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Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro Remains Defiant On COVID-19 And The Environment At The U.N.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro pulls off his protective face mask to address the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021.
Eduardo Munoz
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro pulls off his protective face mask to address the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021.

Upon taking the podium at the United Nations in New York City, the far-right leader of Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro, remained defiant against his many critics.

"I came here to show a Brazil that is different from what is shown in the newspapers and on television," he told the chamber. "Brazil has changed — and a lot — since we assumed office in January 2019."

The U.N. is working off of an "honor system" — and that alone — to ensure that world leaders have been vaccinated before they speak at the annual gathering. Bolsonaro, who tested positive in July 2020, himself is unvaccinated and has made no secret of that. Yet, on Tuesday, he was allowed to go ahead with his speech in person.

So far, his trip to New York City for the U.N. General Assembly appears to be anything but a success for Brazil, their leaders or the country's image after several blunders early this week.

First, a member of Bolsonaro's team tested positive for COVID-19 as they arrived in New York City days before Brazil's delegation arrived for the meeting of world leaders.

Then Brazilian health minister Marcelo Queiroga, who was vaccinated in March, shared that he also tested positive for COVID-19 just hours after accompanying Bolsonaro in New York.

In his speech on Tuesday, Bolsonaro did not mention his own vaccination status and primarily focused on misinformation when he spoke about the coronavirus. He also pushed back on criticism of his government's dismal political and environmental record.

Bolsonaro backs unproven COVID treatments in speech

A view of the COVID-19 intensive Care Unit in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil on May 27, 2021.
Fabio Teixeira / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
A view of the COVID-19 intensive care unit in Rio De Janeiro on May 27.

Throughout the pandemic, Brazil has frequently been one of the countries with the highest number of infections, second only to the U.S. for some time. According to Johns Hopkins University's global COVID-19 tracker, Brazil has suffered 591,440 deaths from the virus as of early Wednesday morning.

Authorities there have dealt with low oxygen supplies, overcrowded hospitals and low vaccination rates. In June,a government inquiry exposed Bolsonaro's mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. It revealed that early on, his government failed to purchase or rejected offers to sell Brazil vaccines more than 14 times.

But during Bolsonaro's speech to the U.N. this week, he went so far as to recommend unproven and ineffective coronavirus treatments.

"From the very beginning, in my country, I warned that we had two problems to solve, the virus and joblessness, and that both issues had to be addressed simultaneously and with the same sense of responsibility," he said.

Bolsonaro said the Brazilian media had just "politicized" the virus and caused panic.

"Under the mottos 'stay at home' and 'we will deal with the economy later on,' they almost brought about social chaos to the country," he said. "But our administration in a bold step put in place several economic measures that prevented a greater evil."

Bolsonaro said he didn't understand why many countries and the media rejected unproven and ineffective coronavirus treatments, saying that he had taken those drugs himself after becoming infected.

"History and science will know how to hold everyone to account," he added.

There is a serious risk of COVID's spread among world leaders

Another of Bolsonaro's ministers shared a photo of the delegation eating a slice of pizza outside on the sidewalk of New York City.

In a city often celebrated for its restaurants, it's unusual to find a world leader eating a slice on the go. But the unvaccinated Bolsonaro and his entourage will be limited in their dining options given the city's requirement that indoor diners be vaccinated.

A United Nations employee cleans the microphones at the podium after Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro spoke and before the start of President Joe Biden's address during the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, at United Nations headquarters in New York.
Eduardo Munoz / AP
A United Nations employee cleans the microphones at the lectern after Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, who has openly said he is not vaccinated against COVID-19, spoke to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday put Bolsonaro on blast for attending the annual meeting.

"We need to send a message to all the world leaders, including most notably Bolsonaro from Brazil, that if you intend to come here, you need to be vaccinated," de Blasio said during a daily briefing.

After the images of Bolsonaro and his delegation enjoying a sidewalk slice was shared on social media, de Blasio responded on Twitter, urging Bolsonaro to get vaccinated.

There also remains a risk of a spread of the virus after, prior to his quarantining, Queiroga was filmed shaking hands with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson on Tuesday met with President Biden at the White House.

According to Brazilian journalist Raquel Krähenbühl, earlier that day, Queiroga was in the same van as Brazil's foreign minister who met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Krähenbühl also shared that Queiroga had stayed at the same hotel as Biden had.

Alleged environmental record is at odds with reality

Even with a decree banning fires in all Brazilian territory for 120 days on August 21, 2020, members of the fire brigade of the Brazilian Environment Institute (Ibama) fight fires in a farm near the city of Novo Progresso, in the south of the state of Pará.
Ernesto Carriço / NurPhoto via Getty Images
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Even with last summer's decree banning fires in all Brazilian territory for 120 days, a fire brigade found itself battling flames in August on a farm near the city of Novo Progresso.

Elsewhere in his address, Bolsonaro sought to boost the country's record on the environment.

"Which other country in the world has a policy of environmental protection like ours?" Bolsonaro asked.

But under his leadership, there has been a spike in deforestation in the Amazon. Last year, the Brazilian Amazon lost an area14 times the size of New York City to deforestation. That's the most in 12 years. This is partly because Bolsonaro has weakened government environmental agencies combating illegal mining and logging.

Portions of the Amazon rainforest are now releasing more carbon dioxide than they absorb.

Marcio Astrini, the executive director of the Climate Observatory, an umbrella group of environmental NGOs, told The Guardian this week that Bolsonaro had distorted statistics in an attempt to defend his environmental record.

"This is simply not true – it's a lie," Astrini said of Bolsonaro's claim that 84% of the Amazon rainforest was intact. "Somebody cooks up these numbers and the president repeats them."

Astrini said the only thing that could lead to improvement in Brazil would be Bolsonaro resigning.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jaclyn Diaz is a reporter on Newshub.