Squabbles and accusations: Inside Brazil’s COVID Senate inquiry

Investigation into government’s handling of coronavirus pandemic adds to pressure on far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.

Brazil has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 449,000 deaths reported to date [File: Pilar Olivares/Reuters]

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

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

The gaffe drew chuckles from senators, spectators and even Pazuello, an army general, whose 10-month stint as health minister ended in March and saw the bulk of Brazil’s nearly 450,000 coronavirus-related deaths.

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

After nearly one month of hearings, mostly from former and current government staffers, it has been alleged the Brazilian government failed to acquire live-saving vaccines, promoted ineffective COVID-19 cures, set up a “parallel” health ministry and showed negligence during an oxygen crisis that left coronavirus patients gasping for air.

“The government, contaminated by ideological issues and denialism, made mistakes from the beginning and continues to make mistakes,” Eliziane Gama, a senator with the centrist Citizenship Party, told Al Jazeera.

The CPI could lead to impeachment or even prison for Bolsonaro – but those outcomes are unlikely as of right now [Adriano Machado/Reuters]

Bolsonaro defiant

Brazil’s far-right populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, has been widely condemned by the international community for his handling of the pandemic, having sneered at vaccines and the use of masks, and attacked local authorities that tried to implement lockdown measures.

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

He has appeared unfazed by the Senate inquiry, known by its Portuguese acronym CPI, which launched at the end of April and will last for 90 days, after which it can be renewed – although many analysts consider the bravado a show amid falling approval ratings.

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

“It was evident that the witness’s mission at this CPI was not to enlighten the population or collaborate to find the truth, but rather to exempt the president,” Calheiros wrote in a document that was shared with Brazilian news organisations on Friday.

Brazil’s former Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello testified in the Senate inquiry on May 20 [Adriano Machado/Reuters]

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

“The testimony of former Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello demonstrated the government’s negligence in the Manaus oxygen crisis,” said Gama, who blasted the government’s management of the pandemic as “deplorable”.

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

The leader of the commission, Amazonas state Senator Omar Aziz, said Saturday that he would call Pazuello in for questioning again, this time without habeas corpus protection.

The Supreme Court issued that protection for Pazuello not to incriminate himself due to a separate charge 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 in the inquiry so far was the accusation that the government failed to respond to an opportunity to buy vaccines from Pfizer when offered.

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

With documents from the CPI, Brazil’s Folha de S Paulo newspaper reported that the government ignored 10 emails from Pfizer regarding vaccine purchases in a one-month period in August and September 2020.

Bernardo said this week also would likely be highly volatile for the CPI, with the testimony of health secretary Mayra Pinheiro, nicknamed “Captain Chloroquine”, who pushed the scientifically unproven medicine in Manaus as a remedy just days before the health system collapsed.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, centre, joined thousands of his supporters in 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 councilman, who former health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta said took part in key ministry meetings despite not being 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 assessment, the ex-minister’s responses to his administration at the Ministry of Health shed light on the facts and buried the baseless accusations made so far in dealing with the pandemic,” Marcos Rogério, a pro-government senator said.

Bolsonaro approval drops

The CPI could lead to impeachment or even prison for Bolsonaro.

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

“Bolsonaro is protected for now by the speaker of Congress who can enact impeachment proceedings, who is his ally, as is the attorney general,” he told Al Jazeera. “But this is fragile.”

Past impeachments, Melo said, have always happened after periods of large street protests calling for a president’s removal, which are more difficult to organise because of the pandemic.

Latest opinion polls suggest nearly half of Brazilians support Bolsonaro’s impeachment while slightly less than half are against it.

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

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

According to Datafolha, an opinion polls firm, Bolsonaro’s approval rating has dropped to 24 percent, with 45 percent of Brazilians saying his government is “bad” or “terrible”.

The re-emergence of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva onto Brazil’s political scene is also a major concern for Bolsonaro, analysts said, as opinion polls show that Lula would beat him convincingly if elections were held today.

Source: Al Jazeera