22 January 2021. All over the world leaders have celebrated the beginning of vaccination in their countries, some of them taking the first jab themselves. But when the first vaccines were administered in São Paulo on Sunday, Jair Bolsonaro sulked in silence in his palace, because not only had his arch political rival, São Paulo governor João Doria, upstaged him, but the vaccine used was the Chinese Coronavac, which he had repeatedly belittled and disparaged and stopped the Health Ministry from acquiring.
The government’s own vaccination programme lies in tatters, thanks not only to the unbelievable incompetence of the general who is Minister of Health, but also to the ideological war waged by the Minister of Foreign Affairs against China and India, suppliers of vaccines and ingredients.
The result of this festival of incompetence is that Brazil, which has a long history of excellence in nationwide vaccination programmes, lags far behind not only other major countries, but the rest of South America, in vaccinating against Covid19, when it could have been among the first.
Deliberate efforts to disseminate the virus
What should be a question of public health, has become instead a political tug of war, and the government’s criminal behaviour in substituting specialists and experienced staff in the ministry of health with inexperienced and incompetent military officers has directly contributed to a death toll of over 200,000 and the scenes of utter chaos and horror in Manaus, where the collapse of oxygen supplies left dozens of patients literally suffocating to death.
TV showed desperate relatives queuing for hours, sometimes all night, to obtain a precious oxygen cylinder, then rushing them into the hospital on their shoulders, while staff uselessly attempted to save patients lying on the floor by manually applying CPR. Not only relatives but nurses and doctors wept in frustration and despair at the scenes around them.
Days before, the Minister of Health, Eduardo Pazuello, had visited Manaus and received urgent requests for oxygen supplies. Instead he sent a task force to persuade local medical staff that preventive treatments like hidrocloroquina, although widely discredited as useless and sometimes dangerous, must be used. Supplies of oxygen were only sent to Manaus when the media revealed the situation. Even the government of Venezuela was quicker to respond, sending 4 lorryloads of oxygen by road.
But is it just incompetence, or is it something more sinister? Eliane Brum, writing in El Pais, has revealed that after studying over 3000 government measures and directives related to Covid-19, researchers found an ‘institutional strategy for propagating the virus’, instead of containing it.
The research, organised by the University of São Paulo (USP) and the human rights organisation Conectas, concludes that the government acted deliberately to disseminate the vírus throughout the country, with the aim of restarting economic activity as soon as possible and at whatever cost. To do this, the government used vetos, orders and directives, spread fake news, and promoted campaigns against local authorities who tried to introduce preventive measures like mask wearing and lockdowns.
Considering this astounding and appalling finding, it is a miracle that a few million vaccines have found their way past the obstacles and barriers put in their way by Bolsonaro and his faithful lapdog, the portly Pazuello, and some Brazilians have actually received the jab. Having failed in his attempt to confiscate the 6 million Coronac vaccines from Sao Paulo’s Butantan Institute before the first jabs were administered to health workers in the city, Pazuello then hurriedly organised a photo-op with other state governors in a vain attempt to claim the initiative for the federal government.
This ended in chaos and confusion, as the flights planned to fly the vaccines to every state for simultaneous kickoff at 10 a.m. on 20 January, were delayed or cancelled, and those states which did receive their quota decided not to wait for the official starting gun but go ahead and vaccinate immediately. For the general, an operation to save people’s lives was first and foremost a military operation. His pronouncements about the timetable – it will begin on Dia D at Hora H, have heaped ridicule on him.
For months Bolsonaro cast doubts on the effectiveness of the Coronavac vaccine because it comes from China, although it is being produced in partnership with one of Brazil’s oldest and most respected scientific institutes, Butantan. He claimed it would interfere with people’s DNA, or even turn them into crocodiles. Now he has had to concede that this, for the moment, is the only vaccine available in Brazil.
The most inept president in history
In an editorial this week, (21 January) the conservative newspaper, Estado de S.Paulo called in no uncertain terms for Bolsonaro to go. He is ‘no longer in a condition to continue in the presidency and his permanence in power puts the lives of innumerable Brazilians at risk’.
It said ‘the most inept president in the history of the country only maintains himself in the post, which he was never up to, because the political conditions needed for his removal have not yet been brought together.’
While the Estadão now admits what was obvious to many from the beginning, it still cannot resist attacking the governments of the PT, and ignoring their successful health, environment, and social programmes, which have been progressively dismantled by Bolsonaro.
Even before the USP research findings were revealed, calls for the president’s impeachment had been mounting. Sixty-one formal requests have piled up in congress, waiting for the process to be put in motion, as was accomplished so easily for Dilma Rousseff. But, as the Estadão points out, the political conditions are not yet in place.
Revelations of Bolsonaro’s criminal intent rather than just incompetence, ought to speed things up, but there is not as yet a critical mass which would guarantee the two thirds majority required for impeachment in congress, as right-wing and centrist politicians see they can extract more posts and power from a weakened president.
Who can be Brazil’s Biden?
The inauguration of the new US president, Joe Biden, to replace Bolsonaro’s idol, Trump, has also left Brazilians wondering who is Brazil’s Biden?
There are no obvious candidates in a political scene dominated by mediocrity and a dismal failure by the opposition to present an alternative project for the country.
Calls for the formation of ‘ample fronts’ on social media will have little impact on the population in general until there is a name that can inspire and unite them.
Meanwhile, there are signs aplenty that Bolsonaro is well aware that his popularity ratings are plummeting, and is preparing to act – not to fight the virus, but to save his skin. The Procurador Geral, in remarks which have been widely criticised, referred to the ‘state of defence’ – when some liberties are suspended – as following on naturally from the present state of calamity. At a ceremony for military cadets the president referred to ‘us military’, identifying himself with this sector, rather than with the entire population. Earlier in the week he made the astonishing, and unconstitutional claim, that it was the armed forces who decide whether a country is a democracy or a dictatorship.
Brazil finds itself in the middle of a lethal pandemic led by at the least an incompetent, at the worst a criminal leader, but without a coherent opposition, without an alternative project of government. Brazilians can only look on with envy as Joe Biden rolls back Trump’s legacy and gets to work on tackling the virus with ambitious, sweeping measures.