On a warm evening in São Paulo Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro held his head high and stared into the camera lens to address an expectant nation.

Coronavirus deaths had just ticked slowly up to 57 as millions tuned in to hear the government's plans to combat the pandemic beginning to wreak havoc in Europe and the US.

What they got, however, was a mix of denial and hostility. In an angry speech the president decried the "hysteria" of the press for spreading fear, and dismissed the virus as a "little flu".

The man who came within a whisker of death just two years ago, after being stabbed on the campaign trail, mustered a smirk as he claimed he would be immune from any of the disease's severe symptoms due to his "past as an athlete".

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Two months and over 340,000 official cases later, the little flu has claimed the lives of at least 20,000 Brazilians and probably many more.

Over the last few days the daily death toll has topped 1,000, putting the country on a similar trajectory to some of the worst-hit countries in the world.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro speaks to supporters while departing his official residence, Alvorada palace, in Brasilia, Brazil. Photo / AP
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro speaks to supporters while departing his official residence, Alvorada palace, in Brasilia, Brazil. Photo / AP

By some measures, Brazil is the new epicentre of global pandemic, recording higher daily averages than anywhere else in the world. Bodies line up to be buried in rich-red earth mass graves under heavy skies. Hospitals are at breaking point.

But the headache doesn't end there for Bolsonaro, 65, a hard-Right former army captain catapulted to power on a populist anti-corruption drive that gained him the nickname 'Tropical Trump'.

This weekend video was released of a foul-mouthed cabinet meeting rant in which he is heard demanding a clear-out of justice officials investigating his sons for alleged links to hit squads and fake news rackets.

The scandal could lead to impeachment.

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Facing political implosion and a deadly virus out of control - sweeping through the country from packed favelas to sweaty jungle cities - Bolsonaro now faces the prospect of becoming known as the man who broke Brazil.

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Bolsonaro's Covid-19 strategy is without precedent around the world. While other global leaders played down the severity of the virus and deployed poor policy decisions, Brazil's president has doubled down on his message of denial, even when Trump began supporting confinement measures.

The Telegraph spoke to government insiders who told of growing discord in and around the Bolsonaro administration, with the president fostering a culture of bullying and contempt for dissent.

They help paint a picture of a jealous and vindictive leader at the helm of a nation in crisis.

Medical workers move at the Dr. Ernesto Che Guevara hospital in Marica, Brazil. Photo / AP
Medical workers move at the Dr. Ernesto Che Guevara hospital in Marica, Brazil. Photo / AP

One high profile former cabinet member told The Telegraph that several efforts were made within the government to establish a comprehensive social isolation policy to contain the Covid-19 spread, but that Bolsonaro never showed any interest. "The president always dismissed the importance of discussions about the coronavirus."

By anyone's measure, the fact that Bolsonaro has pushed out two health ministers in the space of one month — during the worst health crisis in living memory — is a testament to the disastrous handling of the pandemic.

Luiz Henrique Mandetta and Nelson Teich, both qualified medical professionals, were ousted from the cabinet after disagreeing with Bolsonaro over social isolation measures and the prescription of anti-malaria drug chloroquine to treat Covid-19.

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At the time of publication, Brazil's health ministry has lain vacant for over one week.

"It's really difficult to work under a boss like Jair Bolsonaro," says senator Sérgio Olímpio Gomes, a former close ally of Mr Bolsonaro better known as Major Olimpio.

"The only people who last under him are submissive or brownnosers. If anyone disagrees with him on anything, he starts treating them as traitors."

Medical workers treat coronavirus patients at the intensive care unit of the Dr. Ernesto Che Guevara hospital, that exclusively treats COVID-19 cases, in Marica, Brazil. Photo / AP
Medical workers treat coronavirus patients at the intensive care unit of the Dr. Ernesto Che Guevara hospital, that exclusively treats COVID-19 cases, in Marica, Brazil. Photo / AP

Major Olimpio campaigned alongside Bolsonaro in the run-up to the 2018 election campaign and worked closely with the president throughout the first year of his government but has since fallen out with one of Bolsonaro's sons. In the case of ex-health minister Mandetta, the senator told The Telegraph that it was an act of jealousy on behalf of the president.

"Bolsonaro can't handle anyone around him stealing his thunder", he explains. "His biggest problem with Mandetta was that he gained credibility from the press and the population, and the president became envious".

The late Gustavo Bebianno, who coordinated Bolsonaro's 2018 election campaign and briefly served in his cabinet, called the president "authoritarian and arrogant".

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"He's shown an extreme degree of insecurity, this obsession with showing he's in charge, without listening to anyone, is very bad for our country." Bebianno died in March from a heart attack.

Indeed, Bolsonaro's hot-headed reputation has been evident ever since he entered public life in 1988.

Serving seven terms as a Congress backbencher, he stood out more for his outrageous and inflammatory outbursts to the media than his legislative prowess.

In fact, in his 27 years in Brazil's lower house, he only successfully approved two bills.

Instead, he dedicated his time to causing controversy, becoming a regular guest on comedy TV shows for his propensity for offensive remarks.

During the 2018 election campaign, much was made of Jair Bolsonaro's background in the army, causing trepidation among the left-wing, just over 30 years after Brazil emerged from a brutal military dictatorship — a period which Bolsonaro never misses an opportunity to speak highly of.

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Indigenous leader Kretan Kaingang wears a face mask with a hashtag that reads: 'Get out Bolsonaro' during a protest demanding the impeachment of President Jair Bolsonaro. Photo / AP
Indigenous leader Kretan Kaingang wears a face mask with a hashtag that reads: 'Get out Bolsonaro' during a protest demanding the impeachment of President Jair Bolsonaro. Photo / AP

Once in office, Bolsonaro featherbedded his government with representatives from the military. Even governments of the military dictatorship contained more civilians.

Jair Bolsonaro entered the military in 1977, working his way up to the rank of captain. He left the Armed Forces in 1988 after plotting to plant small bombs inside his army barracks in protest against low military salaries.

"It's no secret that the generals have a certain contempt toward him, everybody knows it," says sociologist Celso Rocha de Barros, dismissing the president's military credentials as vastly overblown.

Just over a month before the 2018 election Mr Bolsonaro was stabbed in the stomach while being lifted on the shoulders of supporters in a rally in the town of Juiz de Fora by a lone wolf attacker who claimed he was working "on God's orders".

"It helped consolidate his message, that he was the only candidate fighting against the system," says Matias Spektor, an associate professor at São Paulo-based think tank FGV. "Being stabbed, and surviving the stabbing, was a perfect image for him".

Surviving the assassination attempt and going on to win the presidency has cultivated a core group of followers who have remained with Bolsonaro through thick and thin, enamoured by the idea that he — not his attacker — is on a mission from God to "set Brazil straight".

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"He's a great leader of the masses", says Major Olimpio. "But he's never had in-depth knowledge in any area".

Throughout his term, he famously declared he "[doesn't] understand the economy", delegating authority to his cabinet ministers, but reining them in at any sign of threat.

Speaking as though he is a doctor, Bolsonaro has regularly recommended chloroquine, an antimalarial and the sister drug of Trump's prescription of choice.

"He doesn't have the scientific capacity to know whether the drug is going to be effective, but he goes for it anyway, because his supporters love it, they want him to screw over the doctors, to show up the scientists", explains the senator.

His propensity for pseudo science may have contributed to a cavalier attitude to the coronavirus, to put it mildly.

With the president at war with state governors and the WHO over social distancing and lockdown measures, the virus has spread from the apartments of Brazil's jet-setting elite to deep into the Amazon.

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Jungle cities like Manaus are buckling under the pressure of spiralling death tolls and infections, while even remote indigenous tribes are recording fatalities, leading to warnings over the future of some of the world's most vulnerable communities.

The virus has also claimed lives in Rio de Janeiro's favelas, while the hospitals in Sao Paulo are now "near collapse", according to the mayor of the sprawling metropolis of 12-million.

Meanwhile the president is increasingly isolated among global leaders after being accused of encouraging record levels of deforestation in the Amazon.

But Bolsonaro also has other concerns on his mind, having been placed under formal investigation by Brazil's Supreme Court. If indicted, he could be removed from office.

The probe stems from accusations of illegal meddling in the federal police, after justice minister Sergio Moro resigned from the cabinet in late April.

Moro claimed the president had interfered politically in the selection of the new head of the federal police, wanting "someone he could call, that could give him information on investigation reports".

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Bolsonaro's sons - he has three in elected positions in Brazilian politics - have been targeted by a number of federal corruption probes, particularly in their home state of Rio de Janeiro.

The key piece of evidence in the case is a video recording of an April 22 cabinet meeting, which was made public on Friday evening.

In the video, Bolsonaro rants that he "won't wait for them to f*** over my family and friends, I'll change everyone in security, the chief, the minister".

In leaked WhatsApp messages with Sergio Moro, president Bolsonaro is shown to be seeking control over the federal police in Rio de Janeiro.

"You have 27 police districts, I just want one: Rio", read one message.

The outcome of this debacle will depend on whether or not Brazil is prepared to impeach a president during the deadliest pandemic in living memory.

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