SAO PAULO/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – The new coronavirus outbreak hammered Brazilian retail, transport and manufacturing on Wednesday, and the government stopped accepting Venezuelan refugees at the border as the fast-spreading disease rattled financial markets.
With criticism mounting of his handling of the crisis, President Jair Bolsonaro scheduled a news conference for 2:30 p.m. local time (1730 GMT) to announce emergency measures to contain the epidemic and buttress the economy.
The virus has spread quickly within his inner circle. National security advisor Augusto Heleno said on Wednesday he had tested positive, though he did not have any symptoms.
Heleno, 72, a retired army general and one of Bolsonaro’s closest confidants, said on Twitter he was quarantined at home while waiting for a second test.
The president said he had tested negative twice, but 14 people from his entourage to Florida 10 days ago have now tested positive.
The benchmark Bovespa stock index tumbled nearly 10%, bonds yields spiked and Brazil’s currency hit an all-time low of 5.2 per dollar before central bank measures in foreign exchange and bond markets helped to pare losses.
In a fresh blow to many retail stocks, Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria on Wednesday recommended the closure of shopping malls in the metro area around the state capital. Several mall operators had already announced reduced shopping hours.
Airline association ABEAR said the sudden halt in travel was the worst crisis ever faced by country’s aviation sector. Demand for domestic flights in the second half of March fell 50% and international bookings were 85% down, ABEAR said.
General Motors Co, the best-selling carmaker in Brazil, announced it would furlough all workers in the country starting on March 30, suggesting production in the key automaking sector could soon fall off sharply.
Brazil on Wednesday closed its border to Venezuelans for an initial 15 days, citing contagion risks, strains on the public health system and what Bolsonaro described as Venezuela’s inability to respond to the outbreak.
The move, published in a Wednesday decree, does not apply to trucks shipping goods or cross-border humanitarian aid previously authorized by health officials. The 15-day ban on Venezuelans entering Brazil could be extended, it added.
Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist who has antagonized Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro, said on Twitter on Wednesday that the border closure was a result of “the incapacity of the dictatorial Venezuelan regime to respond to the COVID-19 epidemic.”
In another restriction of border traffic, land transport regulator ANTT suspended for 60 days all international bus services.
Seven cities neighboring Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest metropolis, said they would begin scaling back municipal transportation until a total shutdown from March 29 onward.
Late on Tuesday, Bolsonaro asked Congress to authorize a state of emergency through the end of the year, freeing the government from spending targets as it mobilizes funds to fight the virus and bolster the economy. Officials proposed nearly 150 billion reais ($29 billion) of measures on Monday.
Brazil this week reported its first fatality from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, and confirmed coronavirus cases more than doubled over the past three days to 291 on Tuesday, according to the Health Ministry.
That count could soar past 2,300 and as high as 5,000 by March 26, warned researchers at three big Brazilian universities in a study released on Tuesday.
The rapid spread of the virus has put officials on alert in major cities, which have called off large gatherings, suspended school and leisure activities and encouraged work from home.
But Bolsonaro has come under fire from critics for playing down the gravity of the situation and failing to encourage social distancing from the start. On Sunday, he cheered on public demonstrations and took selfies with supporters who staged a rally outside the presidential palace.
Brazilians who were upset with the president’s handling of the crisis banged pots and pans and shouted “Out with Bolsonaro” from their windows on Tuesday evening in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and other big cities, in a spontaneous protest.
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