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Covid-19: Investigation probes Bolsonaro’s role in Brazil’s failed pandemic response

BMJ 2021; 373 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.n1181 (Published 07 May 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;373:n1181

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Opinion

Brazil's catastrophic response to covid-19 may amount to a crime against humanity

Opinion

Brazil’s covid-19 response is failing women

  1. Luke Taylor
  1. Portsmouth

A parliamentary investigation into the actions of President Jair Bolsonaro and his former ministers is under way in Brazil to establish who was responsible for the country’s failed response to the pandemic.

Brazil has recorded more than 414 000 covid-19 deaths—12.3% of the world’s total despite being home to only 2.7% of the global population.

The probe in the country’s senate will attempt to establish who took decisions on issues such as the distribution of medical supplies and vaccines and why. It could lead to the impeachment of Bolsonaro, whom many health experts blame for the country’s public health catastrophe.

Former health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta made the first high profile testimony to the committee on 5 May when he spoke about the health ministry’s promotion and supply of unproved covid-19 cures. Mandetta was health minister until Bolsonaro sacked him in April last year for refusing to promote the antimalarial chloroquine as a covid-19 treatment.

Mandetta told the committee that he had “warned Bolsonaro systematically of the consequences of not adopting the recommendations of science to fight covid-19.”1

He added, “The government was aware that it was prescribing chloroquine without any scientific evidence.”

Mandetta is one of three former health ministers who will be questioned in the 90 day probe, which began on 27 April.

The 11 senators appointed to oversee the investigation will look at alleged negligence on issues ranging from vaccines to lockdowns but will probably focus on the president’s inaction in the face of the pandemic and how medical resources such as covid-19 tests and ventilators were distributed to different states and municipalities, said Luciana Santana, a political science professor at the Federal University of Alagoas who focuses on parliamentary investigations.

“The commission appears to be ready for a serious probe into the coronavirus response in Brazil,” she said.

The investigation had been blocked by Bolsonaro’s allies in the senate but was later pushed through by the Supreme Court.

Bolsonaro’s popularity could be hurt by the investigation, as it will highlight how he promoted unproved cures, declined offers of vaccines from drug companies, and refused to implement lockdowns, which critics say has exacerbated and prolonged Brazil’s suffering.234

Helena Nader, a biomedical scientist at the Federal University of São Paulo, said, “I never thought our country would be able to handle this in such a bad way. It’s awful, and it’s going to affect not only us but the whole world.”

The probe is not the first public investigation into the Brazilian government’s response to the pandemic. In June last year unions and groups representing more than a million medical professionals asked the International Criminal Court to investigate Bolsonaro for crimes against humanity as he responded to the pandemic with “contempt, neglect, and denial.”5

And in January this year the Supreme Court opened an investigation into possible negligence by former health minister Eduardo Pazuello, after oxygen supplies were exhausted in the Amazonian city of Manaus, causing patients with covid-19 to suffocate.6

Though the current investigation is likely to damage Bolsonaro’s prospect of re-election in 2022, it is unlikely to lead to his removal from office, say experts.

“Despite the importance of the commission for political accountability … I find it difficult to see an impeachment process being opened, because it depends on the disposition of the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Arthur Lira, who is an ally of the president,” Santana said.

Pazuello, who was health minister when Manaus’s hospitals collapsed, was the latest figure due to testify on 5 May but did not attend as he said he had been in contact with two army colonels who tested positive for the virus. His testimony has been rescheduled for 19 May.

Footnotes

  • Correction: On 10 May 2021 we corrected the date of the impending election (2022, not 2021).

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