Bolsonaro asks Brazil military about troops to quell possible unrest

BRASILIA, April 7 (Reuters) - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said on Wednesday that he had asked the armed forces if they had troops available to control possible social unrest from the COVID-19 crisis, adding to fears that he is pushing the military into a political role.

Critics fret that Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain, aims to marshal the army and police as a political force ahead of a fraught 2022 election. He threw his support behind former U.S. President Donald Trump’s refusal to accept the 2020 election results, and some worry he is preparing to do the same next year.

“I fear for very serious social problems in Brazil,” he said on a trip to southern Brazil. “I talk with our armed forces. If this breaks out in Brazil, what are we going to do? Do we have troops to contain the amount of problems that we may face?”

Last week, Bolsonaro fired his defense minister and changed the leadership of the armed forces. He also named a new justice minister, who on Tuesday swapped out the federal police chiefs.

Brazil is now the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, piling pressure on Bolsonaro and pushing hospitals to the breaking point.

Bolsonaro has long sought to minimize the coronavirus, has shunned masks and was slow to purchase vaccines. Recently, he has suggested Brazilians could revolt against stay-at-home measures imposed by governors and mayors.

Brazil’s surge in COVID-19 deaths will soon surpass the record January wave in the United States to produce the highest daily tolls in any country since the pandemic began, with fatalities climbing for the first time above 4,000 on Tuesday.

To make matters worse, Brazil has recorded its first confirmed case of the highly contagious coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa, a fresh danger sign for a country already ravaged by a widespread local variant. (Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter Editing by Peter Graff)