Will Brazil see justice for the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic?
On October 26, the Brazilian Senate approved the final report of its investigation into President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, exposing malicious policies and widespread corruption. The main conclusion of the six-month investigation by the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (ICC) into COVID-19 is clear: The actions and failures of the Bolsonaro administration have contributed to more than 600,000 deaths to date linked to COVID-19 across Brazil, the second highest total in the world behind the United States. On average, 1 in 347 Brazilians died from the coronavirus.
The politics behind the coronavirus in Brazil
The commission heard from more than 100 witnesses over 66 sessions and examined some 20 million gigabytes of digital information to trace the causes and consequences of Bolsonaro’s decisions, such as his lax COVID-19 policies derived from the disastrous attempt to let the virus take its course in order to achieve collective immunity. Last year, Bolsonaro downplayed the importance of the coronavirus as “a little flu,” promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine and other unproven drugs as a cure, opposed the use of masks, and most importantly, failed to secure adequate stocks of COVID-19 vaccine for the federal program.
COVID-19 related crimes
The PCI was created in April, a month after the pandemic peaked at more than 89,000 infections and nearly 4,000 deaths per day. The commission’s final report is voluminous, providing nearly 1,300 pages of solid evidence to indict Jair Bolsonaro with nine counts, including crimes against public health and crimes against humanity. Besides the president, 77 people, including three of his sons, two former and a current minister, as well as several close allies who hold key positions in public institutions, are on the indictment list.
The final report has been submitted to the Attorney General’s office for further consideration. If Bolsonaro is formally charged, he faces between 21 and 79 years in prison.
The report will also be presented to the lower house of the Brazilian National Congress. This could lead to dismissal for professional misconduct. Approval of the report by the lower house is unlikely, however, given that it is controlled by Bolsonaro supporters. Formal criminal charges are expected to be issued by Brazil’s Attorney General Augusto Aras, who is the president’s political candidate. The senators who headed the commission raised the possibility of taking the case to the International Criminal Court in The Hague in the probable event that the Brazilian justice system does not prosecute Bolsonaro.
The turning point of the investigation was the discovery of a corruption scheme within the Ministry of Health to spend $ 300 million on 20 million doses of overpriced COVID-19 vaccines produced by the Indian company Bharat Biotech . The investigation found that the Department of Health had set aside around $ 45 million to purchase Covaxin, which has not undergone proper clinical trials and has not been approved by any of the world’s regulatory agencies. health.
The payment was to be deposited into an offshore account of an opaque Brazilian company, Precisa Medicamentos, which was negotiating the deal and facing several legal inquiries into irregularities in public procurement. A deputy in the lower house of Congress and former Minister of Health, a close political ally of Bolsonaro, led the negotiations for the acquisition of the vaccine. The testimony allegations indicate that the president was aware of the scheme. The Bolsonaro administration’s attempt to buy Covaxin is puzzling given that last year it refused to buy the Pfizer vaccine even at a reduced price.
Political and social consequences
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a lack of leadership across the country, turning a public health emergency into an economic and socio-political crisis. While there were already undisputed signs of a rapidly approaching recession, with the virus spreading rapidly, the economic scenario deteriorated further. In 2020, the Brazilian economy was the second most affected by the pandemic, after Spain. Last year, Brazil posted negative GDP growth of 4.1%.
Economic projections for 2021 suggest that the Brazilian economy will show only modest expansion given last year’s economic meltdown, with GDP growth estimated at 3.7%. This comes against a backdrop of worsening macroeconomic indications such as rising inflation rates, currency devaluation and rising interest rates.
The pandemic has also heightened political tensions in Brazil, with Bolsonaro more isolated than ever. The pandemic has highlighted the president’s inability to lead, coordinate and articulate meaningful solutions to the crisis. This highlighted Bolsonaro’s bellicose personality and brought him into conflict with his close associates. Since the start of the pandemic, Brazil had rotated four health ministers, two of whom left the government due to sharp disagreements with administration policies.
Bolsonaro also attempted to evade federal public health responsibilities from state and local authorities. This intensified the political conflict with state governors, which greatly contributed to the disarticulation of a coordinated response to the pandemic. Despite Bolsonaro’s obstructionist policies, state governments have implemented their own immunization programs. The state of São Paulo has launched a large-scale vaccination campaign after signing an agreement with the Chinese company Sinovac Biotech to locally produce the Coronavac vaccine. Last week, the state had an 87% vaccination rate for those over 18, compared to 53% for the rest of the country.
Initially, Bolsonaro interpreted the pandemic as an opportunity to advance his narrow political interests, such as his controversial agenda of easing arms control, easing the implementation of environmental legislation, and combating laws and regulations. anti-corruption actions. In addition, the president used the pandemic to distribute financial aid to the poor, a move that saw him enjoy high popular approval for several months of the pandemic, from February to October 2020.
The indictment will take a heavy toll on Bolsonaro’s ambitions in next year’s presidential election. Based on an October opinion poll, if the elections were held today, former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva would win with 56% against 31% for Bolsonaro in the second round.
Lula, who is at odds with Bolsonaro’s political spectrum, was jailed in 2018 for corruption, until the Supreme Court overturned his conviction in April this year. So despite current projections that give Lula a clear lead, the 2022 presidential election in Brazil will be a highly polarized affair with unpredictable results.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, since the launch of the Senate inquiry, Bolsonaro’s popularity has dropped significantly. Between January and October of this year, the number of those who qualify Bolsonaro’s governance as “bad” fell from 40% to 53%, while “good” or “excellent” ratings fell from 32% to just 22. %, the lowest point since he took office in 2019. This is bad news for Bolsonaro, who will lose his presidential immunity if he is not re-elected.
In response, on October 20 – the same day the results of the investigation were first made public – the President announced that he would increase his financial support for a major social assistance program, the “Bolsa Família”. , Designed to reduce poverty. This populist social policy, announced for the sole purpose of bolstering the President’s re-election prospects, has had a negative effect on Brazilian financial markets.
Excessive government spending creates a record deficit, with the International Monetary Fund forecasting public debt to reach 96% of the country’s GDP. As part of this fiscal deterioration, investors are concerned about Brazil’s ability to further control its debt, leading to a sharp devaluation of the currency; since January 2020, the real has lost almost 40% of its value.
Jair Bolsonaro believed the COVID-19 pandemic would help mask his incompetence. Instead, the crisis has shown just how much lack of leadership kills – on a shocking scale. The more than 607,000 Brazilian lives lost during the pandemic serve as a constant and grim reminder that there is no place in Brazil for weak leadership.
While bringing those protected by immunity to justice will be an uphill struggle, the parliamentary inquiry showed that Brazil has strong democratic institutions that can not only effectively resist the autocratic push by the executive, but also hold up. the president responsible for instigating what could be the worst. public health crisis in Brazilian history.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.