A congressional inquiry into Brazil’s disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic has found mounting evidence that Jair Bolsonaro’s administration committed “crimes against life”, according to the senior politician leading the investigation.
Launched in April to scrutinize the government’s handling of a crisis that has killed half a million citizens, the nationally televised investigation is digging into the political decisions that led up to one of the cruelest moments in the country’s history.
“The most shocking thing is the realization of how negligent the government has been – on so many issues,” Senator Omar Aziz told the Guardian.
Testimony from officials and newly revealed documents are giving Brazilians a clearer view of the context in which the government dismissed offers to purchase vaccines in 2020 and failed to respond quickly when oxygen supplies ran out in Manaus, leaving Covid patients to suffocate.
“It was desperate,” said the senator, who is from Manaus. “We did what we could while the government did not do anything to bring oxygen from our neighbour Venezuela.”
The inquiry has also uncovered evidence suggesting irregularities in the acquisition of the Indian vaccine Covaxin, and it is focusing in on Bolsonaro’s specific role in the crisis. A former employee at the health ministry has recently told the prosecutor’s office that he told the president that he was pressured to sign a contract that would increase the average price of doses by 1,000%.
Government officials have denied any irregularity in the contract and said that the whistleblower’s claims would be investigated. The official is due to give evidence to the inquiry on Friday.
Whether or not laws were broken, the grim result of the government’s response to the crisis is that Covid-19 has hit every home in Brazil, Aziz said.
“There is no Brazilian today who does not know someone who died from Covid, no Brazilian who has not lost a relative member, a neighbour, a friend,” said the senator, whose brother Walid succumbed to the disease.
And while vaccination has eased the crisis in some countries, cases are still mounting in Brazil, where a new and more infectious strain was first reported. In less than two months since the inquiry began, more than 100,000 people have died of Covid-19.
Bolsonaro, meanwhile, has scorned social distancing measures and repeatedly flouted health advice, calling the disease “a little flu”. The former army captain has refused to be vaccinated and has frequently attended events with crowds of supporters. He has twice led mass rallies of motorbike enthusiasts through city centres – and was fined for failing to wear a mask in violation of pandemic restrictions.
“World leaders are appalled with the attitude of the president,” Aziz said. “While they reinforce social isolation and vaccination, our president goes to a biker rally.”
Aziz also said that the inquiry was focusing on the president’s enthusiastic support for pseudoscientific treatments such as hydroxychloroquine, which he described as a “cure” for Covid despite evidence it is ineffective.
The inquiry has also heard evidence that Bolsonaro never wanted to buy Covid-19 vaccines and originally bet on herd immunity to beat the coronavirus. Critics claim that strategy cost many thousands of Brazilians their lives.
“In this approach, the strong will be saved and the weak will die,” said Aziz. “It is totally wrong.”
Aziz said that the inquiry would also look into the advisers and allies who pushed Bolsonaro to adopt such a catastrophic response to the disaster.
“We want to know who is profiting from it,” Aziz said. “The president did not wake up one day and thought ‘early treatment’ or herd immunization worked. He was led on by a ‘parallel cabinet’.”
The politically charged investigation was launched in April and is being conducted by 11 of the country’s 81 senators, including four Bolsonaro supporters and several of his most outspoken critics.
The panel is expected to release its conclusions by August. It does not have the power to bring criminal charges, but the evidence it gathers could be used in future criminal investigations – and could also prompt congress to launch impeachment proceedings against Bolsonaro.
Polls have shown that eight out of ten Brazilians support the inquiry and it has already shaken the president’s popularity as anti-Bolsonaro street protests have gained traction.
Aziz said that the inquiry was not a partisan exercise, however, but an important moment of reckoning for a country still in the throes of a disaster.
“People may think that the investigation will come to nothing, that it is a political manouevre, but it will hold those involved in this crisis to account.
”We will show what actually happened, who was negligent, and forward them to the relevant authorities so that they can be penalized.”