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Amid Pandemic, Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro Faces Political Crisis


Brazil is dealing with its own coronavirus crisis. The government there is reporting more than 5,000 deaths from the disease, which is more than China's official death toll. But Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro remains reluctant to acknowledge the threat. And now in the middle of the pandemic, with the economy in freefall, he is facing a political crisis. NPR's Philip Reeves is covering the story from Rio de Janeiro and joins us now. Good morning, Phil.


MARTIN: Give us more details, if you could, about how the virus is affecting Brazil.

REEVES: Well, Brazil has a huge public health system, and in some cities, it's already collapsed. That's before the virus has even reached its peak here, something that health officials expect to happen in the coming weeks. The situation is particularly bad in the north and northeast. We're hearing some very sad, very familiar stories of massive undercounting of shortages of everything - doctors, beds, protective equipment, respirators - everything except victims.

In the city of Manaus, in the Amazon, disaster has been underway for some days. A lot of people are dying at home because hospitals are overwhelmed. There's a surge in the number of deaths. It's so big the authorities have started burying people in mass graves. Other Brazilian cities - Belem, for example - are struggling. And people are really worried about what might happen to the tens of millions of Brazilians who are poor and live in unsanitary conditions, often with three or more people in one room. So they can't socially distance.

MARTIN: Right. So with all this going on, President Bolsonaro is facing a political crisis. He's lost two ministers in his cabinet in the past a week or so. What happened?

REEVES: Well, this has been triggered by the resignation of the justice minister. He's a guy called Sergio Moro. Before joining government, Moro was a celebrated judge. He was extremely popular here because he played the leading role in a huge anti-corruption drive that landed a lot of politicians and executives in jail.

Now, he resigned Friday, and he did this because he says President Jair Bolsonaro was pressuring him to remove the federal police chief. Moro says that's improper political interference in law enforcement, and his accusations are now being bolstered because Bolsonaro has now replaced the police chief. He's chosen someone who served briefly as Brazil's Intelligence Agency chief but, much more significantly, is a family friend. And many people here are alleging that Bolsonaro's done this to protect his sons from being investigated by the police over alleged criminal activity.

MARTIN: So is this a real threat to Bolsonaro's power?

REEVES: Well, it could be. I mean, the Supreme Court here has now agreed to allow Brazil's attorney general to take a look at this, to have a police investigation into whether Bolsonaro's committed a crime. If the attorney general eventually decides that he has, he'll still need approval from Congress to proceed with charges. So it's all quite a way down the road. But separately from that, there are now growing calls for Bolsonaro to be impeached. There's a lot of discussion about this in Brazil's Congress. Although some of Bolsonaro's key opponents think this is the wrong time. We're in the middle of a pandemic. And also, polls are showing that Bolsonaro's core support is holding up remarkably at around 33%.

MARTIN: But, I mean, to have a political crisis in the middle of a pandemic, I mean, I imagine it's affecting how the government is able - is capable of responding.

REEVES: Oh, yeah. I mean, it's distracting attention from the COVID-19 disaster. And to make matters worse, Bolsonaro's also arguing with the state governors over isolation. So it's a very dire situation.

MARTIN: NPR's Philip Reeves reporting from Rio de Janeiro. Phil, thank you.

REEVES: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDAMAME'S "THOUSAND-HAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.