Sao Paulo: On December 16, Brazil’s health minister Eduardo Pazuello appeared before the media to release a plan for vaccination against COVID-19. Mandated by the country’s Supreme Court to come up with a blueprint to vaccinate 212 million Brazilians, Pazuello, not wearing a mask, announced a vague scheme, with no fixed date for when the vaccination drive would begin and with which vaccine.
In the middle of his meandering presentation, the minister wondered why there was so much “anxiety” in the country.
Pazuello, a serving army general, just needed to look toward President Jair Bolsonaro, who was present at the event, to know why the country is in the grip of anxiety. As countries across the world, including Brazil’s neighbours like Argentina and Chile, roll out vaccination plans, Bolsonaro has been in an overdrive to delay – and spread fear about – the vaccine. A night before Pazuello’s briefing, Bolsonaro went on air to declare, “I will not take the vaccine and that’s it.”
“Is my life at risk? The problem is mine,” said the president, in an interview on Band TV. The same day, the Bolsonaro government announced that those who take the vaccine will have to “sign an undertaking” that they are doing so “at their own risk”. Bolsonaro also said he would ask the Ministry of Health to post information about the “dangers of vaccination” on its website.
Nine months since the COVID-19 virus hit Brazil, it has infected 7.5 million people and killed more than 185,000 Brazilians. In the final days of 2020, the country is facing a new spike, with roughly 50,000 daily infections and 1,000 plus fatalities every 24 hours. But Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly called the pandemic a “little flu” and said that Brazil should “stop being a country of sissies”, has been doing everything in his power to downplay the pandemic, often clashing with the Congress, Supreme Court and some state governors who have been trying to put a vaccination programme in place.
On Thursday, after several days of ranting and railing by Bolsonaro against “mandatory vaccination”, a full-bench of the Supreme Court gave a judgment, by 10 votes to 1, authorising “restrictive measures” (like not able to attend schools and use public transport) against those who refuse to take the vaccine. The court verdict, which doesn’t recommend forced vaccination, came a day after the president said he would not be vaccinated at any cost.
“Either he is an imbecile or an idiot who is saying that I set a bad example. I already had the virus. I already have antibodies. Why should I have a vaccine again?” the president said at a public event. “Nobody can force anyone to get a vaccine… I don’t want chemotherapy and I’m going to die, that’s my problem,” he said to a crowd of supporters who occasionally applauded his attacks on vaccines.
The court judgment is, in fact, a jolt to Bolsonaro. It has been the second blow to him in as many days. A day earlier, a Supreme Court judge had allowed “states and municipalities to distribute vaccines against COVID-19 even if National Health Surveillance Agency (ANVISA) does not approve them within 72 hours of application, provided the vaccine has been approved by health regulators of other countries”. Brazilian law allows automatic approval of medicines validated by health regulators of US, EU, Japan and China.
But, in his typical confrontational style, Bolsonaro spared no time to double down on the Pfizer vaccine and frighten the people with its imaginary side-effects.
“In the Pfizer contract, it’s very clear… ‘we (Pfizer) are not responsible for any side effects’. If you become an alligator, it’s your problem. If you become superhuman, if a woman starts to grow a beard or if a man starts to speak with an effeminate voice, they will not have anything to do with it,” he said at a public event.
There is nothing bizarre in Bolsonaro’s universe of imagination. Always speaking to his far-right base, which thrives on deep-seated social prejudices and conspiracy theories, which are fuelled 24×7 with fake news and claims on social media by his troll army, the president is working on a dangerous strategy of keeping the economy open by minimising the virus threat and sowing doubts about the vaccine with fear mongering.
Tragically, as Brazil’s ‘anti-vaxxer-in-chief’, Bolsonaro has succeeded somewhat in damaging people’s trust in vaccines. According to Datafolha, a top survey firm, the percentage of Brazilians willing to be vaccinated fell from 89% in August to 73% in December. In the same period, the share of people who do not want to get the vaccine grew from 9% to 22%. The resistance to vaccine is highest among the supporters of the Bolsonaro government (30%).
Though a majority (56%) of people support mandatory vaccination for all, public health experts fear the president may damage Brazil’s effort to reach herd immunity through vaccination. “It is necessary to vaccinate 70% of the population to achieve herd immunity. We already have 22% of people against it. The margin of error is just 8%. It is very worrying. We would like to have a leader who encourages people to vaccinate just as all other heads of state in the world do,” Pedro Halal, an epidemiologist and dean of the Federal University of Pelotas, said in an interview on ‘Globo News’. But Halal is hopeful that Bolsonaro may go back on his anti-vaccine position as things turn from bad to worse. “Either the Brazilian government will encourage people to get vaccinated or they will make the country live in an even greater chaos than we already are,” said Halal.
Not known for his oratory skills, Bolsonaro has a talent for making outrageous statements and – many a times – going back on his word when it is convenient. Also, with a cunning use of contradictory tones, he keeps his opponents guessing and the country in a perpetual state of anxiety – a hallmark of his far-right politics. But, coupled with the incompetence of his administration, this approach has proved to be an unmitigated disaster for Brazil as it fails to tackle the once-in-a-century pandemic.
As a country with the second highest death toll in the world, high infection rate and poor compliance with quarantine rules, Brazil’s challenges are enormous.
To vaccinate 80% of the Brazilian population, or about 170 million people, with two doses each, the country would need 340 million doses of vaccines, and also 340 million needles, syringes, vials, bottle caps and packaging for needles and syringes. According to researchers, none of these logistics are in place right now and it is one of the main reasons for the government’s reluctance to announce a concrete vaccination plan. Brazil is at least six months behind in its logistics planning for the roll out of a vaccine.
A parallel reality
It seems the biggest Latin American country doesn’t have a plan to vaccinate its population. But the way things are, it seems the plan is to have no plan.
On December 7, while many Brazilians were glued to their TV screens watching the first dose of Pfizer being given to a British citizen, a smiling and cheerful Bolsonaro and his wife Michelle appeared in front of the cameras at the presidential palace to inaugurate an exhibition of the clothes that the President and the First Lady wore on January 1, 2019, the day of his inauguration. On December 10, as the Brazilian toll reached 180,00 mark and scientists warned that the situation was worsening with the surge of a second wave of infections within the first wave that never ended, Bolsonaro announced excitedly that Brasil was “at the very end of the pandemic”.
Bolsonaro has been so consistent with such theatrics that they don’t appear to be simple distractions anymore. It is a carefully-constructed parallel reality, where facts matter little and images project a different normality. As he disses on science on a daily basis, Bolsonaro has been peddling Chloroquine as a “miracle cure” for COVID-19. After spending millions of dollars, the Army’s Chemical and Pharmaceutical Laboratory is sitting with 400,000 chloroquine tablets in stock, with no demand from the states. But that has not deterred Bolsonaro from hawking this unproven drug; he even got himself photographed offering a pack of chloroquine to emus, the ostrich-like birds who live in the gardens of the Presidential Palace. The photos of the president with the birds, one of whom even pecked him, went viral on social media, with his supporters and opponents sharing them in equal number for different reasons.
Nothing appeals more —and works better – for Bolsonaro than making an issue all about himself.
On the work front, since the beginning of pandemic, Bolsonaro has been busy with firing his health ministers, packing the ministry of health with military men and asking people to violate quarantine rules. As a result, the country has failed to prepare a robust response to the virus at the federal level.
The government faltered the most on the vaccine front. For a continental-sized country spread over 8.5 million sq km and world’s fifth largest population scattered in 5,570 municipalities, Brazil needed a number of vaccines from different sources. Instead, the Bolsonaro government put all its basket in one case by banking on the University of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is now under a cloud and will probably be delayed. Then, Brazil made another blunder as it opted to take vaccines for just 10% of its population from the WHO-led Covax vaccine even as it had the option of requesting the doses for 50% of its people.
A battle of vaccines
To make the situation worse, the Bolsonaro government has engaged in a nasty dog-fight with the Sao Paulo state governor, Joao Doria, who struck a deal with Sinovac firm of China to produce 46 million doses of a vaccine, called Coronavac, by Butantan Institute of Sao Paulo, one of the global references in vaccine manufacturing. With the preliminary tests of the vaccine showing good results, General Pazuello, the health minister, announced in October that the federal government would buy all the doses of Coronavac and it would be the “vaccine of Brazil”. But after he received a dressing down from the president, a former army captain, the general rescinded his offer.
Bolsonaro’s strong hatred for Doria is not a secret. Doria, who will be one of the main challengers of Bolsonaro in the next election in 2022, is not only pushing hard for a quick approval of Coronavac, he has already announced a plan to begin the vaccination drive in the state of Sao Paulo from January 25. With the AstraZeneca and WHO vaccines nowhere in sight, the vaccine of Butantan Institute, which is already making one million doses a day, will most probably be the first vaccine to enter the Brazilian public health system. This has made the battle of vaccines turn ugly: Bolsonaro supporters have been filling their social networks with fake news about the “communist vaccine” which can “embed a chip into the body” of those who take it.
The unrelenting anti-vaccine campaign is making an impact in Brazil. As per the Datafolha survey, more than 50% people would refuse to take a shot if it “comes from China”. That would be a huge setback to the objective of achieving the herd community through vaccination, even though the vaccine is produced, tested and distributed by a prestigious Brazilian institute.
The Butantan Institute in Sao Paulo is part of a legacy which made Brazil a great example of public vaccination campaigns. A National Immunization Programme, created in 1973 and implemented since 1975, has been a global reference point for the developing and emerging countries. But, with the rise of Bolsonaro, the anti-vaccine rhetoric now dominates the public policy, causing anxiety to the experts who know how serious the situation is. On December 8, eleven former health ministers signed a memorandum, criticizing the federal government’s conduct as “clumsy and inefficient” in the midst of the pandemic and called for “vaccines for everyone now”.
Even the Supreme Court, which has shot down all efforts by the government to scuttle the vaccination plans, has come down heavily on Bolsonaro supporters – quite vocal in social media – for rejecting vaccination in the name of individual freedom. “The Constitution does not guarantee freedom for a person to be sovereignly selfish. It is the duty of the State, through public policies, to reduce risks of diseases…,” Carmen Lucia, a Supreme Court judge, wrote in the verdict which made the vaccination obligatory for all citizens.
“Selfishness is not compatible with democracy,” the judge added.
But the harshest criticism of Bolsonaro’s behaviour came in a recent editorial of Folha de Sao Paulo, the country’s biggest newspaper, which called him a “saboteur” and the protagonist of a “homicidal neglect”. The stinging editorial commented that President Jair Bolsonaro’s “murderous stupidity in the face of the coronavirus pandemic has gone beyond all limits…”
It ended with some advice directed at the president: “It is time to set aside delinquent irresponsibility, to at least pretend the capacity and maturity to lead the nation of 212 million inhabitants in a dramatic moment of its collective trajectory”.
Florencia Costa and Shobhan Saxena are independent journalists based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.