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.
“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.”