Brazil begins to unravel the tangled web behind its poor pandemic response

São Paulo Letter: Question of why Bolsonaros were so opposed to vaccines comes to the fore

Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro waves at members of the agribusiness community who had gathered to show him their support, in Brasília, Brazil, on Saturday. Photograph: AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro waves at members of the agribusiness community who had gathered to show him their support, in Brasília, Brazil, on Saturday. Photograph: AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

 

To wander around São Paulo this weekend was to believe the worst of the pandemic was over. Autumn sunshine meant recently reopened parks and the Sunday cycle lanes were busy. Certain restrictions remain in place and masks are ubiquitous. But these inevitably came off in the bars and restaurants where there was a noticeable buzz in the air as groups could gather around tables and forget for a while the isolation of recent months.

This movement in the direction of something resembling normal life is in one sense justified. The worst is over, for now at least. After the terrible days of early April when Brazil was registering more than 4,000 deaths a day, cases are in decline. The peak has passed and this has provided a level of reassurance for those having a long-overdue catch-up over a drink or a meal with family and friends.

But it is all relative. The current situation only seems reassuring because things were so grim in March and April. Almost 2,000 people a day are still dying from Covid-19, a number that would have shocked Brazilians at the beginning of the year. The country’s official death toll is likely to pass 450,000 before the end of the month and almost inevitably the half-million mark in the not too distant future.

Brazil has already had a terrible pandemic and is still deep in the thick of it. At the end of March its mortality rate from Covid-19 was still well behind those of the US, UK and Italy. But since then it has passed them all out to become the worst-affected nation in this regard in the G20, the group of the world’s 20 largest economies, as well as in Latin America.

And this is based on official numbers. In the years to come demographers are likely to radically readjust the figures for the pandemic and it might then emerge that Brazil’s Covid mortality rate was not in fact a world leader. But it might also emerge that its own numbers were a radical understatement of the impact of the virus. One recent study calculates that up to 30 per cent of the country’s Covid-related deaths are not being picked up, which if correct means it passed half a million deaths weeks ago.

Central question

The question of why Brazil’s pandemic response has been so poor – why it ignored its strengths and played to its weaknesses – is now the centre of political attention in the capital Brasília, where there has been no waiting about until the pandemic abates before the beginning of a public inquiry into what went wrong.

Already officials in the administration of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro are being called before a congressional inquiry into its response. In less than two weeks the inquiry has already gathered enough evidence that some of its members are signalling it could lead to charging Bolsonaro with crimes against public health.

The inquiry is only producing more detail on what Brazilians already knew – that their president is vehemently opposed to following scientific advice. Instead of health experts, he has relied on a parallel pandemic response operation within his administration, overseen by one of the shadier figures in it, his son Carlos.

Formally a city councillor in Rio, but also a key figure in his father’s inner circle despite holding no position in the federal government, Carlos is also at the centre of the mystery as to why the administration first ignored, then refused an offer made last year by Pfizer for millions of doses of vaccine.

The question is being asked whether the Bolsonaros were so opposed to vaccines because of their alt-right ideology, which also saw them promote with unusual enthusiasm quack cures for Covid, or whether some financial incentive was involved. Such questions are natural given the ethical realities of Brazilian public life and the fact the Bolsonaros, father and sons, have themselves a history of using elected office for illicit private gain.

Money trail

Already, opposition members of congress are trying to follow a money trail that saw offers of vaccines rejected over conditions other countries were happy to accept, while tens of millions of reais was poured into the production of medications every respected health authority in the world said are useless at treating Covid-19.

Maybe it was crackpot ideology, maybe not, but if the inquiry is serious about its job, finding out the real reason behind this course of disastrous action should be its top priority.

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