At time of writing, Brazil has suffered more than 600,000 deaths from COVID-19. That is a truly mind-boggling number of people, so if it helps, you can think of it as almost one Memphis, TN.
Now, a congressional enquiry, which has reached its conclusion after a six-month-long investigation into the Brazilian government’s management of the pandemic, has laid the blame for this catastrophe squarely at the feet of some of the highest levels of government – with the President, far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro, no exception. A report from the investigation recommends that the anti-vaxx head of state should be charged with crimes against humanity for his handling of the pandemic, which the panel says was marked by corruption and disinformation.
The report, excerpts of which were seen by the New York Times ahead of its scheduled release this week, also recommends criminal charges against dozens of others – 70 people in total, including Bolsonaro, three of Bolsonaro’s sons, and numerous current and former government officials. The President is facing nine charges against him personally, with accusations of document forging and incitement to crime accompanying the charge of crimes against humanity.
“Many of these deaths were preventable,” centrist senator and lead author of the report Renan Calheiros told the New York Times. “I am personally convinced that [Bolsonaro] is responsible for escalating the slaughter.”
The report criticizes Bolsonaro’s “unfounded belief in the idea of herd immunity through natural infection” – a belief which has led some commentators to suggest the leader was actively aiming for 1.4 million deaths in the country. An earlier draft of the report recommended additional charges against the Brazilian President of mass homicide and genocide of indigenous groups in the Amazon – an area where the COVID-19 crisis played out like “a complete massacre,” according to local health workers. After several senators protested, however, these charges were removed.
“In spite of all the vaccines that were on offer, the federal government opted not to buy them, a decision that went against all of the scientific studies which demonstrated their safety and effectiveness, and against the advice of all of the epidemiologists who declared on a daily basis that only vaccines would save lives,” reads the report.
“The decision not to acquire vaccines between the months of July 2020 and at least January 2021, which lacked any technical or scientific basis, and flew in the face of recommendations from international health authorities, ended up claiming the lives of thousands of Brazilians who would undoubtedly have made use of such vaccines.”
That Brazil would be hit this hard by the pandemic was not a foregone conclusion: the country has, in the past, won international praise for its responses to public health crises. With COVID-19, however, Brazil has instead caught the globe’s attention as a stark warning, with accusations of corruption and prevarication rife against the country’s notoriously anti-science government. Bolsonaro repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the disease, labeling COVID-19 simply “a measly cold” as it raged through Brazilian hospitals and favelas. Safe and effective vaccines, meanwhile, were “nonsensical” and “experimental” treatments that risked turning the country into a nation of animorphs – sick Brazilians should instead rely on un- or disproven drugs like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, Bolsonaro said. Those concerned about the virus’s deadly toll he told to stop “fussing and whining”; those who questioned him about it he chastised for being boring.
“These have been times of hunger, mourning, death and unemployment, with millions of people in need. It is the greatest crisis of my generation – and the president didn’t even show empathy,” Antônio Carlos Costa, a social activist and church leader who gave evidence to the COVID inquiry on Monday, told The Guardian.
“I hope this country will never again be governed in the way it has been governed by Bolsonaro,” he said.
Whether the President will actually face these charges, however, is far from certain. The committee behind the report is due to vote on the recommendations next week, and while seven of the 11-strong panel reportedly agree on the report, Bolsonaro has some key allies that can stymie the charges – in one particularly strange twist, one of the panel is not only Bolsonaro’s son but also faces criminal charges in the report.
Nevertheless, the recommendations will be unwelcome news for a president whose popularity is already faltering. The congressional enquiry, with its dramatic and scandalous revelations, has become must-see TV over the past six months, and the country has seen nationwide protests against Bolsonaro and his anti-science stance.
“[O]ne thing’s for sure,” Costa told The Guardian. “[T]he damage to his reputation is irreversible.”