Bolsonaro should face charges for COVID pandemic: Senate inquiry

The report says the president of Brazil was ‘principally responsible’ for errors during the pandemic that cost thousands of lives.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro gestures during the ceremony
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro has accused the investigation of being politically motivated [File: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters]

Brazil’s Senate formally presented a report calling for President Jair Bolsonaro to be indicted on criminal charges for allegedly mishandling the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic – pushing Brazil into second place in the number of global COVID-19 deaths.

The nearly 1,200-page report presented on Wednesday by opposition Senator Renan Calheiros is based on six months of work. It calls for Bolsonaro to be indicted on 10 charges, including crimes against humanity.

The inquiry began back in April alleging that Bolsonaro turned down opportunities early in the pandemic for the government to acquire vaccines – delaying Brazil’s inoculation campaign at the cost of an estimated 95,000 lives.

It was marked by emotional witness statements, and chilling revelations.

The report said Bolsonaro was guided “by an unfounded belief in the theory of herd immunity by natural infection and the existence of a treatment”.

“Without the vaccine, deaths would be stratospheric, as they turned out to be,” according to the report which was made available on the Senate’s electronic system Wednesday. More than 603,800 people in Brazil have died from COVID-19 according to data from the Johns Hopkins medical university.

The report may still be subject to amendments and vetoes, and it still needs to be voted on by the 11-member Senate committee on October 26.

The initial draft had included charges of homicide and genocide, news agencies reported, citing officials who had reviewed the drafts. But those charges have since been removed.

Any charges against Bolsonaro, however, would have to be brought by Brazil’s prosecutor – a general appointed by Bolsonaro, making it highly unlikely that he will face trial.

The Senate investigation heard testimony from the relatives of people who died from the coronavirus [File: Adriano Machado/Reuters]

Bolsonaro has denied any wrongdoing, and has repeatedly accused the investigation of being politically motivated. On Tuesday, Bolsonaro dismissed the inquiry as a “joke” and told supporters he was not concerned about it.

The inquiry heard testimony from 60 people, including relatives of COVID-19 victims.

In addition to Bolsonaro, the report recommends charges for dozens of allies, current and former members of his administration – including his three eldest sons, who are politicians. The report alleges they spread misinformation that incentivised “non-compliance with sanitary measures to contain the pandemic”.

A video circulated on social media on Wednesday showing Flavio Bolsonaro, one of the president’s sons, responding with laughter, when asked what his father’s reaction was to the report.

More than 600,000 people have died in Brazil from COVID-19, the second-highest death tally worldwide after the United States.

Bolsonaro has been widely criticised by public health experts for railing against lockdowns, frequently refusing to wear a mask in public and declaring he has not been vaccinated. He called COVID-19 the “little flu”.

He has also pushed unproven remedies for the illness.

The report said Bolsonaro is “principally responsible for the government’s errors committed during the COVID-19 pandemic” and that he acted against the advice of his Ministry of Health in supporting the use of unproven treatments.

Regardless of how the prosecutor-general responds, the report’s allegations are expected to further fuel criticism of the far-right leader, whose approval ratings have slumped in advance of his 2022 reelection campaign.

In addition to discontent about his handling of the pandemic, Bolsonaro’s popularity has suffered from a weak economy and rising inflation.

More than half of Brazilians disapprove of Bolsonaro, according to a poll published by Datafolha on September 16 – the highest disapproval rating since he took office in 2019.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies