As Sao Paulo goes into coronavirus lockdown, China offers to help Brazil

SAO PAULO: Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro patched up a diplomatic spat with China on Tuesday (Mar 24), agreeing in a call with President Xi Jinping to fight the spread of coronavirus together as Brazil's largest city went into its first day of lockdown.

The dispute began last week when Bolsonaro's son blamed Chinese authoritarianism for preventing faster action against the coronavirus, drawing blistering comments from China's ambassador to Brazil and entangling the upper reaches of the Brazilian government in the row.

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Coronavirus deaths in Brazil on Tuesday rose to 46 from 34, and cases rose to 2,201 from 1,891, according to government figures. Wanderson de Oliveira, a Health Ministry official, told reporters Brazil would vastly expand testing in the coming days.

READ: Gangs call curfews as coronavirus hits Rio favelas

Economic prospects are worsening for Brazil, Latin America's largest economy, amid the pandemic as data showed consumer confidence falling to a three-year low in March.

Street vendors wearing protective masks and gloves, sell fruit, vegetables and eggs during the coronavirus outbreak in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

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Retail sales in January declined at the fastest rate in over a year, indicating consumer spending was off to a weak start in 2020, even before the coronavirus outbreak.

Two of Brazil's top airlines said they would cut more than 90per cent of their domestic flights until at least May.

The slowdown is set to worsen as Sao Paulo, Brazil's economic powerhouse, began a two-week lockdown on Tuesday. The state government ordered all non-essential services and businesses to close in the country's largest city.

During morning rush hour the city's streets, usually gridlocked with some of the worst traffic on the continent, were quiet. The offices and shopping centres of financial artery Faria Lima were closed.

A woman wearing protective mask walks next to closed stores in Rio de Janeiros' downtown during the coronavirus outbreak. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Buses still ran and construction was allowed to continue in a bid to avoid complete economic collapse in Brazil's financial hub. Restaurants were open for takeout and delivery workers whizzed through the thinning traffic on bikes and scooters.

"It's all empty … the bus, train, metro, all empty," said Gidalva do Santo, 50, who had left home briefly to visit the doctor. Suffering from hypertension, do Santo is vulnerable to the coronavirus and, wearing a facemask, she said she was taking all possible precautions.

Pasta Avenue is seen empty on the first day of lockdown imposed by state government because of the coronavirus outbreak, in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

"Everyone is scared, but I think everyone has to look after themselves, taking hygiene seriously, washing their hands."

Sao Paulo, which recorded the first cases, has been the hardest hit.

Waiting for a train in a usually packed station, Antonio Lima, 50, said he was worried about what the virus might mean for his small construction business.

"It's a constant worry, because we have workers to pay. If it is halted and there's no financial solution, companies will go bust," he said.

Bolsonaro has faced fierce criticism for his blasé treatment of the outbreak, referring to it as a "little flu" and flouting social isolation guidelines, with his approval ratings slumping to the lowest level since he took office.

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