Brazilian Senate Will Question Bolsonaro on COVID-19 Response

The Supreme Court of Brazil has authorized a Senate Commission (CPI, Commisão Parlamentar de Inquérito) to investigate Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on his handling of COVID-19 in Brazil. The impetus for investigating the Brazilian president seems to be appropriate given how much Bolsonaro has downplayed the Coronavirus and the fact that Brazil has the second-highest death toll from COVID-19 in the world with 395,000 deaths and with a total of 14.4 million cases, only the United States has more. Moreover, the seven-day death toll in Brazil remains above 3,000 according to Al Jazeera.

According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) News, the Brazilian Senate commission will be investigating whether or not the Bolsonaro administration’s response time to COVID-19 in Brazil has been adequate; whether or not Bolsonaro has minimized the severity of the pandemic; whether or not there has been a lack of procurement of medical equipment to handle the virus; whether or not the promotion of unproven medications such as hydroxychloroquine by Bolsonaro and his administration was appropriate; whether or not President Bolsonaro had allowed the Coronavirus to spread in order to attain herd immunity; and whether or not the Bolsonaro administration committed genocide against the Brazilian Amerindian population by not controlling the deadly variant of COVID-19 and providing adequate support to indigenous peoples.

In addition, the inquiry by the Brazilian Senatorial Commission may weaken Bolsonaro’s presidency and may lead to criminal procedures and/or impeachment. This is significant since the next Brazilian presidential election is in 2022. What the Commisão Parlamentar de Inquérito (CPI) finds may in fact derail Jair Bolsonaro’s chances for winning the presidency altogether.

A former health minister, Humberto Costa, told Al Jazeera, that CPI will “…investigate allegations that Bolsonaro sabotaged social distancing measures, targeted local authorities that tried to implement lockdowns, acted negligently in acquiring vaccines, as well as touted ineffective medicines such as chloroquine. Altogether, 11 senators and seven substitutes will form the committee who will call witnesses to testify.”

In March, a Supreme Court judge annulled the conviction of Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, which restored his political rights, thereby creating the possibility of Lula’s run for another term as president, perhaps in 2022. Many observers think Lula would be a contender if Bolsonaro loses his popularity because of the CPI hearings.

Equally, it is important to note, Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) has heavily criticized the Bolsonaro administration for its lackadaisical response to the COVID-19 crisis in Brazil. As reported in The Guardian, the president of the group, Christos Christou, stated: “I have to be very clear in this: the Brazilian authorities’ negligence is costing lives…There is no coordination in the response. There is no real acknowledgement of the severity of the disease. Science is put aside. Fake news is being distributed and healthcare workers are left on their own.” Likewise Christou and his colleagues believe the Coronavirus crisis in Brazil will worsen because the Brazilian authorities are not taking the virus seriously. What is happening in Brazil is a growing humanitarian crisis, which seems to worsen daily.

So, an urgent question is why are countries like the United States, or even the European Union, not pressuring Brazil to address its Coronavirus problem with more resolve and seriousness? If doctors from MSF believe Brazil’s response to COVID-19 is the worst in the world, then the epidemiological situation there is quite severe and therefore demands more to be done with enough cause for concern for the involvement by the international community and at very least instigate investigations by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations. As such the Brazilian senatorial CPI investigations into President Bolsonaro and his administration should be quite welcome to Brazilian observers who are concerned about the future of the country which is being ravaged by the Coronavirus disease and its P1 variant.

According to Reuters and NBC News: “The probe is expected to focus on the government’s delays in securing vaccines, including the details of drawn-out negotiations with foreign drugmakers, and missteps in Amazonas, where an infectious new variant sprung up late last year.” In fact, as I wrote earlier this year, the health system in Manaus, Brazil, collapsed because of the government’s lazy preparation and lack of response to the P1 variant of COVID-19 where people literally asphyxiated to death because of lack of oxygen, but also because of lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), and lack of hospital beds.

Furthermore, Brazil has been slow in negotiating for the proper amount of vaccines in order to inoculate its entire population. While Bolsonaro has continually criticized municipal and state governments for quarantines and social distancing measures, and in March, the president said in a public speech: “We have to confront our problems. Stop all this fussing and whining. How long are you going to keep on crying?” (…E nós temos que enfrentar os nossos problemas chega de frescura demimir…e va fica chorando até quando?), and thus downplaying the severity of the virus. Such remarks followed earlier disparaging comments like the Coronavirus is only a “little flu” (gripezinha). As such, Bolsonaro’s numerous observations would seem to indicate an incredible amount of indifference about the effects of COVID-19 on the Brazilian population.

In my view, a CPI Brazilian response to COVID-19 in Brazil is not enough and should be inadequate to the world community as well. The Brazilian Coronavirus response is a humanitarian crisis on a grand scale and as such the situation there demands an international inquiry and response, perhaps an investigation by the World Health Organization and the United Nations, and even possible sanctions from the United States.

Perhaps most egregious of all, and given President Bolsonaro’s horrible record on protecting the Amazon, the United States seems to be intent on negotiating a multi-billion-dollar climate deal with Brazil. Some observers believe such a move might help in Bolsonaro’s re-election bid for the presidency but worse aid in illegal logging of the Amazon. Thankfully, no deal between Brazil and the United States is as of yet forthcoming according to Mongabay since the Bolsonaro administration does not appear to be the correct steward of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest and as rightly pointed out by Brazilian-American journalist Anna Buss. For while the negotiations between the United States and Brazil were happening, the Amazon was burning in record levels.

As Mongabay states: “Meanwhile, Amazon deforestation—mostly conducted by land grabbers, agribusiness and cattle ranchers—surges and remains dire. ON 19 April IMAZON, a non-profit organization, published its Brazilian Amazon deforestation data for March of this year: 810 square kilometers (313 square miles) of forest was cut in that month alone, more than twice the area lost in March last year and the worst result in ten years.” In recent statements, Bolsonaro is trying to reverse the damage he has been doing to the Amazon but serious observers do not trust the Brazilian president and even though Bolsonaro sent a conciliatory letter to President Biden stating he would reverse Amazonian deforestation by the year 2030.

In the letter to President Biden, President Bolsonaro writes: “Working with the United States in this area, Mr. President, seems to us to be a natural and evident alternative, given the convergence of values ​​between our two peoples. Like us, Americans will be able to appreciate that the main causes of environmental degradation are rooted in poverty and lack of opportunities, and that, therefore, working for environmental preservation also involves promoting economic development. It is possible to promote growth and dynamism in an environmentally responsible manner, and nowhere is this objective more pressing than in the Amazon ”. The key wording here is “promoting economic development”, in other words, developing the Brazilian Amazon, most likely through large scale projects such as hydro-electric dams, mining, agribusinesses, and cattle ranching at the expense of the environment and the indigenous peoples there.

To put it simply, President Bolsonaro and his administration’s policies have been endangering Brazilian indigenous lives since their inception in power. One Amerindian group, the Awa are one among many Native Brazilians who are vulnerable because of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. While the Brazilian president is asking for at least $1 billion dollars in foreign aid to reduce illegal deforestation, the Brazilian Amerindian peoples are facing genocide because the Bolsonaro government has failed on numerous occasions to act on their behalf.

As one Awa Native, Pirai, explained: “Loggers, farmers, hunters, invaders…they are all coming back…They are killing all our forest.”

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).