RIO DE JANEIRO — President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who has railed against social distancing measures and repeatedly downplayed the threat of the coronavirus as the epidemic in his country became the second-worst in the world, said Tuesday that he, too, had been infected.
Critics at home and abroad have called Mr. Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic cavalier and reckless, allowing the virus to surge across Brazil, Latin America’s largest nation. At one point he dismissed it as “a measly cold,” and when asked in late April about the rising death toll, he replied: “So what? Sorry, but what do you want me to do?”
As the caseload has skyrocketed, Mr. Bolsonaro has shunned masks, attended mass rallies of his supporters, insisted that the virus poses no threat to healthy people, championed unproven remedies and shuffled through health ministers who disagreed with him.
Brazil now has more than 1.6 million confirmed cases and more than 65,000 deaths — more than any country except the United States.
Mr. Bolsonaro fell ill two days after he and a handful of his ministers attended a Fourth of July luncheon at the residence of Todd Chapman, the American ambassador in Brazil. Mr. Bolsonaro and other attendees sat shoulder-to-shoulder, embracing with no masks. The ambassador and his wife have since tested negative for the virus, but will remain at home, in quarantine, the embassy said.
Speaking to journalists outside the presidential palace in Brasília shortly after noon on Tuesday, Mr. Bolsonaro, said he had taken a test on Monday after experiencing fatigue, muscle pain and a fever.
He said he was feeling “very well,” which he credited to having taken hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug he has endorsed but which studies show does not ward off the virus. Covid-19 cases that become serious often take a turn for the worse about a week after symptoms emerge.
Mr. Bolsonaro did not express contrition for his handling of the pandemic, and doubled down on his assertion that the virus poses little risk to healthy people. He characterized the diagnosis as a predictable outcome of a leadership style that requires him to be among the people.
“I am the president, I have to be on the front lines of the fight,” he said, comparing the virus to “rain, which is going to get to you.”
After taking questions from journalists, Mr. Bolsonaro stepped back a few feet, removed the mask he had been wearing and smiled.
“Thank you to all those who prayed for me and rooted for me,” he said. “I’m fine, thank God. Those who have criticized me, that’s fine, they can continue to criticize me.”
Even as several of Mr. Bolsonaro’s aides have tested positive for the virus in recent months, the president has often eschewed precautions, boasting of how his athletic background would protect him and encouraging his supporters to flout lockdown measures imposed by city and state officials.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain also rebuffed social distancing advice and resisted lockdown measures, though he was never as dismissive as Mr. Bolsonaro. But after he became seriously ill with Covid and spent several days in a hospital, he appeared to take the danger more seriously, and made a point of praising overburdened health care workers.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s management of the virus has deeply divided his country, with many opponents expressing their rage at his heedless approach by banging pots and pans at their windows in the evenings. As Brazilians awaited the results of the president’s latest coronavirus test, messages posted on social media illustrated how politically polarized the country had become.
Two trending hashtags on Twitter Tuesday morning were #ForçaBolsonaro and #ForçaCorona — the first sending the president strength and the other effectively expressing hope that the president would fall ill.
When she heard the news, Day Medeiros, a 31-year-old community activist in Santa Cruz, a working-class neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, said she was immediately worried about how Bolsonaro supporters there would receive it. Hers is one of the neighborhoods with the highest contingent of Bolsonaro voters in the city.
“My concern is that he will use this to say, ‘See, I’m fine, if you catch this you will survive,’” she said. “Everything that happens to him has real repercussions in how people behave here. This is really serious.”
Mr. Bolsonaro’s diagnosis is the latest challenge for a government that has been rocked in recent months by abrupt cabinet departures and a series of legislative and criminal investigations targeting the president and his relatives.
As the country’s coronavirus caseload ballooned, Mr. Bolsonaro fired his first health minister in April over disagreements about the response to the virus, and drove his second one to quit less than a month into the job.
Since mid-May, an active-duty army general with no experience in health care has headed the ministry, which has been faulted for failing to mount a robust testing and contact tracing strategy.
As the health crisis worsened, Mr. Bolsonaro sparred with governors and mayors who imposed loosely-enforced lockdowns and quarantines. Claiming that local officials were presenting an unduly grim picture of the pandemic, Mr. Bolsonaro in June called on supporters to break into hospitals and film what they saw.
The president’s illness will do little to alter Brazil’s approach unless he experiences serious complications, politicians and public experts predicted. The country is now in the process of reopening, with Brazilians packing bars, beaches and public spaces.
A mild case could leave Mr. Bolsonaro and his supporters feeling vindicated, and accelerate the reopening of businesses in Brazil that began in recent weeks, when bars and gyms started welcoming patrons again.
“I don’t think we’ll see any significant changes,” Senator Alessandro Vieira, an opposition lawmaker. “Their denial is absolute, a bizarre thing.”
Supporters of the president praised him for disclosing his condition promptly and predicted he would recover quickly by taking the anti-malaria drug.
“I’m praying for his recovery,” Sóstenes Cavalcante, a congressman from Rio de Janeiro wrote on Twitter. “Congratulations to the president for being transparent with the Brazilian people. We are all at risk of contracting the virus and our opinion on SOCIAL DISTANCING will not change at all.”
If the president is among the majority of Covid-19 patients who do not become gravely ill, he will be widely seen as living proof of the merits of hydroxychloroquine, said Denise Garrett, a Brazilian-American epidemiologist. Despite the lack of evidence that the drug helps, and its potentially dangerous side effects, many Brazilians believe in the drug, said Dr. Garrett, who formerly worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fernando Haddad, the leftist politician Mr. Bolsonaro defeated in the 2018 presidential race, faulted the president’s handling of the crisis for the disease’s spread in Brazil.
“I regret that more than 1.6 million people have been infected and the fact that we’ve had the world’s worst response,” he wrote on Twitter. “I hope they all recover, including Mr. Bolsonaro. To relatives of those who have left us due to the government’s neglect, my sincere condolences.”
The president said on Tuesday that his illness did not alter his view that Brazilians needed to continue working. A bigger threat than the virus, he said, was failure to get workers back on the job in an economy that is expected to contract by up to 10 percent this year.
“There is no need to panic,” he said. “Life goes on.”