by Teresa Isenburg. Professor of Economic and Political Geography at the University of Milan
Brazil is experiencing days and weeks of extreme tension on institutional, public health, and socio-economic levels. The effects of undemocratic, antisocial, unscientific misrule have accumulated and Brazil’s destabilization have led to negative synergistic consequences. But Saturday May 29th was an important day and a harbinger of hope. After 15 months of domestic isolation, street demonstrations have recommenced, initiated by social movements coordinated in the Central de Movimentos Populares (CMP) of parties and trade unions. For long months, medical prudence had imposed no demonstrations, but the unsustainable and deadly level of government mismanagement requires resuming their fight, as had already happened in several other Latin American countries devastated by pandemics and executive irresponsibility.
Thus, on May 29th, over 400,000 townspeople—all with masks and imperfect social distancing—invaded the streets of 213 cities of the Federation and 14 cities abroad. In São Paulo, participation was enormous, as shown by the photos taken from above on Avenida Paulista published by The Guardian. However, the event was almost ignored (or drastically minimized) by the Brazilian press. Many participated, prevalently young people and men and especially women between the ages of 40 and 50, all with hand-made signs with short and clear slogans: “Genocidal Bolsonaro out,” “Vaccine in the arm, food on the plate,” “Vaccines immediately,” “Vaccines and education,” “Emergency help immediately.” The wide public participation is also linked to news—which become public knowledge thanks to the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI)—about the government’s plans to not only boycott the containment of the virus, but also to promote an action to spread it, in order to reach the infamous “herd immunity,” that has led to 461,000 deaths (many of young people and also of children, pregnant women and mothers) with 45 million first doses of the vaccine and only 21 million inoculated with the second dose.
At the moment the main points of tension are: 1) the CPI on COVID-19; 2) the friction between President Bolsonaro and the armed forces, especially the army; and 3) the opening of investigations on the Minister of the Environment Riccardo Salles.
THE PARLIAMENTARY COMMISSION
At the request of a large group of senators in opposition to the government, in mid-April 2021 the Federal Senate approved the establishment of a parliamentary commission of inquiry with the aim of “ascertaining, within 90 days, the actions and omissions of the Federal Government in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil and specifically the aggravation of the health crisis in the state of Amazonas with the absence of oxygen for hospitalized patients.” At this initial request, another group of senators close to the government asked for and were granted an extension of the investigation to examine “possible irregularities … carried out using resources from the Federal Union, as well as other actions or omissions committed by public administrators federal, state and municipal, in the relationship with public affairs, during the persistence of the calamity.” This addition is intended to shift attention from the criminal health policy of the federal executive branch to possible wrongdoing by the governors of the states in order to make them bear responsibility. So on April 27th, the commission made up of 11 titular and 7 substitutes—all men—was established, which immediately reopened discussions that had been labeled resolved—albeit by way of including some senators with only the right to speak and question, but without the right to vote.
One might say this scenario presents nothing new under the sun; these are situations that are repeated north and south of the equator and which are then clumsily obscured. Hearings began on May 4th, and continue generally three days a week. As is evident, the work of the commission is necessary for understanding what happened: in fact, as we know, in the depositions there is an obligation under oath to tell the truth, subjecting those summoned to speak to the risk of prosecution in the event of perjury and intentional omission.
At the moment the following people have been heard: the past and current ministers of health, Drs. Luiz Henrique Mandetta and Nelson Teich; the service general (i.e., not of the reserve) General Eduardo Pazuello; and Dr. Marcelo Queiroga, current minister of health. The latter two gave depositions evaluated to contain several untrue points and will be called again. Furthermore, General Pazuello had obtained from the Supreme Federal Court (STF) a habeas corpus that allowed him both to remain silent and to avoid prosecution in the event of false testimony. Also in the area of government, Fabio Wajgarten, former communications secretary of the Presidency of the Republic, was heard. He is attributed responsibility for inadequate advertising campaigns which were indeed aimed at minimizing the severity of the pandemic and supporting the use of ineffective or harmful drugs (such as traditional chloroquine, a chemical produced for the fight against malaria or other health devices used for different pathologies), stating that they were suitable for an “early treatment”
absolutely denied by medical research. He also deposed Dr. Mayra Pinheiro, physician and Secretary of Labor Management and Education of the Ministry of Health, who is known for her stubborn defense and propaganda of chloroquine and her intervention on the spot during the health crisis in the state of Amazonas in December 2020-January 2021. In this last case, the professional control group monitoring the summons statements found 12 lies—that is, statements that do not square with verifiable and verified facts. Finally, the former Minister of International Relations Ernesto Araujo was summoned, whose management of Itamarati has led to repeated difficulties in relations with other countries that have also suffered repercussions for their conduct of purchases and imports of medical and health material essential for coping with the pandemic. His deposition repeatedly denied documented facts, such as that he never attacked China, which is confirmed by published articles and public statements.
Another group of depositions involved technical-administrative or entrepreneurial managers in the vaccine procurement chain. The Director-President of the National Health Surveillance Agency (ANVISA) and the rear admiral of the reserve, Dr. Antônio Barra Torres, used the support of formal documents to explain the reasons for the choices of ANVISA in the authorization—or lack thereof—of the import and use of vaccines, in particular for Sputnik V, which has not been accepted for the moment due to information considered incomplete. Particularly interesting and well-documented were the depositions of the Director of Pfizer in Latin America, Carlos Murillo, and the Director of the Butantan Institute of São Paulo, Dimas Covas—both representatives of vaccine manufacturers. Both of these executives told stories that are independent of each other, but which held in common certain points. In July 2020, Dr. Covas proposed to the Ministry of Health the delivery of 60 million doses in 2020 if a contract were quickly closed in order to obtain from the Chinese the raw material necessary for processing Sinovac in the São Paulo plants. The offer was reiterated several times and it seemed that it was due to arrive in port around October 20th, but at that point Bolsonaro interrupted the negotiations and delivered a public statement that he would never buy a Chinese vaccine defined as unreliable. It was only in January that a contract was signed between the Butantan Institute and the Ministry of Health, but now in international conditions that have changed since the high global demand for vaccines caused a shortage of raw materials and consequent delays. In any case, on January 17th, vaccination began in Brazil through the well-tested and well-functioning National Immunization Plan (PNI), and to date, over 80% of the vaccines applied in the country are Butantan. The events of Pfizer were similar: the multinational made the first offer on April 14, with a response deadline within 15 days, of 70 million doses to be delivered starting from December 2020. Several communications from Pfizer followed, resubmitting the offer, including letters to the President and the Minister of Health, which went unanswered. Thus the opportunity to diligently organize the country for a broad vaccination campaign vanished. In fact, at the present time, China, the largest supplier of raw materials, is under great pressure and delivers slowly (also to the Fiocruz Foundation which works with AstraZeneca), while India, which hosts very important industries, has its internal situation of dramatic contagion and obviously tries to protect its citizens in the first place.
Some initial considerations can be drawn from the information that emerged in the light of this first block of hearings. Due to its economic situation and the public health system at its disposal, Brazil could have activated a vast vaccination campaign much sooner, that is, towards the end of 2020. This did not happen due to choices of the federal executive which, in contempt of scientific and medical evidence, considered (or pretended to believe) the pandemic to be equivalent to a light flu, and opted to obtain generalized “herd immunity” by spreading the virus to increase infections to reach a majority of citizens protected by antibodies produced by the disease itself. For this purpose, vaccine purchases were prevented, public health education was sabotaged regarding the use and compliance with non-pharmacological measures (masks, distancing, hygiene), and propaganda was dispersed regarding the false belief that some easily available and low-cost drugs such as chloroquine and others could yield “early treatment”—a myth that only further discouraged prudent individual behaviors. Furthermore, it can be hypothesized that in the crisis of Manaus and Amazonas, an inhumane mass experiment of this kind was probably attempted in the name of promoting herd immunity and “early treatment,” also employing ineffective measures on the population which was treated, according to some senators, as a guinea pig. These problems, together with the actions on the part of the President of the Republic as well as his leading supporters—the greatest propagandists of all—made a strong impact on the behavior of a significant part of the population. Even some of the great Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal churches have contributed to this groundswell of anti-scientific persuasion, both by discouraging trust in vaccinations (even in indigenous lands where missionaries act in an
unlawful way) and by promoting large gatherings for religious functions. There is a suspicion that there has been (and perhaps still exists) a parallel Ministry of Health made up of people who share the presidential opinion and who constitute a group of advisers not included in the regular organization chart. The CPI is also working to shed light on this shadow area. On the economic level, the situation is very negative, with a mass return to extreme poverty that degenerates into hunger and malaise. How much of this devastation could have been avoided with responsible political public health management?
For those who orient themselves in the world on the basis of principles of reality it is not easy to understand or explain. The problem at the moment is that people with conspiratorial ideas (such as, the pandemic is a project by certain global powers to dominate the world, COVID is a light flu, etc.) confirm each others’ ideas, acquire consensus, and come to occupy top positions of power, dragging entire populations into an abyss of suffering.
It is not known at the moment what political consequences the information and reconstruction of the events and personal responsibilities carried out by the CPI on COVID-19 will bring. But it is already building an archive to which to refer in order not to get lost in the maze of fake news.
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THE CONFLICT BETWEEN BOLSONARE AND THE ARMED FORCES
In this climate of tension, disaster and infinite suffering—which has been overwhelming and seemingly inevitable—a faultline has opened between Bolsonaro and the high commanders of the armed forces. It is a further aspect of the “politics of chaos,” the driving strategy of far-Right governments that are not lacking in this historical period. The military is one of the three consistent and unwavering groups on which Bolsonaro relies; the other two are the leaders of the Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal megachurches and the powerful militias especially in Rio de Janeiro.
Why the armed forces have embarked upon this disastrous path is not easy to explain. They previously fell in line with Bolsonaro obviously for ideological closeness (order, hierarchy, religion, family, domestic role of the woman, etc.), but also for material interests and not-so-trivial privileges. We do not yet see a substantial proposal concerning the country. But it cannot fail to be noted that over 3,000 officers occupy high or medium-high level positions in the executive branch, which ensures high salaries since—among their many privileges—the military can accumulate salary and remuneration for institutional office. Right from the start, the appointment of General Eduardo Pazuello as Minister of Health created problems because he did not follow the practice of moving to the reserve when he assumed political responsibility. Such a disastrous management of the Ministry has a negative effect on the army. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was the very showy participation of Pazuello alongside the President in an initiative in Rio with a motorbike parade. (Servicemen are strictly prohibited from participating in political initiatives, which entails heavy sanctions.)
Bolsonaro now tries to impose his will on the armed forces: already on April 20th, 2021, the replacement of the army commander General Edson Pujol produced—in a total anomaly—the resignation of all Armed Forces commanders. Bolsonaro’s current interference in the Pazuello affair—which the President wants to erase from the record in order to avoid punishments specified by military regulations—produces malaise in the armed forces that should generally never challenge compliance with the chain of command—otherwise there could be chaos in the barracks. It is difficult to know what Bolsonaro’s strategy is, but we are certainly far from any behavior that respects the constitution.
THE DILEMMA OF RICARDO SALLES
The third scenario of tension concerns the position of the Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles, former Secretary of the same branch in the state of São Paulo, where he was responding to a trial (later obscured from public memory) for cartographic alteration of the boundaries of the Tietê Natural Park to favor extractive activities. On May 19th, he was hit by a large search and seizure action launched against him by the federal police, against several timber contractors and part of the management of Ibama (starting with the director Eduardo Bim), the operational arm of the Ministry, with accusations of illegal international timber trafficking. It should be remembered that in mid-April 2021 the superintendent of the federal police of the state of Amazonas Alexandre Saraiva had already filed a complaint against Salles for interference in favor of timber traffickers. Saraiva was removed from office the next day. But the current operation starts from a complaint that comes from American administrative bodies that have found anomalous (and above all missing) documentation in Amazonian timber consignments. This federal police initiative is good news, after months during which—under the direction of Salles—the Ibama is systematically weakened, the Amazon conflagrates into unprecedented fires, deforestation reaches very high levels, and the indigenous lands suffer invasions by organized groups armed with garimpeiros (illegal mining entrepreneurs). Less good is the fact that Ricardo Salles still holds his office.
In Brazil we find a complicated and tense climate, therefore, and hope and concern go hand-in-hand. It is the task of the Brazilian democratic forces to get rid of the black fascist shadow that has obscured the horizon, but also of the so-called Western international community that claims respect for human rights, to do their part and keep their eyes wide open—also because public health denialism in a country as big as Brazil is damaging the whole world.
Ph © International Monetary Fund / CopyLeft