Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro used the occasion of his 66th birthday Sunday to renew his attacks on Covid-19 stay-at-home measures, telling supporters he would fight for their "freedom."
The far-right leader has defied expert advice on social distancing and face masks to slow the spread of the new coronavirus -- though he has recently adopted a more pragmatic tone, under pressure amid a deadly surge of Covid-19 in Brazil.
That included appearing in a face mask -- formerly a rarity -- to greet supporters wishing him a happy birthday outside the presidential palace in Brasilia.
However, many in the crowd were maskless, and Bolsonaro used his impromptu speech to renew his attacks on stay-at-home measures ordered by mayors and governors worried their health systems are approaching collapse.
"They're picking a fight," Bolsonaro told his backers, some of whom gave him a cake in the green, yellow and blue of the Brazilian flag.
"If anybody thinks we're going to give up our freedom, they're wrong. Some tyrants out there are trying to restrict your freedom. But you can be sure, our army is olive-green, and it's all of you, too," he said.
"You can count on our armed forces to defend your freedom and democracy."
Bolsonaro argues the economic damage caused by lockdowns is worse than the virus itself.
But in a sign of the pressure he faces, nearly 200 economists and business leaders, including several former finance ministers and central bank presidents, published an open letter Sunday urging the government to accelerate Brazil's lagging vaccination campaign and implement a nationally coordinated social distancing policy.
"The controversy around the economic impact of social distancing reflects a false dichotomy between saving lives and guaranteeing livelihoods," they said.
"In reality, it is unrealistic to expect an economic recovery in the middle of a runaway epidemic," they added, calling the situation in Brazil "desolate."
The pandemic has claimed 294,000 lives in Brazil, second only to the United States.
Authorities report intensive care units are more than 80-percent full in 25 out of 27 states, and nearly saturated in key flashpoints including Brazil's largest cities, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
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