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Brazil’s skeptical president has virus, US starts WHO withdrawal

July 7, 2020

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has consistently downplayed the risks of coronavirus, announced Tuesday he has tested positive as the United States — the epicenter of the pandemic — formally launched its withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO).

The UN health agency meanwhile acknowledged that there was “emerging evidence” of airborne transmission of COVID-19, which has infected nearly 11.7 million people around the globe and caused more than 539,000 deaths.

Bolsonaro, who said he had experienced only mild symptoms, has ignored containment measures such as social distancing, despite Brazil becoming the second-worst hit country, with 65,000 dead.

The far right leader, who at 65 is in the highest-risk age category, insisted he was feeling “perfectly well” and took off his face mask during a TV interview announcing his test results.

He repeated his mantra that the “collateral effects” of the virus should not be worse than the illness itself.

Since the beginning of the virus outbreak, Bolsonaro has minimized the risks of what he initially called “a little flu” while resisting wearing a mask in public.

In Washington, a senior US official said the United States had informed UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres of its intention to leave the WHO effective July 6, 2021.

President Donald Trump has been critical of the coronavirus response of the WHO, accusing it of bias toward China and ignoring early signs of human-to-human transmission of the deadly virus.

The United States is the largest financial contributor to the WHO — which leads the fight on global maladies from polio and measles to mental health — providing $400 million annually.

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is virtually certain to reverse the decision and stay in the WHO if he defeats Trump in the November election.

Senator Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, criticized the WHO withdrawal announcement.

“To call Trump’s response to COVID chaotic and incoherent doesn’t do it justice,” Menendez said. “This won’t protect American lives or interests — it leaves Americans sick & America alone.”

‘Unsustainably high numbers’

Critics say Trump is seeking to deflect criticism from his own handling of the pandemic, which has killed nearly 131,000 people in the United States, by far the highest death toll of any nation.

Experts are still struggling to understand COVID-19 and WHO said it was open to new research after scientists lobbied for it to stress that it can spread through the air far beyond the two meters (six feet) referenced in social distancing guidelines.

An average of some 190,000 new cases have been registered daily globally during the last week, according to an AFP tally.

As nations scramble to stop the pandemic, Australia on Tuesday ordered five million people locked down in Melbourne, its second-biggest city, to combat a surge in cases.

“We can’t pretend” the crisis is over, said Daniel Andrews, premier of Victoria state, after Melbourne reported 191 new cases in 24 hours. “These are unsustainably high numbers.”

The restrictions in the Melbourne area will last at least six weeks, while Victoria state will be effectively sealed off from the rest of the country.

Cases are also surging in India and four new coronavirus field hospitals were opened on Tuesday in the financial capital Mumbai as the nationwide death toll jumped past 20,000.

In the United States, top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci warned the country is still “knee-deep” in the first coronavirus wave.

Officials have said hospitals in some parts of the country are in danger of being overwhelmed, with many states hit particularly hard after they eased virus restrictions.

Some mayors have said their cities exited lockdown too early, as Trump tried to downplay the severity of the crisis, instead prioritizing economic reopening.

Around the world, governments are struggling to balance the need to reopen economies wrecked by weeks of lockdown measures with the risk of new infections.

‘Viral bomb’

Italy’s health minister ordered a one-week suspension of flights to Rome from Bangladesh on Tuesday, after 21 passengers arriving from Dhaka tested positive, adding to the number of cases with the Bangladeshi community in the Lazio region surrounding Rome.

Lazio’s top health official Alessio D’Amato called it a “veritable viral ‘bomb’ that we’ve defused.”

There have been explosions of infections across the world, including Iran, which announced 200 new deaths on Tuesday.

In China, nearly 11 million students began taking the grueling annual college entrance exam known as Gaokao on Tuesday following a month-long delay.

But in Kenya, primary and secondary school children were told that their academic year was over and there would be no exams.

Meanwhile, the head of the prestigious Royal Society science journal said Tuesday that people who refuse to wear face masks during the pandemic should be stigmatized in the same manner as drink-drivers.

“If all of us wear one, we protect each other and thereby ourselves, reducing transmission,” wrote Venki Ramakrishnan.

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