SAO PAULO -- Brazil’s Senate on Tuesday began an inquiry into the government’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic, a probe that analysts say could potentially jeopardize the reelection of President Jair Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro has been one of the world’s most prominent opponents of restrictions aimed at curbing the disease, whose effects he has often downplayed. He has also encouraged use of medications that scientists say are worthless, and critics say his policies, along with a bungled vaccine campaign, have contributed to the world’s second highest COVID-19 death toll.
While the investigation isn’t formally aimed at criminal allegations, it potentially could lead to charges. It’s also likely to provide a months-long drumbeat of embarrassing accusations ahead of the October 2022 presidential election.
The probe could weaken his chances against his chief political rival, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who can run for office again only because the Supreme Court recently annulled his two criminal convictions.
It could even damage Bolsonaro’s chances of reaching an eventual presidential runoff, said Gilberto Kassab, leader of the Bolsonaro-allied Social Democratic Party, in an interview with newspaper Valor Economico.
The sessions began with a setback for the president: An independent senator, Omaz Aziz, was elected over one of his allies to be chairman and one of his critics, Sen. Renan Calheiros, was named rapporteur — the person in charge of writing the committee's report and summoning witnesses.
Following the decision, Calheiros said he plans to call all four health ministers who have served under Bolsonaro to testify.
“The country has the right to know who contributed to the death of thousands, and they must be punished immediately and in a exemplary manner,” he said. But he insisted nobody will be prejudged or targeted unfairly.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and instead blames governors and mayors, saying their restrictions on activity have caused more problems than the virus itself.
He has frequently flouted public health experts’ recommendations and has had four different health ministers since taking office in 2019. While the nation’s pandemic problems have dented his popularity ratings, roughly a third of Brazilians still back him, according to recent polls.
“I don’t see this inquiry as enough for an impeachment drive because that would depend on other factors, but it does make that possibility bigger,” said Beatriz Rey, a political scientist specializing in Brazil at American University in Washington. “This inquiry will not punish anyone criminally; that’s for the prosecutor general. But the negative exposure will be strong, every day.”
The investigating commission has the power to subpoena documents and and compel witnesses to testify, and it can submit its findings to police or other authorities with power to prosecute wrongdoing.
The news website UOL reported on Sunday that an internal administration document anticipated 23 possible lines of investigation, including negligence in purchasing vaccines and politicizing the pandemic. Opposition Sen. Randolfe Rodrigues, one of the members of the commission, said on Twitter that those 23 allegations are just the start.
“Here’s a spoiler for the government: There is much more to add. Apparently it is easier for them to plan their defense than to protect people’s lives,” Rodrigues said on Monday.
Bolsonaro can count on support from four of the 11 senators on the inquiry commission. And at least two of the president’s allies have been called to testify: former Health Minister Gen. Eduardo Pazuello and former Communications Secretary Fabio Wajngarten.
In an interview this week with the news magazine Veja, Wajngarten absolved Bolsonaro of blame for vaccine shortfalls and blamed Health Ministry officials for failing to secure a deal to buy 70 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine.
Sen. Eduardo Girão, one of the president’s allies on the commission, said Monday on Twitter that the investigation must be balanced and should also assess mayors’ and governors’ performance. He said that Congress should be prioritizing things like tax reform and administrative reform to aid the country’s rebound from the pandemic-induced recession.
Brazil is almost certain to hit the milestone of 400,000 COVID-19 deaths this week, trailing only the U.S. total. The South American nation has recorded more virus deaths in the first four months of 2021 than in all of last year, though the number of daily cases and deaths has retreated slightly over the last two weeks.