(Adds details of letter, efforts to re-stock medicines)
SAO PAULO, March 22 (Reuters) - Hundreds of Brazilian business leaders and economists blasted President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the coronavirus crisis on Monday and called for a new policy approach as the country enters a critical phase of its COVID-19 outbreak.
The letter, published in newspapers and signed by former central bank chiefs and some of Brazil’s richest bankers, underscored a growing revolt by business leaders against the far-right president whom many had backed for his 2018 election.
Without naming Bolsonaro, they upbraided “the country’s highest political leadership” for ignoring science, encouraging crowds, hyping unproven treatments and “flirting with the anti-vaccine movement.”
The presidential press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A surge of infections has made Brazil the latest epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, killing more than 15,000 people last week and pushing hospitals across the country to the limit.
Brazil’s government is racing to obtain fresh supplies of drugs needed to safely intubate patients, Jarbas Barbosa, assistant director of the Pan American Health Organization, said on Monday, after concerns of shortages arose this month.
“We are on the verge of an explosive phase of the pandemic, and it is fundamental that, from now on, public policy be based on data, solid information and scientific evidence,” wrote the business leaders and economists.
“The country is tired of out-of-place ideas, inconsequential words and late or mistaken actions,” they said. “Brazil demands respect.”
Among the signatories were Roberto Setubal and Pedro Moreira Salles, whose families control Itau, Brazil’s biggest bank, Pedro Passos, co-founder of cosmetics maker Natura & Co , and former central bank presidents Gustavo Loyola and Arminio Fraga.
In a broadside against the government, they called for more urgency in sourcing vaccines, free masks for the needy, better federal coordination on the pandemic and consideration of a national or regional lockdown strategy.
The message from such prominent economists and bankers cut at Bolsonaro’s core political argument that he has defended jobs by opposing lockdowns, which the letter called a “false choice between saving lives and ensuring support for the vulnerable.”
“It’s not reasonable to expect an economic recovery in an out-of-control epidemic,” they wrote. (Reporting by Tatiana Bautzer Additional reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia Editing by Brad Haynes, Louise Heavens and Bill Berkrot)