As Sao Paulo goes into coronavirus lockdown, China offers to help Brazil

SAO PAULO/BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro patched up a diplomatic spat with China on Tuesday, agreeing in a call with President Xi Jinping to fight the spread of coronavirus together as Brazil’s largest city went into its first day of lockdown.

The dispute began last week when Bolsonaro’s son blamed Chinese authoritarianism for preventing faster action against the coronavirus, drawing blistering comments from China’s ambassador to Brazil and entangling the upper reaches of the Brazilian government in the row.

Coronavirus deaths in Brazil on Tuesday rose to 46 from 34, and cases rose to 2,201 from 1,891, according to government figures. Wanderson de Oliveira, a Health Ministry official, told reporters Brazil would vastly expand testing in the coming days.

Economic prospects are worsening for Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy, amid the pandemic as data showed consumer confidence falling to a three-year low in March. Retail sales in January declined at the fastest rate in over a year, indicating consumer spending was off to a weak start in 2020, even before the coronavirus outbreak.

Two of Brazil’s top airlines said they would cut more than 90% of their domestic flights until at least May.

The slowdown is set to worsen as Sao Paulo, Brazil’s economic powerhouse, began a two-week lockdown on Tuesday. The state government ordered all non-essential services and businesses to close in the country’s largest city.

During morning rush hour the city’s streets, usually gridlocked with some of the worst traffic on the continent, were quiet. The offices and shopping centers of financial artery Faria Lima were closed. 

Buses still ran and construction was allowed to continue in a bid to avoid complete economic collapse in Brazil’s financial hub. Restaurants were open for takeout and delivery workers whizzed through the thinning traffic on bikes and scooters.

“It’s all empty… the bus, train, metro, all empty,” said Gidalva do Santo, 50, who had left home briefly to visit the doctor. Suffering from hypertension, do Santo is vulnerable to the coronavirus and, wearing a facemask, she said she was taking all possible precautions.

“Everyone is scared, but I think everyone has to look after themselves, taking hygiene seriously, washing their hands.”

Sao Paulo, which recorded the first cases, has been the hardest hit.

Waiting for a train in a usually packed station, Antonio Lima, 50, said he was worried about what the virus might mean for his small construction business.

“It’s a constant worry, because we have workers to pay. If it is halted and there’s no financial solution, companies will go bust,” he said.

Bolsonaro has faced fierce criticism for his blasé treatment of the outbreak, referring to it as a “little flu” and flouting social isolation guidelines, with his approval ratings slumping to the lowest level since he took office.

The president said on Twitter that his call with Xi that morning included a discussion of how to grow the two countries’ trade relationship. China is Brazil’s largest trading partner and the top buyer of Brazilian soy, beef and other raw commodities.

Bolsonaro did not mention the barbs his son Eduardo traded with China’s Ambassador Yang Wanming. Yang had retweeted a message calling the Bolsonaro family a “huge poison” before deleting it, in turn drawing a rebuke from Brazil’s foreign minister who said it was inappropriate behavior for an ambassador.

Xi and Bolsonaro’s conversation included discussion of cooperation in medical supplies, Yang said on Twitter, without saying what that might involve.

A Chinese diplomatic source said the country, which has seen some success in taming the virus through severe lockdown measures, would provide Brazil “with material and technical assistance to the best of its ability.”

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