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Lula Warns 'Reckless' Pandemic Response by Bolsonaro Leading Brazil 'to the Slaughterhouse'

The former Brazilian president joined a growing global chorus criticizing how the country's current leader has handled the public health crisis.

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva delivers a speech during an event titled: "Dialogue about inequality with global unions and general public" at the Geneva Press Club on March 6, 2020 in Switzerland. (Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

In an exclusive interview with the Guardian Friday, former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva joined a chorus of people across the globe who have sharply criticized his country's current far-right leader, Jair Bolsonaro, in recent months for irresponsibly handling the coronavirus pandemic.

Lula called Bolsonaro a "troglodyte" and warned that he is leading Brazilians "to the slaughterhouse" with his "reckless" and "grotesque" pandemic response. The leftist former president's comments came just a day after Bolsonaro fired Brazilian Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who had pushed for public health measures.

There are nearly 31,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Brazil and over 1,900 related deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker. However, earlier this month Rio de Janeiro Health Secretary Edmar Santos said that his state could have another 50 to 100 infected people undetected for each of its confirmed cases.

"Unfortunately I fear Brazil is going to suffer a great deal because of Bolsonaro's recklessness," said Lula, who spoke to the Guardian by video call from São Bernardo do Campo. "I fear that if this grows Brazil could see some cases like those horrific, monstrous images we saw in Guayaquil," Ecuador's largest city, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak.

"We can't just want to topple a president because we don't like him," Lula added. “[But] if Bolsonaro continues to commit crimes of responsibility... [and] trying to lead society to the slaughterhouse—which is what he is doing—I think the institutions will need to find a way of sorting Bolsonaro out. And that will mean you'll need to have an impeachment."

Brazil's president from 2003 to 2010, 74-year-old Lula is a longtime critic of Bolsonaro, who took office in January 2019. Although Lula was initially a contender in Brazil's 2018 election, he dropped out after being jailed over disputed corruption charges. The ex-president was released in November thanks to a ruling by the country's supreme court.

Lula told the Guardian that though he has no plans to seek the political office again, "you can be certain the left will be governing Brazil again after 2022. We don't need to talk about who the candidate is right now. But we will vote for someone who is committed to human rights and respects them, who respects environmental protection, who respects the Amazon... who respects blacks and the indigenous. We're going to elect someone who is committed to the poor of this country."

While Bolsonaro has faced intense domestic and international criticism on various fronts throughout his presidency, his decisions to repeatedly downplay the public health threat posed by the virus and defiance of experts' containment recommendations have bolstered calls for his immediate ouster.

Bolsonaro's decision to fire Mandetta came after the health minister said in a television interview Sunday that Brazilians "don't know if they should listen to the health minister or if they should listen to the president."

As The Intercept reported on the firing Thursday:

Mandetta had repeatedly advocated a science-based approach that includes social-distancing measures and quarantines, as well as shutting down much of Brazil. The positions weren't in accord with Bolsonaro's. On the same day Mandetta said that the worst is yet to come and that the coronavirus peak should hit in May and June, Bolsonaro told religious leaders, "It seems like this issue of the virus is starting to go away."

Bolsonaro has gone out of his way to make highly publicized visits to supermarkets and bakeries, shaking hands and taking selfies without gloves or a mask. "Due to my history as an athlete, if I was infected by the virus, I wouldn't have to worry," said the 65-year-old Bolsonaro in a nationally televised address late last month. He has repeatedly referred to Covid-19 as "a little cold."

Bolsonaro's health minister has become the most prominent public voice to contradict the president's full-throated denialism, but Mandetta speaks for an overwhelming majority of governors and health experts, as well as the public. In a recent survey, 76 percent of respondents approved of the health minister’s handling of the crisis, compared to 39 percent for Bolsonaro.

The outlet added that it remains unclear whether the new health minister, oncologist and healthcare executive Nelson Teich, "will be any better for the far-right president," given that he has "endorsed wide-scale social isolation measures and lamented the polarized nature of the debate." However, Teich also claimed in early April that the government's handling of the crisis "has been perfect so far."

American journalist Vincent Bevins, who has reported on Brazil, suggested on Twitter that firing Mandetta could have serious political consequences for Bolsonaro, noting that a key Senate official resigned Thursday and denounced the health minister's dismissal as "absurd."

Mandetta, for his part, addressed his dismissal in a series of tweets Thursday. "I would like to say thank you for the opportunity that was given to me, to manage our health service," he wrote, "and to plan our fight against the coronavirus epidemic, this great challenge that our health system is about to face."

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