Brazil turns to China for help in coronavirus fight, eyes U.S. cooperation

BRASILIA/SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Brazil faces a tense period in the coming weeks in its battle against the coronavirus, with supplies of medical and protective equipment running low and fresh shipments from China not expected to arrive in the country for another month.

Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta said states are well stocked for now, but Brazil had to turn to several countries before it could find a taker for its 1.2 billion reais ($228 million) order to restock.

“The first country said no, the second said no, and we were worried. At the end of the afternoon yesterday, the fifth country agreed and will deliver in 30 days. It is a very large purchase, enough for more than 60 days,” he said.

That country is China, the Health Ministry told Reuters, adding that the order is for 200 million items.

Mandetta also said on Thursday that he met the new U.S. ambassador to Brazil to discuss cooperation in the fight against the pandemic, which could see Brazilian firms producing face masks to be used in both countries.

Brazil’s reach out to the world’s two economic superpowers comes as President Jair Bolsonaro again urged states to relax their strict quarantine policies, and said people should start going back to work next week.

Bolsonaro and Mandetta have clashed over their approach to the crisis, with the president critical of Mandetta’s advice to maintain maximum self-isolation and social distancing due to the impact it is having on jobs and the economy.

Speaking to Radio Jovem Pan, the president said that Mandetta has at times “gone overboard” and lacked “humility.”

“I don’t plan on firing him during the war,” Bolsonaro said, referring to the current crisis.

Speaking earlier to church ministers in Brasilia, he once again downplayed the epidemic, saying it was “not all it’s being made out to be.”

The Health Ministry said on Thursday the federal government’s stock of some 40 million personal protective equipment for health professionals, such as masks and gloves, had been entirely disbursed to local authorities.

China, where the coronavirus emerged late last year, has been leveraging its production of medical equipment and expertise in halting the coronavirus as a soft-power tool in regions like South America, where it is jostling for influence against the United States.

The death toll in Brazil has been rising sharply.

Health Ministry figures showed that the number of deaths jumped 23% from Wednesday to 299 and the number of confirmed cases rose 15% to 7,910.

Brazil’s congress could vote by Friday on a constitutional amendment for the so-called “war budget” to help minimize the economic damage, lower house speaker Rodrigo Maia said earlier.

Economy Ministry officials said the government’s deficit this year will balloon to a record 419 billion reais, or 5.5% of GDP.

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