BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Friday called for the reopening of the country’s borders, as he pushes to restart South America’s largest economy, but conceded he may be blamed if the new coronavirus outbreak worsens as a result.
Bolsonaro fired his health minister on Thursday after clashing with him over lockdown measures, which the president argues are overly damaging to the economy and should be rolled back.
But the right-wing populist conceded on Friday that it is not up to him to decide whether or not social distancing measures should be relaxed in states and cities after the supreme court ruled that governors and mayors are responsible for the decisions.
The borders, however, are Bolsonaro’s to control. He said on Friday he had discussed the possibility of reopening land borders, particularly those with Uruguay and Paraguay, with Justice Minister Sergio Moro.
“Opening trade is a risk that I take, because if (the outbreak) gets worse, it will fall on my lap,” Bolsonaro said at the inauguration event for his new health minister, Nelson Teich.
To slow the spread of the virus, Brazil closed its borders last month to nonresident foreigners, with some exceptions, although cargo shipments largely still flow freely.
Brazil withdrew all its remaining diplomatic staff from Venezuela on Friday, after the order to remove them was given by Bolsonaro, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The country’s foreign trade chamber Camex on Friday also eliminated import taxes on an additional 141 types of medical products and hospital equipment, raising to 313 the number of products with zeroed tariffs to help fight the coronavirus epidemic.
Medical experts say the outbreak of the coronavirus is still far from its peak in Brazil as cases and deaths, already the highest in Latin America, continue to rise sharply.
Brazil has 33,682 confirmed cases, with some 200 fatalities per day in the last four consecutive days, bringing the death toll to 2,141 as of Friday, according to Health Ministry data.
Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria, who has clashed with Bolsonaro over lockdown measures, on Friday extended the social isolation order in the state through May 10.
But there have been signs in recent weeks that lockdowns could be getting more lax, with a Sao Paulo government analysis of mobile phone data finding that as of Thursday only 49% of people were in social isolation.
Incoming Health Minister Teich said that the outbreak could be complicated in coming months when the dengue and influenza season hits.
(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu, Anthony Boadle and Gabriela Mello; Writing by Jake Spring; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Daniel Wallis)