Quarrels and accusations: in the Brazilian Senate investigation on COVID | News on the coronavirus pandemic

Sao Paulo, Brazil – During the latest session of Brazil’s Senate COVID-19 inquiry, set up to investigate the government’s handling of the pandemic, former Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello confused the surname of a senator with a military rank.

“I am not a soldier; Coronel is a surname,” Senator Angelo Coronel – whose surname means “colonel” in Brazilian Portuguese – told the former minister.

The gaffe had senators, onlookers and even Pazuello, an army general, whose 10-month term as health minister ended in March and saw the bulk of the nearly 450 000 coronavirus-related deaths in Brazil.

But it was a brief respite in a committee so far marked by rowdy bickering between pro-government and opposition senators, by witnesses accused of lying in their testimony, and by increasingly shocking revelations and accusations. .

After nearly a month of hearings, mostly from former and current government personnel, it was alleged that the Brazilian government had failed to acquire life-saving vaccines, promoted ineffective COVID-19 cures , set up a “parallel” health ministry and acted negligently during an oxygen crisis that left coronavirus patients gasping for air.

“The government, tainted by ideological problems and denial, made mistakes early on and continues to make them,” Eliziane Gama, a senator from the Centrist Citizenship Party, told Al Jazeera.

The ICC could lead to Bolsonaro being impeached or even jailed – but those outcomes are unlikely at this time [Adriano Machado/Reuters]

Bolsonaro defying

Brazil’s far-right populist President Jair Bolsonaro has been widely condemned by the international community for his handling of the pandemic, mocking vaccines and the use of masks, and attacking local authorities who have attempted to implement containment measures.

He reinforced those positions over the weekend, first taking part in a motorcycle parade with thousands of supporters in Rio de Janeiro, then addressing a large crowd where he blasted lockdowns and social distancing.

He appeared unfazed by the Senate inquiry, known by its Portuguese acronym CPI, which was launched at the end of April and will last 90 days, after which it can be renewed – although many analysts see the bravado as a show in the midst of a drop in approval ratings.

On Friday, Renan Calheiros, a powerful opposition senator and rapporteur for the committee, accused Pazuello of lying at least 14 times during his two-day testimony last week in order to protect Bolsonaro.

“It was obvious that the mission of the witness at this ICC was not to enlighten the population or to collaborate in finding the truth, but rather to exonerate the president,” Calheiros wrote in a document shared with the organs of the Republic on Friday. Brazilian press.

Former Brazilian Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello testified at the Senate inquiry on May 20 [Adriano Machado/Reuters]

Pazuello was health minister during the oxygen supply crisis in the Amazon city of Manaus, but in January, following the crisis, Bolsonaro called Pazuello’s work “exceptional”.

“The testimony of former health minister Eduardo Pazuello demonstrated the government’s negligence in the oxygen crisis in Manaus,” said Gama, who called the government’s handling of the pandemic “deplorable.”

“Documents reveal the former minister repeatedly lied and the government failed to act when it decided not to intervene in the state,” the senator said.

The head of the commission, Amazonas State Senator Omar Aziz, said Saturday he would summon Pazuello for further questioning, this time without habeas corpus protection.

The Supreme Court granted this protection to Pazuello against incriminating himself due to a separate charge filed by prosecutors regarding the Manaus crisis. “Pazuello defended Bolsonaro as if he were defending his son,” Aziz said.

Vaccine purchases

For Nauê Bernardo, a lawyer and political scientist based in the capital Brasilia, one of the most damaging moments of the investigation so far has been the accusation that the government failed to respond to an opportunity to buy vaccines to Pfizer when offered to him.

“There was a narrative from the government that prioritizing the economy over social distancing measures,” he said. “But vaccines are the only effective way to accelerate economic recovery and save lives.”

Along with CPI documents, Brazilian newspaper Folha de S Paulo reported that the government ignored 10 emails from Pfizer regarding vaccine purchases over a month-long period in August and September 2020.

Bernardo said this week will also be very volatile for the CPI, with testimony from Health Secretary Mayra Pinheiro, nicknamed “Captain Chloroquine”, who pushed the scientifically unproven drug to Manaus as a cure just days before the collapse of the health system.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, center, joined thousands of his supporters at a motorcycle rally through Rio de Janeiro on Sunday [Pilar Olivares/Reuters]

Other possible witnesses further down the line include Bolsonaro’s son, Carlos, a Rio de Janeiro city councilor who former health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta says attended key ministry meetings well that he is not part of the government.

Meanwhile, pro-government senators, including Bolsonaro’s eldest son, Flavio, have complained of persecution and bias by the commission and defended Pazuello.

“In my opinion, the responses of the ex-minister to his administration at the Ministry of Health have brought to light the facts and buried the baseless accusations made so far in the fight against the pandemic,” said Marcos Rogério, a pro-government senator.

Bolsonaro’s approval drops

The ICC could lead to impeachment or even jail time for Bolsonaro.

Carlos Melo, a political scientist at Insper Sao Paulo business school, said those outcomes were unlikely at this time, but could not be ruled out entirely given the volatile nature of Brazil’s coalition politics.

“Bolsonaro is protected for now by the president of Congress who can initiate impeachment proceedings, who is his ally, as is the attorney general,” he told Al Jazeera. “But it’s fragile.”

Past impeachments, Melo said, have always occurred after periods of large street protests calling for the removal of a president, which are more difficult to organize due to the pandemic.

The latest opinion polls suggest nearly half of Brazilians support impeachment of Bolsonaro while just under half oppose it.

Meanwhile, medical experts fear a third wave of COVID-19 is on the way, vaccine rollouts remain slow and a new variant of the coronavirus first detected in India was recently discovered in Maranhao state. , northeast of Brazil.

The economy also continues to be hit hard, with growing numbers of people going hungry, which could seriously hurt Bolsonaro’s electoral chances next year.

According to Datafolha, an opinion polling company, Bolsonaro’s approval rating has fallen to 24%, with 45% of Brazilians saying his government is “bad” or “terrible”.

The re-emergence of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on the Brazilian political scene is also a major concern for Bolsonaro, analysts said, as opinion polls show Lula would convincingly beat him if an election were held today. today.

Norman D. Briggs