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Brazil: Political crisis and Covid surge rock Bolsonaro

Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro is facing the biggest crisis of his presidency after the heads of the army, navy and air force all quit and the country recorded its highest daily Covid-19 death toll.

The unprecedented resignation of the defence chiefs is being seen as a protest at attempts by Mr Bolsonaro to exert undue control over the military.

Mr Bolsonaro’s popularity has plummeted over his response to Covid-19.

Nearly 314,000 people have died, with a new daily record of 3,780 on Tuesday.

What’s the situation with Covid?

Worldwide, Brazil has the second highest number of total confirmed Covid cases with more than 12.6m. Only the United States has had more.

On 17 March, when the daily death toll stood at 2,286, the Brazilian public health institute Fiocruz warned the health system was close to collapse,

More than 80% of intensive care unit beds were occupied in the capitals of 25 of Brazil’s 27 states, Fiocruz said.

Daily confirmed deaths in Brazil graphic

An epidemiologist in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Dr Pedro Hallal, told the BBC he feared Brazil could become a threat to global public health.

President Bolsonaro has consistently opposed lockdown measures, arguing that the damage to the economy would be worse than the effects of the coronavirus itself.

He has also told Brazilians to “stop whining” about the situation.

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But last week, Mr Bolsonaro, who has previously raised doubts about vaccines and defended unproven drugs as treatment, said that he would make 2021 the year of vaccinations. “Very soon we’ll resume our normal lives,” he said.

So far Brazil has vaccinated just over 8% of the population, with some 17.7m vaccine doses dispensed.

What is the political fallout?

The president’s popularity has plummeted over his handling of the pandemic, with 43% of Brazilians saying Mr Bolsonaro is to blame for the Covid crisis, according to a Datafolha poll published in mid-March.

His government is in turmoil. On 16 March a new health minister took office – the fourth since the pandemic began. Marcelo Queiroga, a cardiologist, replaced an army officer with no medical training.

On Monday the defence and foreign ministers resigned, prompting a cabinet reshuffle. The foreign minister was accused of mishandling relations with China, resulting in a shortage of Covid-19 vaccines.

The defence minister clashed with Mr Bolsonaro over the issue of the armed forces’ loyalty, which he said should be directed to upholding the constitution rather than supporting the president personally.

They were followed on Tuesday by the heads of the army, navy and air force. It is believed to be the first time in Brazilian history that the heads of the armed forces have stood down together over a disagreement with the president.

The BBC’s Latin America correspondent, Will Grant, says Mr Bolsonaro is now facing his biggest political crisis since taking office in January 2019.

The president is a divisive figure who has sparked controversy with racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments.

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A former army captain, Mr Bolsonaro organised a commemoration in 2019 of the 1964 coup which put Brazil under military rule until 1985. At least 434 people were killed or disappeared, according to the findings of a 2014 national truth commission.

Mr Bolsonaro defended the ceremonies, saying the aim was to remember the era rather than commemorate military rule itself.

On Wednesday, the newly appointed minister of defence, Gen Walter Braga Netto, said that it had “pacified the country” and should be celebrated.

He said that there had been a “very real threat to peace and democracy” and that the armed forces had confronted that threat.

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