MIAMI – Brazil, the Latin American country hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic, was distracted Thursday from the fight against COVID-19 by a spat with No. 1 trading partner China over Beijing’s handling of the initial outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
With six coronavirus deaths, 450 confirmed infections and 11,000 “suspected” cases, Brazil, home to more than 200 million people, has seen the biggest impact in the region so far.
But the news that captured headlines on Thursday was about comments on social media by the son of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro blaming China for the current global crisis.
Lawmaker Eduardo Bolsonaro compared the COVID-19 outbreak to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union and said that in both cases “a dictatorship preferred to hide something serious rather than expose it.”
After learning about the tweet, China’s ambassador to Brazil, Yang Wanming, took to Twitter to express Beijing’s indignation and demand that the lawmaker retract the remark and issue an apology.
While the elder Bolsonaro kept mum, his vice president, Gen. Hamilton Mourao, made an effort to defuse the controversy.
“Eduardo Bolsonaro is a legislator. If his name were Eduardo Bananinha there wouldn’t have been any problem. It’s only because of the name he bears. He does not represent the government,” Mourao told newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.
Hours later, however, Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo called on the Chinese ambassador to withdraw his “disproportionate” and “unacceptable” statement.
On a more conciliatory note, Araujo said he planned to reach out to both Eduardo Bolsonaro and Ambassador Wang to promote a “reciprocal understanding” and stressed Brazil’s desire for good relations with China’s government and people.
In Colombia, which has 108 confirmed infections, mayors and provincial governors frustrated by what they see as an insufficient sense of urgency on the part of the central government have started taking steps on their own to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Here in Bogota, Mayor Claudia Lopez has announced a four-day lockdown to begin Friday.
Bristling at the implied challenge to his authority, President Ivan Duque issued a decree overturning the various curfews and other restrictions enacted by officials at lower levels of government and requiring cities and provinces to coordinate with his administration.
The move by Duque, already deeply unpopular before the health crisis, has not gone over well with the public, who tend to see their mayors and governors as acting on behalf of the common good.
“If the government is not capable of protecting the lives of its citizens, as the mayor of La Ceja I swore to protect their lives,” said Nelson Carmona Lopera, the top official in that community in the northwestern province of Antioquia.
“I prefer to go to prison rather than see my parents, my daughter Guadalupe, my wife and the people of my town die,” the mayor said.
While Duque has closed the schools, prohibited gatherings of more than 50 people and ordered a temporary shutdown of bars and discos, he is criticized for allowing international flight to continue landing in Colombia even though the common thread among most of the Colombians with COVID-19 is recent travel to Spain and Italy, where the disease has claimed thousands of lives.
On Thursday, the president announced that no one – including returning Colombian nationals – will be allowed to enter the country from abroad for 30 days starting March 23.
Ecuador has 199 confirmed coronavirus cases and three fatalities, risk management director Alexandra Ocles said on Thursday. Another 575 people are in isolation.
One of those infected with the virus is the mayor of Guayaquil, the country’s most populous city, who created an uproar on Wednesday by ordering municipal police to block the runway at the international airport to prevent an Iberia jetliner with no passengers aboard from landing to evacuate Spaniards trapped in Ecuador by the outbreak.
In a video posted on Twitter, Cynthia Viteri said that she would continue to carry out her duties as mayor.
Besides dealing with the infection, she may find herself facing legal action.
Prosecutors said they will investigate the mayor’s obstruction of the effort to evacuate foreigners, while the transport ministry blasted Viteri for interfering with emergency flights that had been duly authorized by the Emergency Operations Committee.