BRASILIA/SAO PAULO, March 24 (Reuters) - Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro laid to rest a diplomatic spat with China in a call with President Xi Jinping on Tuesday, with the two agreeing to work together to fight coronavirus as Brazil’s largest city went into lockdown.
The conversation appeared to mark the end of a dispute that began last week with the president’s son blaming Chinese authoritarianism for preventing faster action against coronavirus, drawing blistering comments from China’s ambassador to Brazil and entangling the upper reaches of Brazilian government in the row.
The reconciliation comes as economic prospects worsen for Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy, amid the pandemic as a survey on Tuesday showed that consumer confidence fell to a three-year low in March.
Government data released on Tuesday also showed that January retail sales fell at the fastest rate in over a year, indicating consumption was off to a weak start in 2020 even before coronavirus.
The economic slowdown is expected to worsen as a state government order went into effect to shut down all non-essential services and business in the country’s largest city, the financial hub of Sao Paulo.
During morning rush hour the streets of São Paulo, usually gridlocked with some of the worst traffic on the continent, were quiet. The offices and shopping centers of the city’s financial artery Faria Lima were closed.
Buses still ran and construction has been allowed to continue in a bid to avoid complete economic collapse in Brazil’s most populous and wealthiest city. Restaurants are open for takeaway and delivery men and women whizzed through the thinning traffic on bikes and scooters.
The drastic efforts aim to contain the spread of coronavirus, with the number of confirmed cases tripling in four days to 1,891 and deaths rising to 34 from 25 on Sunday, according to data released by the Health Ministry on Monday.
Sao Paulo, which recorded the first cases, has been the hardest hit by the virus.
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.
The president said on Twitter that his call with Xi that morning included a discussion of how to grow the two countries’ trade relationship. China is Brazil’s largest trading partner and the top buyer of Brazilian soy, beef and other raw commodities.
Bolsonaro did not mention the barbs his son Eduardo traded with China’s Ambassador Yang Wanming. Yang had retweeted a message calling the Bolsonaro family a “huge poison” before deleting it, in turn drawing a rebuke from Brazil’s foreign minister who said it was inappropriate behavior for an ambassador.
Xi and Bolsonaro’s conversation included discussion of cooperation in medical supplies, Yang said on Twitter, without saying what that might involve.
A Chinese diplomatic source said the country, which has seen some success in taming the virus through draconian measures, would provide Brazil “with material and technical assistance to the best of its ability.”
Reporting by Jake Spring, Jamie McGeever and Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Lisa Shumaker
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