Brazil Seeks to Hold Bolsonaro Accountable for More Than 400,000 Covid-19 Deaths

A new commission is investigating Jair Bolsonaro's response to the pandemic — and political foes are gathering strength.

Mourners watch as workers wearing protective equipment bury the casket of a Covid-19 victim at the Vila Formosa cemetery in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Wednesday, March 24, 2021. Brazil reported more than 3,000 Covid-19 deaths for the first time in a 24-hour period on Tuesday, as the pandemic spreads unchecked across Latin Americas biggest economy and the nation approaches 300,000 lives taken. Photographer: Victor Moriyama/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Mourners watch as workers wearing protective equipment bury the casket of a Covid-19 victim at the Vila Formosa cemetery in São Paulo, Brazil, on March 24, 2021. Photo: Victor Moriyama/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Avoid accountability, attract attention through outrage, win reelection. This has been the holy trinity of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s decadeslong career in politics. Over the past year, the 66-year-old far-right extremist reached new heights of producing outrage, but the other pillars of his strategy appear to be faltering. Brazil’s Covid-19 crisis remains one of the worst in the world, and a brutal economic depression has forced millions into poverty. Opinion polls are for the first time consistently showing that a majority of Brazilians now disapprove of Bolsonaro.

So far, Bolsonaro has proven adept at coopting public institutions, and avoiding accountability, through threats, promises, backroom negotiations, or placing loyalists into official positions. But when Brazil’s Senate launched a new inquiry into Bolsonaro’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the president’s allies were unable to block it. The panel convened for the first time on Tuesday, and members expect the investigation to produce impeachable evidence of his malfeasance.

“It is a true health, economic, and political tragedy, and the main responsibility lies with the president.”

The commission appears ready for a serious probe into the coronavirus response in Brazil. “It is a true health, economic, and political tragedy, and the main responsibility lies with the president,” said Sen. Humberto Costa, an opposition member of the commission. Costa, who is also a former health minister, told The Intercept that he believes there is enough evidence to conclude that Bolsonaro committed “crimes against humanity,” a label that other analysts have also used.

With October 2022’s presidential elections already looming, things could get worse for a man who has now spent years as an indomitable force in Brazilian politics. Bolsonaro never had to go head-to-head with Brazil’s most popular politician, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was barred from running in 2018 but is once again eligible and is gaining momentum.

As Brazil moves closer to election season, anything is possible. The president’s future will depend on his ability to maintain his tenuous alliances and the appearance of electability. He may finally be held accountable, either in Congress or at the polls, for his dismal handling of the country’s response to Covid-19 — which as of Thursday had killed over 400,000 Brazilians.

Fair-Weather Oligarchs

Every Brazilian president since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985, regardless of ideology, has relied on the support of the “Centrão” parties in Congress. Literally, the word means “the big center,” but it more accurately describes a loose political bloc that represents the interests of Brazil’s oligarchs. The Centrão plays kingmaker and king-slayer alike; the parties’ support provides the votes necessary for passing legislation and has also been at the center of every impeachment in Brazil’s modern history. Winning over the bloc means delivering on pork-barrel spending, doling out influential political appointments, and, above all else, protecting the oligarchs’ economic interests.

Bolsonaro, who came to power on an anti-corruption platform, railed against the Centrão’s influence and promised not to play its game. But when the coalition of far-right extremists that rode his populist coattails into power collapsed due to infighting, Bolsonaro was forced into bed with the Centrão.

Ensuring the bloc’s support in recent legislative leadership elections came at a huge cost: billions of dollars in pork-barrel amendments to the budget that forced considerable cuts to development, health, and education spending. Shifting the money left little reserves for dealing with pressing needs, unforeseen circumstances, and future crises. The arrangement, though, could bring a big payoff for Bolsonaro, putting members of Congress in his corner to block or subvert potential impeachment proceedings or other inquiries. Bolsonaro’s congressional support and loyalist appointees have already thwarted progress on the multiple corruption scandals involving the president and his family.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro takes off his face mask before speaking during the sanction of the law that authorizes states, municipalities and the private sector to buy vaccines against COVID-19, at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on March 10, 2021. - Until now, with more than 260,000 deaths by the coronavirus, only the federal Government was authorized to buy vaccines. (Photo by EVARISTO SA / AFP) (Photo by EVARISTO SA/AFP via Getty Images)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro takes off his face mask before speaking at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, on March 10, 2021.

Photo: Evaristo Sa/AFP via Getty Images

So far, the Centrão’s support has also meant that Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic hasn’t faced a real challenge in Congress. But with scandals mounting, that could change. The bloc’s loyalty can be fickle, and new, constitutionally mandated spending limits mean that Bolsonaro’s options to purchase its fealty will be extremely constrained this year. And if Bolsonaro’s political prospects become too dim ahead of the 2022 elections, no price will be enough, and the Centrão will abandon him in search of the next winning ticket. Some of loose bloc’s constituent political parties already have.

Congressional Investigation

Congressional leadership allied with Bolsonaro blocked congressional hearings into the government’s handling of the pandemic for over a year, ignoring overwhelming evidence of its catastrophic consequences. Despite having enough signatures, the Senate commission that began on Tuesday only moved forward after a decision by the Supreme Court forced the issue. Bolsonaro was reportedly furious at the decision and openly lashed out against the justice responsible for ruling.

The Brazilian media has already uncovered a slew of scandals related to the government’s handling of the pandemic, which will provide the panel with much to look into. Additional investigative powers promise to provide even more public evidence of Bolsonaro’s mishandling of the crisis. A detailed study of the government’s Covid-19 response by the University of São Paulo and the human rights group Conectas found that the Bolsonaro administration implemented an “institutional strategy to propagate the virus” — something the authors said was “intentional.”

Many influential voices, including Supreme Court Minister Gilmar Mendes, have referred to the government’s actions as “genocide” since early in the crisis. This month, the Brazilian Bar Association argued that Bolsonaro is committing “crimes against humanity.” A similar case was submitted to the International Criminal Court last July by a coalition of groups representing over 1 million medical professionals. The Senate panel will review the evidence that led experts to draw these conclusions and has subpoena power to call witnesses and uncover official documents.

“The government decided that the best way to overcome the pandemic was to allow as many people as possible to be contaminated, without considering the damage this would cause.”

Bolsonaro has done just about everything in his power to help the coronavirus kill as many Brazilians as possible. As president, he has forcefully discouraged mask use; rejected offers from vaccine manufacturers; fought against lockdowns; held back federal funds to fight the virus; actively promoted ineffective treatments with dangerous side effects; and slashed funding for science and health. When backed into a corner, he has repeatedly suggested that he could use the military to impose martial law — or even undertake a coup d’ètat if pushed too far.

“The commission’s role is to illuminate all dark areas in the fight against the pandemic,” said Sen. Renan Calheiros on Tuesday, after being voted in as the commission’s rapporteur. The specter of the commission, Calheiros said, “has already accelerated a series of administrative measures in the last few days that had been frozen.”

Brazil, which is lagging behind in vaccinations, has suffered over 400,000 coronavirus-related deaths, one of the highest tolls in the world, and has become an international pariah, as well as a prime breeding ground for new variants of the disease. The collapse of health care systems and overflowing cemeteries have made global headlines and spread the devastation across South America. Disentangling the whos, whats, and whys will be no easy task, especially as the president’s allies will work to stymie the investigation at every turn.

Of particular interest will be revealing why Brazil ignored or rejected initial offers to procure millions of doses of vaccines on at least 11 separate occasions, as well as how much of Brazil’s failure to combat the disease has been due to deliberate policy or administrative incompetence and ideological delusion.

Costa, the senator, believes that Bolsonaro deliberately acted to spread the virus. “The government decided that the best way to overcome the pandemic was to allow as many people as possible to be contaminated and thereby generate what is called ‘natural immunity from infection,’ without considering the damage this would cause,” Costa said. He also attributed some decisions to “the crude, intellectually limited vision of Bolsonaro and his government” mixed with far-right ideological beliefs. Costa believes that the panel will conclude that impeachable offenses were committed by Bolsonaro but is skeptical that it will result in impeachment. “With the support of the Centrão that he has today, he has the numbers to block impeachment.”

Poverty and Hunger

Since the early days of the pandemic, Bolsonaro publicly justified his rejection of lockdowns and other protective measures against Covid-19 by citing the importance of keeping the economy moving. He resisted direct cash assistance payments to keep government spending down and encouraged the nation to live their lives as usual. The president himself made regular maskless appearances at supermarkets and public gatherings to set an example.

While other world leaders who took similarly cavalier approaches simultaneously pursued vaccines and pivoted when global evidence proved that safety versus economy was a false dichotomy, Bolsonaro has failed to adapt to the facts.

Unsurprisingly, the Brazilian economy faltered. The official unemployment rate is now a record 14.2 percent and in reality is likely much higher. The Brazilian real was the world’s third-worst performing currency last year, as foreign investment fled the country and industries ground to a halt. New data suggests that 11 million Brazilians have crossed the line into extreme poverty since the pandemic began, a 45 percent increase, while the nation simultaneously minted 10 new billionaires. In an effort to hide the true extent of the economic carnage, the government recently cut 98 percent of the funding for the national census scheduled for this year, which could be cancelled as a result.

Residents wait to be served a plate of food donated by aid groups, inside an occupied building amid the new coronavirus pandemic, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on March 10, 2021.

People wait to be served food donated by aid groups in Rio de Janeiro on March 10, 2021.

Photo: Silvia Izquierdo/AP

Last month, over 1,500 business leaders and economists signed an open letter to Bolsonaro imploring him to take effective measures to contain the coronavirus, including social spending, more than a year after the pandemic began. The letter, though, does not directly criticize Bolsonaro: As Alexander Busch noted in a column in Deutsche Welle Brasil, 40 percent of the economy depends on public spending, and business leaders are generally hesitant to publicly cross swords with the president holding the purse strings.

Meanwhile, many of Brazil’s most influential captains of industry still see opportunity in the current crisis and are eager to lend Bolsonaro their public support. Last month, top figures from Brazil’s banking businesses and an influential industry association applauded Bolsonaro and top officials as they sipped Dom Pérignon together at a private dinner. The business leaders promised to continue to support the embattled president if he would push forward with more promised neoliberal economic reforms under Economy Minister Paulo Guedes, a former bank executive and a past adviser to Chilean right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Despite their ideological affinity for Bolsonaro, these titans of industry experienced the nation’s greatest years of economic growth during the Lula presidency, which pursued a more inclusive economic path to growth. Lula is actively pursuing business leaders, who are likely growing nostalgic for the golden years, as are average citizens. Bolsonaro has seen majority disapproval in multiple public opinion polls for the first time in his presidency. Lula, by comparison, is again Brazil’s most popular presidential hopeful.

If Brazil’s institutions fail to extract any form of accountability from Bolsonaro, it will likely be up to Lula to save the nation from Bolsonaro through the ballot box. The former president was the frontrunner in the 2018 election but made ineligible by corruption convictions that were recently annulled by the Supreme Court, restoring his political rights. In recent weeks, Lula has been making his case for a third presidential term by promising a radically different vision on the economy and Covid-19 and by promising a return to reason and normalcy to a nation that is tired and beaten down by more than two years of Bolsonaro.

Join The Conversation