Brazil begins parliamentary inquiry into Bolsonaro’s Covid response

Opponents hope investigation will torpedo chances of re-election for far-right president

Brazil’s congress has launched a parliamentary inquiry into what critics call Jair Bolsonaro’s disastrous and potentially criminal response to a Covid pandemic that has killed nearly 400,000 Brazilians.

The politically charged investigation, which rivals of Brazil’s far-right president hope will torpedo his chances of re-election, will be conducted by 11 of the country’s 81 senators, including several of Bolsonaro’s fiercest opponents.

Officially, their task will be to scrutinise the government’s overall handling of one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks on Earth. Brazil has suffered the world’s third-highest number of infections after the US and India and second-highest death toll, with at least 392,204 fatalities.

The inquiry, which Bolsonaro’s detractors call the “CPI da Morte” or “death committee”, will pursue multiple lines of inquiry. They include why the government promoted ineffective treatments such as hydroxychloroquine, why three health ministers were removed during the pandemic, and what caused January’s devastating healthcare collapse in the Amazon when hospitals ran out of oxygen and patients died of asphyxiation. Investigators will also examine the government’s failure to impose lockdowns or promote social distancing and the conduct of Bolsonaro’s former health minister Eduardo Pazuello, an army general who was appointed despite having no background in public health.

“Eighty-six per cent of Brazilians know someone or have a relative who has died – we’ve never seen anything like this in Brazilian history,” the Amazonian senator Omar Aziz told senators after being elected the inquiry’s president on Tuesday.

Aziz, whose brother is among the dead, said the investigation was about justice not revenge, and would home in on any official found to have made mistakes, independent of ideology. But observers say the inquiry, known by its Portuguese acronym CPI, is fundamentally about the actions of one man: Jair Bolsonaro.

“He’s the number one target,” said Maria Cristina Fernandes, a political columnist for the newspaper Valor Econômico. “The CPI’s work is going to be aimed at directly incriminating the president. I’ve no doubt about it.”

The most potentially damaging areas of investigation are likely to revolve around Brazil’s failure to acquire sufficient vaccines to protect its 212 million citizens and Bolsonaro’s allegedly calculated pursuit of herd immunity by letting Covid run wild. Critics claim that strategy cost many thousands of Brazilians their lives.

Rows of desks with men in suits and face masks sitting at them
The first session of the inquiry that will investigate the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Photograph: Edilson Rodrigues/Brazilian Senate/AFP/Getty Images

“The CPI is going to want to show that there was a deliberate push for herd immunity – and the ultimate manifestation of this herd immunity is the 400,000 deaths we have, which could well reach 600,000,” Fernandes said.

There were reports on Tuesday that Brazil’s health ministry had ignored at least 11 offers to supply vaccines, including a proposal for 70m Pfizer shots last August.

The inquiry catches Bolsonaro, a 66-year-old Trump-admiring populist, at arguably his lowest ebb since he took office in January 2019. Polls suggest rising anger at his pandemic response, although he retains the backing of perhaps a third of voters. Bolsonaro appears rattled by the political revival of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the charismatic former union leader who was president until 2011 and looks likely to challenge him for the presidency next year.

Past CPIs into issues including cybercrime, gun-running, high-level corruption and people trafficking have often failed to achieve tangible political results. But signs of nervousness have emerged from the Bolsonaro camp in recent days, including one former minister’s apparent bid to deflect blame from the president over Brazil’s vaccine shortage.

Speaking to the magazine Veja, Fabio Wajngarten, Bolsonaro’s communications minister until March, blamed Brazil’s failure to buy millions of Pfizer vaccines on the health ministry’s “incompetence and inefficiency”. “President Bolsonaro is completely exempt of any responsibility whatsoever,” Wajngarten claimed.

On Friday Bolsonaro, a former paratrooper notorious for his praise of Latin American autocrats, threatened to deploy the army if state governors tried to prevent citizens going to church or work with Covid lockdowns.

Cláudio Couto, a political scientist from the Getulio Vargas Foundation, said such braggadocio betrayed Bolsonaro’s irritation and anxiety over the investigation: “It’s the reaction of someone who is clearly shaken and understands the danger he’s in.”

The inquiry will initially last 90 days but Fernandes suspected Bolsonaro’s foes would seek to prolong it to maximise the political damage it would cause him in the lead up to the 2022 presidential election. “They’re going to roast the pig on a low flame,” she said.

Bolsonaro’s senator son, Flávio Bolsonaro, denounced the inquiry as an “untimely” intervention that put the lives of senators and their staff in danger by obliging them to attend in-person hearings.

“The government favours investigation, but not now,” claimed Bolsonaro, whose father has repeatedly undermined containment measures by holding dozens of political events in his palace and shunning masks.

Flávio Bolsonaro claimed voters would punish any politician who dared to “climb on the coffins of nearly 400,000 dead” Brazilians to attack his father.

The centre-left senator Eliziane Gama told lawmakers: “We cannot solely blame the federal government for the number of deaths we are seeing. But it’s very clear that the failures and lack of action of authorities contributed to the catastrophic situation we are experiencing in Brazil.”


Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Fresh protests in Brazil against Bolsonaro’s handling of Covid pandemic
Country’s death toll nears 500,000 as opposition to the president grows and vaccination rates remain low

Flávia Milhorance in Rio de Janeiro

19, Jun, 2021 @7:01 PM

Article image
Lula excoriates Bolsonaro’s ‘moronic’ Covid response in comeback speech
Addressing the nation, Brazil’s former president left no doubt that his political fightback had begun

Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro

10, Mar, 2021 @7:15 PM

Article image
Bolsonaro’s ‘genocidal’ Covid response has led to Brazilian catastrophe, Dilma Rousseff says
Former president tells Guardian Brazil faces perhaps gravest moment in its history and is ‘adrift on an ocean of hunger and disease’

Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro

10, Apr, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Judge orders Bolsonaro to resume publishing Brazil Covid-19 data
Move comes amid accusations government was trying to suppress the scale of the crisis

Tom Phillips and Caio Barretto Briso in Rio de Janeiro

09, Jun, 2020 @2:25 PM

Article image
Anger as Jair Bolsonaro to allow unvaccinated visitors into Brazil
There are fears the decision will reverse the gains made by a successful vaccination campaign

Tom Phillips Latin America correspondent

08, Dec, 2021 @4:01 PM

Article image
Covid-19 cases in Brazil surpass Italy amid surge in Latin America
Mexico and Peru struggle to contain outbreaks while deaths in Spain fall to two-month low

Michael Safi, Sam Jones in Madrid and Helena Smith in Athens

17, May, 2020 @12:48 PM

Article image
'The heart of darkness': neighbors shun Brazil over Covid response
Latin American countries scramble to protect themselves from a country where nearly 60,000 people are expected to die in March alone

Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro Uki Goñi in Buenos Aires and Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá

30, Mar, 2021 @1:08 PM

Article image
Brazilians protest over Bolsonaro's muddled coronavirus response
Dissenters express dissatisfaction by hitting pots and pans from their windows and balconies

Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro

22, Mar, 2020 @5:41 PM

Article image
Brazil could have stopped 400,000 Covid deaths with better government response, expert says
Epidemiologist behind study on scale of disaster says Jair Bolsonaro’s government is ‘entirely’ responsible

Flávia Milhorance in Rio de Janeiro

29, Jun, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Bolsonaro dragging Brazil towards coronavirus calamity, experts fear
Concerns grow that by downplaying threat, Brazil’s president risks public health crisis

Tom Phillips and Dom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro

12, Apr, 2020 @3:24 PM