COVID-19

Mishandling COVID-19: Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro’s ‘crime against humanity’

Print edition : November 19, 2021

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Photo: EVARISTO SA / AFP

Senators Omar Aziz (left) and Renan Calheiros, president and rapporteur of the Parliamentary Inquiry Commission that is investigating the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, during the report reading session in Brasilia on October 20. Photo: EDILSON RODRIGUES/AFP

Protesters wearing masks depicting Bolsonaro during a protest against his government’s failure to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and the Administrative Reform Bill taken up in the National Congress, on October 20 in Brasilia. Photo: Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

Despite a parliamentary report indicting him for nine crimes relating to his handling of the COVID-19 situation in Brazil, including “crime against humanity”, President Jair Bolsonaro remains unapologetic and continues to downplay the ongoing threat posed by the pandemic.

Brazil, along with India and the United States, suffered the worst casualties as the COVID-19 pandemic spread like wildfire across the world last year. However, these three countries were not the exception. Most scientific experts believe that many other governments across the globe grossly mishandled the situation in their countries, especially during the initial stages of the pandemic. While the U.S. and Indian governments have now prioritised the fight against COVID-19, the right-wing Brazilian government under President Jair Bolsonaro continues to downplay the ongoing threat posed by the pandemic.

Bolsonaro, an ideological soulmate of Trump and a close friend of Prime Minister Modi, has been the most cavalier among world leaders in his attitude towards the pandemic, for which the Brazilian public has paid a huge price. Recently, when a journalist asked him about the COVID situation in Brazil, Bolsonaro said that he was “bored” by the question. He said: “In which country did people not die? Tell me? Look, I did not come here to be bored.” He also claimed recently that the coronavirus vaccine could cause AIDS.

Bolsonaro continues to downplay the severity of the virus despite 6,06,000 deaths so far in Brazil. The U.S. has registered around 7,40,000 deaths, while India’s official death toll is 4,55,000, though most experts believe the actual number is much higher. The Modi government is now busy trying to claim credit for providing vaccines to more than a billion of India’s population, though the majority has only received one dose.

Also read: India & Brazil: Allies in arms

Bolsonaro, like Modi and Trump, remains unapologetic about his criminal negligence in the handling of the pandemic. He stymied the efforts of State governments to restrict business and commercial activities as the pandemic started gaining traction. He insisted that the economy had to keep running despite the obvious existential threat posed by the pandemic to the population. He kept addressing huge rallies without wearing a mask, and dismissed the coronavirus as nothing more than a “little flu”. He and many of his Cabinet Ministers have refused to get vaccinated. Brazil has a robust health infrastructure that is geared to deal with pandemics. Previous epidemics were effectively dealt with through the vast infrastructure and personnel which is at the call of the country’s Health Ministry.

Since last year, leaders of the centrist and left-wing opposition parties have been calling for the impeachment of the Brazilian President not only for his mishandling of the situation created by the rampant spread of COVID-19 but also for the incidents of corruption that have tainted the government. Brazilians have been taking to the streets in increasing numbers to protest against Bolsonaro’s policies and the growing corruption among his close circle of advisers and family members. Under Bolsonaro’s watch, unemployment, hunger, inflation, interest rates and inequality have all risen sharply. His mishandling of the COVID-19 situation has further exacerbated the problems facing the populace.

After initially scoffing at the efficacy of the vaccines produced to combat the virus, Bolsonaro started indulging in vaccine politics by favouring vaccines produced in a particular country over that of others. Before that, he spent a lot of time, energy and money in procuring the antimalarial hydroxychloroquine drug from India. Bolsonaro and Trump specifically thanked Modi for lifting the restrictions on the export of the drug from India. The Brazilian government also encouraged the use of another unproven drug—ivermectin. The drugs were initially touted by President Donald Trump and U.S. evangelical groups as an effective antidote for the coronavirus. The Brazilian government spent millions of dollars trying to domestically mass-produce these drugs. The Brazilian Army was also mobilised for this purpose.

Report indicting Bolsonaro

On October 26, the Brazilian Senate commission of inquiry (CPI) finally took the landmark decision to present a report to the Speaker of the lower house and the Attorney General, recommending that President Bolsonaro be indicted for nine crimes relating to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The list included “crimes against humanity”. The CPI report blamed Bolsonaro of intentionally implementing a criminal policy which allowed the coronavirus to spread unchecked throughout Brazil in order to achieve the goal of “herd immunity” by means of mass infections.

Also read: Senators recommend charges against Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro

The Senate committee’s indictment of Bolsonaro is 1,300 pages long and took more than six months and 50 hearings to prepare. The congressional committee came to the conclusion that Bolsonaro and members of his administration discouraged people from wearing masks, ignored offers of vaccines and promoted unproven drugs long after they were proven to be ineffective. The Senate committee report stated that Bolsonaro and his three eldest sons constituted a “command nucleus” that was in charge of manipulating the social media with posts railing against vaccines and social distancing norms. Bolsonaro’s sons are active in politics, with one of them, Flavio Bolsonaro, in the Senate. The report also names 77 individuals and two companies for being complicit in the crimes committed by the Brazilian President.

Among the individuals named was Wilson Lima, the governor of Amazonas State, which witnessed an unprecedented number of coronavirus-related deaths similar, if not in scale, with the deaths witnessed in Uttar Pradesh. The mass graves in the city of Manaus had riveted international attention. Most of the deaths in Amazonas were owing to the lack of oxygen supplies in hospitals. The State government of Amazonas is also under investigation for alleged corruption in the purchase of medical supplies and equipment. The country’s federal prosecutors have opened an investigation into a contract worth $320 million with India’s Bharat Biotech, the makers of the indigenously developed “Covaxin” coronavirus vaccine. The prosecutor has said that a higher price was negotiated for the purchase of the vaccines, even as companies such as Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson were offering their vaccines at a lower price. Pfizer, it has been revealed, had sent more than 100 emails to the government offering its vaccine, without getting a response, resulting in delays in the final procurement. Brazilian health officials have also been implicated for allegedly demanding kickbacks from Astra-Zeneca and from other vaccine makers. Bolsonaro and his supporters had also sought to cast doubts on the efficacy of Chinese-made vaccines which were ordered by governors of States like Sao Paulo.

Brazil’s Supreme Court Justice, Rosa Weber, ordered a separate criminal investigation into Bolsonaro’s response to the allegations of malfeasance within the country’s Health Ministry in regard to the deal with Bharat Biotech. Brazilian health officials had also questioned the efficacy of the vaccine, saying that more tests were needed. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has still not fully certified the India-made vaccine. In August, the Brazilian Health Ministry unilaterally cancelled the deal with Bharat Biotech after Covaxin failed to get its regulatory approval.

Also read: Nightmare in Brazil

The congressional committee earlier drafted a report that had recommended that the Brazilian President be indicted on the even more serious charges of “genocide and homicide”. The draft congressional report released in third week of October had blamed Bolsonaro for being responsible for half of the country’s COVID-19 deaths. The Senate panel, however, decided not to include these charges at the eleventh hour for legal and constitutional reasons. Some Senators on the panel felt that that the move would be too difficult to prove in court and also because it is the first time that a sitting Brazilian President would be charged with crimes of such magnitude.

The rethink among the Senators was prompted by the realisation that it would be difficult for prosecutors to name individual victims as having died because of the direct involvement of the President. The “genocide” charge which was being mulled was prompted by the uncontrolled spread of the virus and the large number of deaths among Brazil’s endangered indigenous groups. The majority of the Senate members concluded that the genocide charge against the President did not fulfil the criteria laid down by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Articulation of Indigenous People of Brazil (APIB), an indigenous organisation, had already asked the ICC to investigate Bolsonaro for “genocide and ecocide” against native people. Indigenous leaders have accused Bolsonaro of exacerbating the ecological disaster with his policies on the pandemic. After Bolsonaro came to power, the destruction of the Amazonian forest has substantially increased.

Brazil’s Attorney General, Augusto Aras, is a right-wing camp follower of Bolsonaro and has the final authority to decide which of the charges against the President will be acted upon expeditiously. The rapporteur of the report, Senator Renan Calheiros, compared Bolsonaro with the likes of Adolf Hitler and Augusto Pinochet. “The chaos of Bolsonaro’s government will enter history as the lowest level of destitution,” he said. Calheiros, one of Brazil’s longest serving Senators, said that he believed that many of the deaths were preventable. He said that Bolsonaro is personally responsible “for escalating the slaughter”.

Also read: ICC climate crimes suit filed against Brazil's Bolsonaro

Most observers of the Brazilian scene are not hopeful of any meaningful actions being taken against the President before his term ends next year. Also, in the lower house, the majority is still with Bolsonaro. If the lower house does not give its approval, the Senate committee has the option of approaching the Supreme Court or taking the case against Bolsonaro to the ICC in the Hague.

Brazil is due for elections next year and Bolsonaro’s approval ratings are at an all-time low. A recent opinion poll revealed that a majority of Brazilians want the President to be impeached. Bolsonaro could face a prison term of at least 50 years if he is convicted of any of the nine charges recommended by the Senate panel. An increasingly desperate Bolsonaro recently said that there were only three alternatives left to him in the future—“Being arrested, getting killed or victory”.

The laudable actions of the Brazilian legislature and the judiciary have unfortunately not been replicated in countries like the U.S., the United Kingdom and India, where the governments and the ruling classes seriously failed to protect or provide succour to the people during the pandemic. In the few countries where investigations were held, the governments were largely given the benefit of the doubt. However, in the U.K., a parliamentary committee concluded that the government’s initial response to the pandemic “ranks as one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”.

Some governments like those in Australia, New Zealand and China have been successful to a great extent in controlling the spread of the virus by following scientific principles, despite the economic costs involved. China is once again imposing fresh lockdowns as multiple scattered cases of infection have been reported, despite 75 per cent of the country’s population of more than a billion people being fully vaccinated. Lanzhou, a city in the northwest of China with a population of four million, was put under lockdown in the last week of October. Millions of Chinese will now be able to leave their homes only in case of extreme health emergencies.

Also read: Top judge in Brazil orders probe into conduct of President Jair Bolsanaro

Meanwhile Russia, Europe’s worst-hit country at present, has ordered the shutting down of non-essential services for 11 days. Despite developing its own vaccines at an early stage, Russia has been unsuccessful in convincing its population about the importance of vaccination. Only 32 per cent of the population has been vaccinated so far. Figures published by the Russian statistical agency, Russtat, suggest that up to 4,00,000 Russians could have died of COVID. In many countries, including Brazil, the government’s handling of the pandemic will have serious political repercussions. Bolsonaro is now talking of not recognising the election process in the country if the Election Commission does not revert to the paper ballot. Bolsonaro claims, without providing any evidence, that the elections are going to be rigged against him. He is evidently taking a page from the playbook of his idol, Donald Trump. Incidentally, Trump was quick to come out in support of Bolsonaro after the Senate committee charged him with “crimes against humanity”, describing him as a very close friend who is doing great things for his country.

Bolsonaro has gone a step further than Trump, openly threatening the country’s Supreme Court. Bolsonaro has the support of a significant section of the armed forces. His government is packed with retired and serving members of the Army. On the orders of the President, the armed forces staged a provocative military parade in front of the Brazilian parliament when the legislators were set to vote on an amendment which if passed would have changed the country’s voting system. The legislators refused to be cowed down by the crude display of force and voted down the amendment.

The Defence Minister, General Walter Bragga Netto, is among the Ministers indicted by the Senate. The Senate committee was scared to summon him for questioning, probably afraid that it would prompt the Army to stage a coup again. Bolsonaro and the military top brass are angry with the Supreme Court because it had ordered investigations into the vaccine corruption scandal and the President’s bid to discredit Brazil’s much appreciated voting system.

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