A Saboteur Within: How Quackery, Lies and Diplomatic Fiasco Broke Brazil 

With Donald Trump’s disgraceful exit, Jair Bolsonaro finds himself in a tight spot as he takes the country to the tipping point of the pandemic and badly falters in getting much-needed help from friends and foes.

Sao Paulo: Brazil, they say, is not for the beginners. But the horror unfolding here has made even long-time observers scratch their heads in disbelief.

This week, Brazil entered the 11th month of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a new strain of the virus – a more contagious Amazonian variant – ravaging the country of 210 million people with greater ferocity. Reduced to a basket case of quackery, political machinations and a diplomatic fiasco that threatens the country’s vaccine supply, South America’s largest country is staring at a gloomier year than 2020. With Donald Trump – defeated and impeached – leaving the White House on Wednesday, the clamour for the impeachment of Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian President, is getting louder by the hour.

Brazil, right now, is teetering on a tipping point.

The Brazilian tragedy took a shocking turn on January 11, when news emerged from Manaus, the capital of Amazon, that the city hospitals had run out of their oxygen supply and patients were dying, gasping for air. The deaths were avoidable. A week earlier, as it looked certain that Manaus was heading for a catastrophe, Brazilian health minister General Eduardo Pazuello landed in the rainforest state to take stock of the situation. After his meetings, the general recommended “preventive treatment”, his government’s buzzword for the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine drugs, to patients.

Four days after Pazuello’s disastrous trip to Manaus, the healthcare system in the city collapsed. But, as TV channels showed desperate people scurrying to buy oxygen cylinders for their family members who were slipping to their deaths in hospitals, Bolsonaro appeared on screen to defend the widely-discredited drugs. “The problem in Manaus is terrible, but we did our part,” said Bolsonaro. “The minister of health was there, provided oxygen, started the ‘preventive treatment’, which some still criticise,” said Bolsonaro, still pushing the drugs, which most countries have stopped using.

It has now been revealed by the Federal Attorney’s Office that the government knew about the “imminent collapse” of the medical system in Manaus some ten days before the crisis began. So, when Bolsonaro was hawking the dubious drugs to people in Manaus, his government already knew that people might soon be dying because of lack of oxygen.

In just one month, the number of burials in Manaus has spiked by 193%. The city is now struggling to find space for new burials.

US President Donald Trump hosts a working dinner with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, US, March 7, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Tom Brenner

Call it a ‘genocide’

Government incompetence can’t explain the miserable situation Brazil is in. As the country records more than 60,000 daily infections, more than 1,200 deaths every day and its COVID-19 toll crosses the 212,000-mark, people have begun to say that these deaths are a result of deliberate actions of the Bolsonaro government.

On Saturday, on the eve of a meeting of the Brazilian drug regulatory authority, ANVISA, some protesters projected images of Bolsonaro with “genocide” printed along on the walls of its building in Brasilia. The next morning, as ANVISA experts met to approve two vaccines for use in Brazil, a giant inflatable doll of a scary-looking Bolsonaro – with blood on his hands – went up outside the building.

In denial mode since the beginning of the pandemic, Bolsonaro has done real damage to his country by prescribing a “preventive treatment” that top healthcare experts reject. Bolsonaro caught the chloroquine bug from Donald Trump, who later moved on to other remedies and dumped his stock of the malarial drugs in Brazil. But the Brazilian president has continued on all platforms to promote the drug, even as local doctors refused to prescribe it.

From the beginning, there has been a whiff of scandal in the chloroquine story. Now, it has taken a sinister turn. On Sunday, Sergio Cimerman, one of the top infectologists in Brazil, revealed on live television that the chloroquine lobby was going after those experts who have questioned its use. “We are getting constant death threats from (pandemic) deniers… not only me, but all the infectious disease experts who do not support chloroquine and ‘preventive treatment’,” said a visibly emotional Cimerman, on a Globo TV discussion.

In Bolsonaro’s twisted narrative, the virus is a “hoax” and an unproven drug can provide “preventive treatment”. But this is not because of ignorance. Bolsonaro has worked hard to make sure all quarantine measures fail. In this scheme of things, chloroquine came in handy. In his recent tell-all book A Patient Called Brazil, Luís Mandetta, who served as Brazil’s health minister until the middle of 2020, revealed that the far-right president never believed chloroquine would protect his citizens’ health. Bolsonaro’s intention, says Mandetta in the book, has always been to project the drug as ‘preventive care’ so that people would have the courage to go back to work.

In short, the president of Brazil has simply misled his people in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

Aso read: Under Pressure, Bolsonaro Asks PM Modi to Expedite Shipment of Oxford-AstraZeneca Vaccine

In black and white

The Brazilian president’s actions are not a matter of conjecture. The official steps, which have helped the spread of virus instead of containing it, are being tracked by civil society groups. Conectas, a Sao Paulo-based human rights watchdog, has been monitoring all the measures taken by the Bolsonaro government during the pandemic. In partnership with the Health Law Research Center of the University of Sao Paulo, the watchdog has created a database of thousands of documents, which are accessible to researchers. “We have already reached a point where we believe it is wrong to say that the president is silent and negligent. He is undoubtedly [negligent], but he is also proactively the author [of the crisis] and responsible for measures that lead to deaths,” Camila Asano, programme director of Conectas, said in an interview to The Wire.

To monitor the government’s actions, says Asano, the group adopted a scientific method. “We organised a team of researchers to read the Official Gazette of the Union and the states on a daily basis and set up a spreadsheet. Today, we have in the database more than 3,000 notifications,” said Asano.

The picture that emerges from these documents confirms what critics of the government suspected from the beginning. According to Asano, the paper trail clearly establishes that Bolsonaro attacked the people’s right to life by denying the seriousness of the pandemic, dismissing the World Health Organisation’s norms, encouraging big gatherings, challenging social distancing measures and the use of masks, and constantly opposing the governors and mayors who tried to promote quarantine measures.

“It is not just an omission, negligence or incompetence, because the government’s decision to invest in the production of chloroquine is an act against life. He is spending public money and energy that could be used to purchase material that could be scientifically effective in combating serious cases,” said Asano.

The Brazilian watchdog has already sent complaints about the federal government to several national and international forums, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic has already been noticed by international organisations. In a scathing rebuke last week, Human Rights Watch accused Bolsonaro of trying to disrupt measures to contain the disease. “President Jair Bolsonaro tried to sabotage the measures against the spread of COVID-19 in Brazil and to boost policies that compromise human rights. The Supreme Court and other democratic institutions were forced to intervene to protect those rights,” said the US watchdog in its “2021 World Report”, released last Wednesday.

But Asano fears that Bolsonaro is capable of doing more damage, especially with Brazil’s vaccination drive just set to take off. “The vaccine is the only viable and available solution, but it is being questioned constantly by the president. Thus, he continues to act against measures that could save lives in the pandemic,” said Asano, speaking to The Wire in Sao Paulo.

Dulcineia da Silva Lopes gestures near Teresinha Conceicao after receiving the Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine at Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil January 18, 2021. Photo: REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

A war on vaccines  

Since the world at large started testing vaccines against the coronavirus, Bolsonaro has campaigned against it with his absurd claims. The president has definitely convinced some people against getting vaccinated. But as Brazil’s neighbours like Argentina and Chile roll out their robust vaccinations plans, the majority of Brazilians have been looking forward to getting the jab too. But those expectations have been damaged by their government’s reckless diplomacy. One of the last countries to enter into a deal for a vaccine, Brazil’s top officials spent the whole of 2020 either denying the pandemic or blaming China, their biggest trading partner, for the disease. While Eduardo, the president’s third son and head of the foreign affairs panel of the Congress, got into ugly spats with the Chinese ambassador, Brazil’s foreign minister Ernesto Araujo said that SARS-CoV-2 was actually “comunavirus”, a demeaning reference to China.

In the meanwhile, Sao Paulo state governor Joao Doria managed to seal a vaccine deal between the Chinese pharma giant Sinovac and the prestigious Butantan Institute for producing CoronaVac in Sao Paulo. Even as Bolsonaro created hurdles for the approval of CoronaVac and mocked its efficacy, Doria announced his plans to start vaccination in his state on January 25. With no signs of the federal government having a plan to begin immunisation with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine anytime soon, Doria’s announcement created a panic situation in Brasilia. Bolsonaro feared losing the battle of optics to Doria, who would be one of his main challengers in the 2022 presidential election.

In their desperation to stage a photo-op before Doria in Sao Paulo, Bolsonaro jumped the gun, announcing with much fanfare that a special flight would be going to India on January 15 to pick up two million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine from the Serum Institute of India (SII) and a “vaccine celebration” event would be held at the presidential palace on January 20, a few days ahead of the planned launch in Sao Paulo. But as New Delhi had not committed to begin the export of vaccines to Brazil – or any other country – before rolling it out at home, the special flight remained parked at a Brazilian airport and Bolsonaro’s planned photo-op was cancelled.

On January 17, after ANVISA approved the emergency use of 2 million doses of the SII vaccine along with the 6 million doses of CoronaVac already with Butantan Institute, the Sao Paulo governor immediately launched his vaccination drive, with the first shot being given to an Afro-Brazilian nurse at a public hospital in front of national and international media.

Having lost the vaccine war to Doria, who handed over more than 4.5 milion doses of the Chinese vaccine to the Ministry of Health on Sunday for distribution to all 27 states, Bolsonaro continued to claim that vaccines from India would be arriving “in 2-3 days”. On Tuesday, as New Delhi announced that it would start sending doses of vaccines to its neighbouring countries and “key partner countries”, the expectations created by Bolsonaro were dashed. With the Brazilian national media calling it a big failure of Brazilian diplomacy, headlines like “Brazil may have to wait in line” and “India gives vaccines to neighbours, Bolsonaro at the end of the line” have dominated the news cycle in the past couple of days. A story claiming that the delay from the Indian side is because of a dispute between the two countries over a patent-breaking proposal at the World Trade Organisation has continued to dominate the media discussion since Monday, when the news was broken by a top columnist.

On the Chinese front, Brazil is facing a full-blown diplomatic crisis. For reasons not explained, China has delayed the supply of raw material for both the vaccines to be made in Brazil: CoronaVac at Butantan Institute and Oxford/AstraZeneca, which will be produced by Fiocruz Institute in Rio de Janeiro. With communication lines between Beijing and Brasilia badly damaged because of attacks by top officials, including Araujo and Eduardo Bolsonaro, there is a feeling that China might now be twisting the knife as Brazil becomes desperate for vaccines.

The desperation is going viral. On Tuesday, a video of Margareth Dalcomo, a well-known scientist from Fiocruz Institute, appeared on social media. Seen crying at an award ceremony just after she came to know that the vaccines and raw material would be delayed, the scientist blamed “diplomatic incompetence” for the mess. The level of anger among the people is growing, especially because Brazil has been a global reference for its immunisation programme. “70% of vaccines used in our national vaccination programme are produced in Brazil. Our vaccination programme has a history of five decades and is able to administer 300 million doses every year,” said Jose Gomes Temporao, a former health minister during Lula’s presidency, in an interview on Brasil 247.

In the past 11 months, Bolsonaro has gotten away with his actions. But now, as Brazil’s vaccine plan faces the risk of failing, he may have a huge problem as the government face pressure from all sides, including its allies. Right now, there are 61 pleas for the impeachment of Bolsonaro in the Lower House of Congress. Of these petitions, 21 focus on the behaviour of the president during the pandemic.

With his idol and patron gone from power in Washington after a disgraceful exit, Bolsonaro may now have tough days ahead as the country continues to suffer the sabotaging of efforts to control the pandemic.

Florencia Costa and Shobhan Saxena are independent journalists based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.