and take care of themselves. She recovered in late March, and on Saturday threw a party at her apartment in Sao Paulo, the epicenter of Brazil’s outbreak. No one wore masks and in one video Pugliesi posted, she and friends shouted “Screw life!” into the camera.

Flouting isolation drew an immediate backlash and more than 100,000 people unfollowed her. She also lost about a dozen sponsors, who also bailed on her influencer guests. Tatá Werneck, a TV talk show host, was a fierce critic.

“My cousin is a doctor and arrived home in tears. They already have to choose who to save,” Werneck posted on Pugliesi’s account. “This behavior of yours, even more so because you have so many followers ... is inadmissible.”

Pugliesi apologized then suspended her Instagram account. She didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press. Others in Sao Paulo and elsewhere are defying social distancing, albeit more discreetly. Local authorities said in multiple news conferences that some bars in poor areas are welcoming clients behind closed doors, and police have been called to end gatherings in isolated spots.

On Thursday, the governor of Rio de Janeiro state extended restrictions on activity and gatherings until May 11; Sao Paulo had previously extended them until May 10. The two states have the largest virus incidence.

Still, a poll by Datafolha showed 52% of people surveyed believe even those who don’t belong to at-risk groups – the elderly and people with chronic illness – should remain in isolation, down from 60% at the start of the month. Among the wealthiest, support for continued quarantine is just 39%.

Bolsonaro’s hard-core base has staged rallies to shore up support for their leader's views, most recently on Sunday in the capital, Brasilia. Many of the several hundred demonstrators draped themselves in the Brazilian flag, and the few face masks were in the national colors of green and yellow. Most neglected to use masks altogether, even as they shouted into a shared bullhorn.

Not all of Bolsonaro’s ministers have fallen into lock-step behind him, but those who don't do so risk losing their jobs. Luiz Henrique Mandetta, his former health minister, strongly supported the restrictions imposed by state governors and his handling of the crisis was widely praised. But earlier this month, Bolsonaro fired him and appointed Nelson Teich, who has said he sees eye-to-eye with the president.

And what do the morning walkers in Copacabana and beach-side Barra da Tijuca, Rio’s two hardest-hit neighborhoods, say? Walking along Barra, not far from Bolsonaro's personal home, 76-year-old Fernando Ferreira, recommended reading the Bible and Albert Camus’ “The Plague," saying they are evidence that pandemics have always happened in history.

The retired dentist and lawyer said local governments’ restrictions on commerce are “absurd.” He pointed to how France is moving to ease its isolation measures, without acknowledging that the European nation’s viral curve, unlike Brazil’s, has begun to plateau.

Lilia Santiago, a 51-year-old dentist, was ambling with her 77-year-old mother. She insisted forcing everyone to stay home amounts to “buffoonery,” particularly as poor people in Brazil often live in close quarters under the same roof.

“People at risk, with respiratory problems, auto-immune diseases, should take care, which doesn’t mean they can’t go out,” Santiago said. “We can’t be locked inside an apartment or house. We need to circulate, but safely."

“You don’t stand next to someone with a cold. Same thing,″ she said, echoing Bolsonaro's belittling of the virus' dangers. "Flu kills more than coronavirus, folks! A lot of things kill more than coronavirus!”

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