For the third time in a little over a month, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro this weekend rallied thousands of his conservative support base in a noisy motorcycle demonstration dubbed “accelerate for Christ”.
Observers had little doubt about the populist leader’s motivation: he needed to show strength. Over the past two months, the former army captain’s reputation has been battered by a stream of revelations over his government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which have emerged in an official congressional investigation known as the CPI.
The CPI has cast the Brazilian government’s response as woefully inept and even hazardous to public health: from the president’s emphatic support for discredited remedies, such as chloroquine, to allegations that the government ignored dozens of emails regarding vaccine supply from Pfizer and even ran a parallel health ministry within the executive office.
“We had the time, we had the tools — an enviable primary healthcare-based system — but we delusionally insisted on the wrong paths,” said Luana Araujo, an infectious disease specialist, who testified at the hearings in Brasília. “Part of us still does. We chose to ignore the experience from the rest of the world, and this combination of arrogance and ignorance is far too dangerous.”
Almost half a million Brazilian have now died from Covid-19, and the daily death rate remains at above 2,000. Meanwhile, the rollout of vaccines has lagged and is only now beginning to gather steam. Some 26 per cent of the population have received their first dose to date.
Since the CPI began in April, the testimonies from the Senate committee rooms have dominated headlines and gripped viewers, who have watched on TV or streamed online.
While most of the high-level witnesses — including several former health ministers — have maintained their composure, squabbling and name-calling has been rampant between the lawmakers, who have seized their chance on the political soapbox.
Among the most damaging early documents to emerge were a batch of emails showing the federal government had not responded to 53 out of 81 communications sent by Pfizer, which resulted in extensive delays in the purchase of vaccines.
“Counting the communications ignored by the government that offered vaccines is like counting the lives we lost to Covid-19. It’s tragic, painful,” said Randolfe Rodrigues, an opposition senator who is vice-president of the congressional probe.
The probe also revealed that the government had attempted to modify the documentation of antimalarial drug chloroquine to state that it was effective against Covid-19. Some senators have also claimed that evidence shows the government set up a “parallel cabinet” of health advisers, many of whom espoused unscientific solutions to the pandemic, in the presidential office.
The inquiry is currently scheduled to end in August, but may be extended to October. At the conclusion, the inquiry’s rapporteur will recommend actions, potentially including a request for impeachment or criminal proceedings.
The question now is what it will mean for the political future of Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly played down the seriousness of the pandemic and refused to take basic health precautions at large events. The president is up for re-election next year, and the race has been thrown wide open by the return to the political fray of leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
“Voter memory is not that weak, as deaths directly affect people. As the number of mortalities has soared, people have recognised how much better this pandemic could have been if the government had taken the necessary steps,” said Maria do Socorro Braga, a professor of political science at the University of São Carlos.
Matias Spektor, a professor of international relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, said the hearings had “exposed Bolsonaro on the TV news everyday, and the broadbase consensus is that the administration bungled the pandemic response in a major way”.
But he cautioned that the rightwing president’s popularity rating has remained relatively stable, with his core voter base of 20 to 30 per cent of voters still appearing loyal to him. Moreover, the hearings have not yet prompted any of Bolsonaro’s congressional allies to abandon him, meaning his political power remains firm.
“All in all, the CPI has been bad news for Bolsonaro — it has exposed the atrocities that are recurrent in the administration in terms of managing the pandemic. But it doesn’t look like the end of Bolsonaro.”
One politician keenly aware of the potential for gain out of the hearings is Lula, who is primed to contest next year’s polls after Brazil’s supreme court recently annulled his convictions for corruption.
Charismatic and wildly popular in Brazil’s poorer regions, Lula has emerged as a potent opponent, slamming Bolsonaro at every juncture on social media. He is, however, still reviled by many in the centre and on the right for the deep corruption that permeated Brazilian politics and business while he was in office between 2003 and 2010.
Lucas de Aragão, a partner at political consultancy Arko Advice, said that Bolsonaro is unlikely to face impeachment or criminal proceedings as a result of the inquiry. But it will keep the pandemic in voters’ minds as the country enters the election cycle next year.
“These investigations are made to create embarrassment and generate discussion that tends to be negative for the government,” said Aragão.
Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice