By Lisandra Paraguassu and Pedro Fonseca
BRASILIA/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Brazil registered a daily record 13,944 new cases of the novel coronavirus on Thursday, as President Jair Bolsonaro urged business leaders to push for lifting lockdown orders in financial center Sao Paulo to help the economy.
Brazil is the hardest hit country in Latin America with a tally of 202,918 confirmed cases of the virus and 13,933 deaths, since the outbreak began, according to health ministry data.
Bolsonaro has railed against the economic damage caused by state and local government social distancing measures, taking his campaign to reopen the economy to Brazil’s business community on Thursday.
In a videoconference, he told a gathering of business leaders to “play tough” with Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria, who has issued social distancing orders and said he will not comply with Bolsonaro’s latest decree to reopen gyms and beauty salons.
“One man is deciding the future of Sao Paulo,” Bolsonaro said, referring to Doria. “He is deciding the future of Brazil’s economy. With all due respect, you have to call the governor and play tough – play tough – because it’s a serious issue, it is war. Brazil is at stake.”
Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous state and home to a third of its economic output, has seen hospitals pushed to the limit as it records the worst outbreak in the country.
Doria has urged residents to stay indoors and ordered all non-essential services closed through May 31. But Bolsonaro has sought to weaken those orders by declaring more services as “essential” and free to open, including gyms and hair salons.
Doria is one of at least 10 governors who said they would not comply with Bolsonaro’s decree.
Brazil’s government slashed its economic growth forecast this week, forecasting a 4.7% contraction in 2020, the worst annual drop since at least 1900.
Bolsonaro said it is still possible to reverse course and avoid what he called economic chaos in months to come.
“Will people die? Unfortunately people will die. Unfortunately, no matter what, with a lockdown or not, we will continue to lose lives,” Bolsonaro said.
“Now the number of lives that will be lost from the economic chaos, because of the lockdowns, will be much much greater.”
(Reporting by Pedro Fonseca in Rio de Janeiro and Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia; Writing by Jake Spring; Editing by Sandra Maler and Grant McCool)