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Sao Paulo: After 163 days of sittings during which 56 persons testified for hundreds of hours broadcast live on national television, the parliamentary commission of inquiry (CPI) probing the Brazilian government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is all set to submit a scathing report that will indict President Jair Bolsonaro and his top officials on 11 serious charges, including corruption and crimes against life. In its final stretch now, the panel is scheduled to table its report on October 19, followed by a vote by the 11-member commission the next day. As the country eagerly awaits the findings, the CPI rapporteur, Senator Renan Calheiros, said on Monday that the report would list 11 crimes committed by Bolsonaro, whom he called a “merchant of death”.
Senator Calheiros, who has led the probe which has revealed several scandals and opened eight investigations by other agencies, said on Monday that the president’s “involvement in crimes is clear and proven, and for that he will be held responsible”. More than 40 other persons, including politicians like former health minister Eduardo Pazuello, businessmen and doctors, would be indicted in the report, according to the chief investigator. “Those people who were responsible for the embezzlement of public money and theft will also be indicted,” said Senator Calheiros.
Since April 27, when the inquiry began, Bolsonaro has been under the scanner for his role in the purchase of hydroxychloroquine and Covaxin – both from Indian companies – as his government made little effort to control the virus, making Brazil the second worst-affected country after the US in terms of infections and deaths. During the pandemic, Brazil’s economy has sunk, poverty risen and Bolsonaro’s ratings have tanked to historic lows, with the vast majority of Brazilians holding him responsible for the catastrophe that has killed more than 6,00,000 people so far.
Next Tuesday, the Senate report is likely to hit the far-right leader’s flailing presidency like a sledgehammer as his two sons, Carlos and Eduardo, may also feature in it for allegedly spreading fake news while the virus ravaged this country of 210 million people.
Lobbying letters to India
The CPI rapporteur, who is still finalising the report, has not disclosed the specific crimes Bolsonaro and his ministers will be accused of. But, according to sources in Brasilia, the biggest part of the findings will deal with the scandals surrounding hydroxychloroquine, Covaxin and fake news. In its hearings, the probe gave maximum time to these three issues, which could directly implicate the president. Since the virus hit Brazil in February 2020, Bolsonaro has dismissed it as a “little flu” while encouraging people to take chloroquine pills as a “preventive treatment”. Last year, when the hospitals in the state of Amazon were collapsing because of the lack of oxygen, the Bolsonaro government sent packs of chloroquine to the state even as it blocked the entry of oxygen trucks from its neighbour Venezuela.
While the tragedy of Amazon, which shook Brazil last year, was discussed during the initial days of the probe, the real horror of the hydroxychloroquine saga came to light only during the final phase of the investigation. At an emotional testimony on October 7, a former patient and his doctor revealed how a chain of “Prevent Senior” hospitals, whose owners are known supporters of the president, used a “Covid kit” comprising drugs with unproven efficacy, without the consent of patients. Dr Walter Souza Neto, a former doctor with the hospital, stunned the commission – and the entire country – as he revealed that the medical staff had no option but to prescribe the kit with drugs such as hydroxychloroquine (HCQ). The hospital, said the doctor even prepared a “fraud study” to prove the efficacy of HCQ but the medical records of many patients showed that they might have been sent to their death by this treatment. “Believing that there is a preventive treatment, many may fail to protect themselves and refuse vaccines. This could lead to death,” said the doctor when asked by Senator Calheiros about Bolsonaro’s public support for Covid kits.
The scandal at Prevent Senior clinics could actually be part of a strategy prepared at the highest level of Brazilian government. In a testimony last month, Bruna Morato, a lawyer representing 12 doctors of Prevent Senior, said the hospital chain and an informal advisory group working with Bolsonaro made a pro-HCQ “pact” to make sure there was no lockdown in Brazil. The pact, said the lawyer, assured the hospital that it would not be inspected by the health ministry or any other regulator as it experimented with sick people. “The economy couldn’t be shut down. They had to give people some hope so that they continued to go out on the streets. And that hope had a name: hydroxychloroquine,” said Morato in her bombshell testimony which also revealed that the chain had concealed the real number of deaths in its hospitals.
Following the lead of then US President Donald Trump, the Brazilian leader has been hawking HCQ as a treatment for COVID-19. In April 2020, when fatalities in Brazil began to spike, Bolsonaro spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asking him to allow the export of raw material for the production of HCQ which would be “used to treat those infected with the COVID-19 disease”. After India cleared the export, Bolsonaro sent a thanking note to Modi, comparing the decision to send the material to Brazil with “Lord Hanuman bringing sanjeevani booti in the epic Ramayana”.
The Brazilian president’s lobbying with the Indian leader for HCQ on behalf of two private firms has been in the crosshairs the CPI since the beginning of the probe. But the emergence of a new scandal at hospitals has put Bolsonaro in a tight spot. “The president of the republic [Bolsonaro] not only defended the use of hydroxychloroquine but also spoke with the Prime Minister of India [Modi] to send the raw material for its production to Brazil,” said Senator Calheiros during the testimony by Morato, the lawyer for doctors.
Since the beginning of the probe in April, the senators have repeatedly mentioned Bolsonaro’s letters and phone call to Modi for HCQ ingredients. The Brazilian president’s communication with the prime minister of India again in January 2021 for the supply of 20 million doses of Covaxin manufactured by Bharat Biotech also has been questioned by the CPI rapporteur and other senators during the probe.
In the past five months, the CPI has spent a major part of its time in investigating the Covaxin deal. As reported by The Wire in a series of dispatches, the suspected irregularities and corruption in the $300-million contract for Covaxin have been the focus of the probe; the vaccine contract will also form the centrepiece of the CPI report. According to sources, the report will reveal in detail how top officials participated in a corruption scheme to buy the vaccine at an exorbitant price with intermediaries who were to receive massive commission. The Covaxin chapter of the report could be particularly damaging for Bolsonaro as it may accuse him of committing the crime of prevarication – an impeachable offence – for not taking any action when informed about corruption in the contract by a health ministry whistleblower and his brother, a sitting member of Congress, in June.
The Covaxin contract became one of the biggest scandals in this country only because the CPI dug deep into it. As a number of witnesses appearing at the commission revealed a series of irregularities in the contract with Bharat Biotech, four different investigations by federal agencies were launched to look into the deal. Facing maximum heat from CPI and public anger on the streets, the Bolsonaro government scrapped the Covaxin contract in July but various investigations into the deal still continue. In fact, the CPI report may open a slew of new inquiries into the Covaxin contract as Bolsonaro and top officials in his government are likely to be indicted with charges related to the Indian vaccine.
Fake news factory
Even before the Sars-Cov-2 virus reached Brazil in February last year, Bolsonaro had made it clear that he had no intentions of tackling it. Blindly following Trump, he denied the problem while urging people to go out without masks. Throughout the pandemic, the Brazilian social media has been swamped with false information about the virus. Suspecting that the president and his supporters used social media to disseminate fake news, the senate panel summoned a couple of businessmen to find out if there was an organised network which deliberately spread misinformation about vaccines, while pushing the theories of herd immunity and preventive treatments on social media.
At his senate testimony last month, Otavio Fakhoury, an ally of the president, denied that he had financed fake news but he claimed that his family members took medicines from the “Covid kit” and “did not show severe symptoms of the disease”. The businessman was reminded by Senator Randolfe Rodrigues, the vice president of the commission, that a campaign for unproven medicines constitutes a crime and can lead to prosecution and up to two years in prison. Another senior member of the commission, Senator Humberto Costa, told Fakhoury that he could be indicted for the crime of endangering lives. “Perhaps encouraged by President Jair Bolsonaro, they all think they will get away with it. Are you thinking that the rapporteur [Senator Calheiros] will let you off? He won’t,” said Senator Costa at Fakhoury’s hearing.
Luciano Hang, another close ally of the Brazilian president who is suspected of financing his fake news machinery, was called to testify last month. Owner of a chain of stores, Hang is one of the most vocal backers of Bolsonaro; he has been under suspicion for his role in fake news operations and for funding pro-Bolsonaro bloggers who routinely attack other institutions. Though Hang denied funding any fake news operation, Senator Omar Aziz, the CPI president, put him on the mat with questions about his offshore company. “We have information that you have an offshore [firm] in the Virgin Islands and there are indications that this offshore made the payment [for fake news]. We believe you have financed fake news, including on issues of preventive treatment. This is against science and we are going to fight this,” Senator Aziz told Hang in a firm tone.
A game changer
In March 2021, when the Brazilian Supreme Court asked the senate to set up the inquiry commission, Brazil was a basket case of pandemic failure as it was recording high daily infections and deaths and its vaccine rollout was struggling. At that time, Bolsonaro was still pushing HCQ and his government was showcasing Covaxin as a saviour. Also, the president’s popularity with his core base was intact. After five months of the senate probe, the scenario has changed completely. Senator Rogerio Carvalho, a physician who specialises in public health, says the CPI proved that Bolsonaro was a threat to Brazilian people and that preventive treatment was ineffective. “The CPI played a very important role in redefining society’s behaviour. When the CPI started, just 50% of Brazilians believed in vaccines. Today, almost 96% of the population wants to get vaccinated,” says Senator Carvalho, a member of the panel.
With its televised proceedings, where senior ministers and officials were grilled by the panel, being watched live by millions of Brazilians every day, the mood in the country began to change and the government came under pressure. “The CPI also forced the acceleration of vaccination. On April 27, the day we started our work, only 6.6% of Brazilians were completely vaccinated. Today, 45.25% of the population is fully vaccinated,” says Senator Calheiros.
Besides exposing irregularities in the Covaxin deal and giving a boost to vaccination, the CPI has tried to hold the government accountable for its response to the pandemic. The senate report may establish that what happened in Brazil was not negligence but a deliberate policy decision. It will have serious consequences for Bolsonaro as the report will be sent to the Supreme Court and, probably, to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, where the Brazilian leader is already facing charges of crimes against humanity. “The report is not the end. It is a new beginning. The more than 6,00,000 Brazilian families who have lost a loved one demand a response from us,” Senator Randolfe Rodrigues said on Monday.
Since his failed show of strength on September 7, Bolsonaro has been keeping a low profile as his popularity even among his base plummets. As per the latest polls, the president’s approval rating is down to 20%; the number of people who would not vote for him “under any circumstances” now stands at 56%. On Tuesday afternoon, when Bolsonaro visited National Shrine, the largest Catholic church in the country, to participate in the biggest religious event in Brazil, many in the gathering shouted at him to get vaccinated as they booed him with cuss words. It was a clear sign of how damaged the president is right now. After the CPI submit its report, Bolsonaro’s stock can only be expected to go further south.
Shobhan Saxena and Florencia Costa are independent journalists based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.