Brazil's Bolsonaro faces government probe into his handling of Covid-19

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro makes a statement to the press after meeting with the heads of the three government branches and their ministers to discuss possible solutions for the COVID-19 pandemic crisis that is plaguing the country, at the Alvorada Palace in Brasilia, on March 24, 2021,

Brazil's Senate launched an inquiry Tuesday into the federal government's response to Covid-19, which could hobble President Jair Bolsonaro's re-election bid if it leads to an impeachment proceeding or criminal charges.

Bolsonaro has long downplayed the ferocity of the pandemic, while resisting lockdown measures and mask-wearing. While Covid-19 cases have started to plateau or decline in other countries, Brazil's cases have continued to surge. Angry citizens, political adversaries and overwhelmed local officials across the country have pressed Bolsonaro for more federal action, even as he has publicly shrugged off these concerns.

Although the Senate commission is not a judging body, it has the power to gather evidence to make the case for impeachment. Moreover, the commission will also look into the federal funds transfers to states and municipalities to fight Covid-19.

"I am not worried because we owe nothing," Bolsonaro told reporters Monday about the awaited commission results.

But Bolsonaro's political fate hangs in the balance, with the Senate split in favor of ousting him to usher in former government ally Omar Aziz as president, along with opponents Randolfe Rodrigues and Renan Calheiros as vice president and rapporteur, respectively.

Senator Renan Calheiros, the commission's rapporteur, emphasized the seriousness of the inquiry in a speech on Monday, vowing that the culprits "who are to blame for the action, omission, disdain or incompetence and they will be held accountable."

Bolsonaro's weakening base

The recently Supreme Court-approved inquiry circulated among government ministries for information about the accusations against Bolsonaro is a blow to his base, which attempted to bar the commission from investigating the issue of pandemic management. Accusations include claims that Bolsonaro and his government sabotaged isolation measures, threatened governors and mayors who applied restrictive measures, and refused to wear masks or encourage their use.

Another point of contention is how the pandemic has been managed in Manaus, the state capital of Amazonas, where hospitals are stretched beyond capacity. The commission, backed by a study done by several local non-profits and academic groups, resolved to evaluate delays in purchasing vaccines from Pfizer, possible negligence and incompetence in purchasing and administering vaccines, excessive spending on drugs with proven inefficacy, and failure to stock needed supplies such as syringes to the public health system.

The study, based on more than 3,000 government speeches, interviews and actions, found that the federal government bet on a herd immunity strategy to manage the virus in favor of bolstering the Brazilian economy. "Since April last year, there has been an institutional strategy for the propagation of Covid-19 in Brazil, led by the President but implemented by the entire federal government to achieve herd immunity through contagion. This is what our study concludes," research coordinator Deisy Venturato told CNN.

The threat of impeachment

If the inquiry were to prompt an impeachment vote, it would require at least two-thirds of the 513 deputies and a simple majority of 81 senators to remove Bolsonaro from office. Vice President and army general Hamilton Mourao would then assume control of the federal government. If the commission concludes that the president committed common crimes, the attorney general's office could initiate an investigation or file a complaint to the Supreme Court.

Research coordinator Ventura told CNN that a looming question is whether there is sufficient political will to properly investigate Bolsonaro. "The president does not stop spreading fake news, does not stop inciting the population to disobey health authorities, does not stop inciting the population to expose themselves to the virus. Even in the face of the collapse of public health ," said Ventura. In the researchers' view, she continued, the federal government's actions "may constitute a crime against humanity."

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