RIO DE JANEIRO -- The morning after a Brazilian Senate committee recommended criminal indictments for President Jair Bolsonaro over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bruna Chaves, who lost her mother to the disease, was venting her pain in an emotional grief support group session.
“It wasn’t my mom’s time to go,” she told the others Wednesday inside an ecumenical chapel in Rio de Janeiro. “Somebody needs to be blamed.”
A government body laying blame at the president’s feet in the form of a nearly 1,300-page report is already helping bring solace and validation to the mournful nation with the world’s second highest death toll from the virus and eighth highest per capita.
Chaves, a 25-year-old chemistry student, has been watching in recent weeks the nationally televised sessions on the committee’s six-month probe, which culminated Tuesday with the recommendation that President Jair Bolsonaro face charges along with dozens of other officials and allies.
The social worker coordinating Chaves’ session, Márcia Torres, said that publicly laying out the facts during the Senate inquiry can help people move forward in their grieving process. Seeing officials face the consequences of their actions would bring further comfort.
“Condemnation would be justice,” Torres said. “For people, it would be of great value to see that, see the government arrested — literally arrested. For them, it would be a relief.”
Many including Chaves fear, however, that prospects are slim for concrete punishment of officials accused of responsibility for many of Brazil’s 607,000 COVID-19 deaths. It’s far from certain that the prosecutor-general, a Bolsonaro appointee, will pursue charges or that impeachment proceedings will advance in Congress.
The president has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and called the Senate committee's probe a politically motivated sham seeking to undermine his administration.
But Dr. Helian Nunes, a psychiatrist at the Federal University of Minas Gerais who coordinates a program providing mental health support to front-line workers, said the probe has mattered to his patients. Of the nearly 100 people he personally counseled, almost all of whom lost loved ones or acquaintances, most have followed news from the Senate inquiry closely and brought it up in sessions, he told the AP.
“It isn’t possible to replace the losses, but when you give voice to these people, and hold the people involved responsible, it’s possible to lessen the damage,” Nunes said.
"Society needs to give importance to what happened so it doesn’t happen again,” he added.
Bolsonaro has often deflected blame for the pandemic’s toll, excoriating governors and mayors for imposing restrictions on activity to contain the virus’ spread, attacking the Supreme Court for upholding local leaders’ jurisdictions and casting himself as righteously refusing politically correct recommendations by keeping the economy running, ostensibly to shield the poor.
A constant in his pandemic approach has been dismissive, belittling rhetoric — COVID-19 was just “a little flu,” Bolsonaro has said, and he also joked that Brazilians should be studied because they can swim in sewage without falling ill.
That has long rankled people like Márcio Antônio Silva, who lost his 25-year-old son to the coronavirus and recently told the Senate committee it pained him to have his grief downplayed as mere bellyaching by a president offering sarcasm rather than succor.
“That’s why this investigation was so important to me, because someone appeared who didn’t say, ‘So what?’" Silva said in testimony, his voice quavering. "Someone came and said, ‘I’m going to do something for you.'”
Throughout the pandemic, Bolsonaro gathered crowds of maskless people to demonstrate that individuals have a right to come and go as they please, but not once did he pay respects at a COVID-19 memorial or burial. He has followed tepid statements of regret over COVID-19 deaths with pivots to fatalism by saying death is part of life.
An outspoken vaccine skeptic, he insistently touted the anti-malaria pill hydroxychloroquine long after broad testing showed it wasn’t effective against COVID-19. The Senate committee’s report says hydroxychloroquine was “practically the only government policy to fight the pandemic,” and as a result Bolsonaro is “the main person responsible for the errors committed by the federal government.”
Amid the drumbeat of allegations arising from the investigation, the president’s approval ratings have steadily declined to reach their lowest level since he took office in 2019. Early polls for next year’s election, meanwhile, show him trailing his main rival.
The Senate committee has proposed creating a monument for COVID-19 victims, but for now, relatives of the dead must take solace in temporary memorials like the white flags planted earlier this month outside Congress in Brasilia, the capital.
Fernanda Natasha Bravo Cruz was there that day mourning her father, whom she recalled as a lawyer who often provided pro bono legal services to those in need. After initially heeding stay-at-home recommendations, he started letting his guard down, got infected and died before getting the chance to hold his newborn granddaughter. Ahead of that much-anticipated encounter, he sent her a copy of Antoine de Saint-Exupérys “The Little Prince.”
Now, whenever Cruz’s daughter glimpses the book, she points excitedly as if she knows someone wanted her to grow up reading it.
On Wednesday, Cruz said the Senate committee's decision brought some measure of justice.
“It’s important that there be institutions on the side of the people who are suffering and were made very fragile by this process,” Cruz said. “It’s not just personal grief. It’s collective grief.”
Biller reported from Rio de Janeiro, and Álvares reported from Brasilia.