Brazil closes border to Venezuelans as coronavirus outbreak worsens

By Pedro Fonseca
FILE PHOTO: Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro leaves Alvorada Palace in Brasilia

By Pedro Fonseca

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazil on Wednesday closed its border to Venezuelans for an initial 15 days, citing strains on the public health system from a worsening global coronavirus outbreak and what its president described as Venezuela's inability to respond to the epidemic.

The move, announced in a decree published in the government gazette, 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.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro announced the measure on Tuesday amid mounting criticism of how he has handled the coronavirus crisis. Brazil this week reported its first fatality from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus.

The virus has affected members of Bolsonaro's inner circle. Brazil's national security advisor Augusto Heleno said on Wednesday he has tested positive, though he did not have any symptoms.

Heleno, 72, a retired army general, said in a Twitter message he is currently under quarantine at his home while waiting for a second test confirmation. The president has tested negative twice, but 14 people in his entourage that visited Miami 10 days ago have now tested positive.

Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist, said on Twitter on Wednesday that the closing of the border to Venezuelans was a result of "the incapacity of the dictatorial Venezuelan regime to respond to the COVID-19 epidemic."

He and socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro have been constant antagonists, trading insults as Venezuela's economy has collapsed, sending hundreds of refugees daily across the border with Brazil.

Late on Tuesday, Bolsonaro's government also asked Congress to authorize a state of emergency through the end of the year, which Senate President Davi Alcolumbre called a top priority.

Brazil's confirmed coronavirus cases more than doubled over the past three days to 291 on Tuesday, according to the Health Ministry.

Sao Paulo state also reported that a 62-year-old man with a history of diabetes and hypertension had died from COVID-19, and tests were underway on four other possible fatalities.

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.

The economic shock from the epidemic, together with expectations of a global recession, led UBS analysts on Wednesday to cut their forecast for Brazil's economic growth in 2020 to just 0.5% from the previous forecast of 1.3%.

Brazil's benchmark stock index Ibovespa fell almost 9% and the Brazilian currency tumbled to a new low of 5.20 reais per dollar.




(Reporting by Pedro Fonseca; Writing by Gabriela Mello; Editing by Brad Haynes, Paul Simao and Bernadette Baum)