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Bolsonaro backers defy health warnings to stage rallies

A man wears a mask during a demonstration supporting Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro on Copacabana beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, March 15, 2020. Thousands took to the streets on Sunday to demonstrate in favor of Bolsonaro, challenging in some states the ban on agglomerations due to coronavirus and ignoring his suggestion to postpone the acts. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
March 15, 2020 - 4:28 PM

RIO DE JANEIRO - Thousands of Brazilians ignored warnings to avoid mass gatherings and staged demonstrations in favour of President Jair Bolsonaro and against his antagonists in Congress and the Supreme Court on Sunday.

Bolsonaro himself had urged supporters to delay the demonstrations, which had been announced weeks ago, due to the spread of the new coronavirus. But he apparently changed his mind Sunday morning, joining a rally in the capital of Brasilia where he shot selfies and shook hands with demonstrators.

Bolsonaro's office announced on Thursday that tests showed him free of the new virus despite the fact his chief spokesman and other aides have tested positive following a visit to Washington, where they met U.S. President Donald Trump.

“This is priceless, what the people are doing in spite of my recommendation," Bolsonaro said in a Facebook Live transmission.

“With everything against it — the press, the virus, the recommendations — the people took to the streets,” the president said.

Bolsonaro didn't organize the event, but at times appeared to encourage participation.

Many of the protesters in Rio de Janeiro wore medical masks while carrying placards supporting the president.

“The corruption kills a lot more than the virus," said Alisson de Oliveira, 42, though he acknowledged he was worried by the illness.

The demonstrations occurred at a time when Bolsonaro is battling with parts of Congress over the federal budget. Rodrigo Maia, the president of the Lower House, said on social media that Bolsonaro's decision to attend the demonstration effectively downplays the pandemic and encourages people to hit the streets.

“This is an attack on public health that goes against the orientations of his own government,” Maia wrote.

So far, Brazil has confirmed more than 170 cases of the new coronavirus.

Authorities in Rio and Sao Paulo on Friday banned mass gatherings and Rio's governor said police would even restrict access to beaches, though they merely looked on as Friday's demonstration occurred and thousands sunned themselves on Copacabana beach.

News from © The Associated Press, 2020
The Associated Press

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