Brazil records first coronavirus death, Bolsonaro awaits new test result

BRASILIA/SAO PAULO, March 18 ------ Brazil on Tuesday reported its first confirmed death from the coronavirus outbreak and tests were underway on four other possible COVID-19 fatalities, as Congress canceled a joint session due to mounting fears about the fast-moving disease. A 62-year-old man with a history of diabetes and hypertension died from the virus on Monday, after checking into a private hospital in Sao Paulo on Saturday, state health officials told a news conference.

The man had no recent history of international travel. Four other deaths in the same unidentified hospital were under investigation to see if the deceased had succumbed to the virus, officials said. Brazil also announced it would partially close its border with Venezuela as of Wednesday to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, stopping the influx of Venezuelan refugees while allowing trucks with merchandise to continue crossing. Brazil’s health minister urged the closure because he said Venezuela was no longer able to provide healthcare.

President Jair Bolsonaro underwent his second coronavirus test, and the results may be released later on Tuesday, the president’s office said. The president said on Friday his initial test result was negative. Separately, Congress canceled a joint session of the upper and lower houses as lawmakers stayed away over concerns related to the virus, a Senate staffer said.

The session had been scheduled to debate presidential vetoes and budget issues. If lawmakers continue to stay away, the government’s agenda of privatizations, tax reforms and public payroll cuts could quickly grind to a halt. Congressional committees canceled public hearings and Senate and lower chamber leaders were discussing whether to suspend all sessions due to the epidemic. Brazil’s Supreme Court has limited its work to rulings made by justices online.

Nonetheless, Rodrigo Maia, the head of the lower house, on Tuesday said the legislative body would not close. He added that he and other lawmakers would fully support any coronavirus aid package brought by the government, adding he hoped to see measures in the next days and weeks. Maia also criticized the government for not having shut down Brazil’s borders, restricted international flights and curtailed movements in hotspots like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro states.

Sao Paulo was the first state to register a coronavirus case and still is the epicenter of the outbreak in Brazil with 152 cases, according to official figures. Brazil had 291 confirmed coronavirus cases on Tuesday, up from 234 confirmed on Monday. Bolsonaro was first tested last Thursday after his communications secretary Fabio Wajngarten, who was part of a presidential party that visited Florida and met with U.S. President Donald Trump last week, tested positive.

So far, a dozen members of the president’s entourage in Florida and four others who participated in meetings with Bolsonaro during the trip have tested positive.