SÃO PAULO – Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been accused by a parliamentary inquiry commission of “charlatanism and witch doctoring” for promoting chloroquine and ivermectin as effective anti-COVID-19 medicines.
Jair Bolsonaro said on August 17 that he “only gave the people an alternative” when he promoted the treatment that was also advocated by former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Investigating the Bolsonaro administration’s mismanagement of the pandemic, the commission announced last week that it intends to charge the President with charlatanism, witch doctoring, illegal practice of medicine, and false advertising.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Bolsonaro has criticized Brazilian state governors and city mayors who enforced social distancing measures and urged people to continue working. He and his allies have continually promoted chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin as effective drugs to treat COVID-19 and convinced many that herd immunity could be achieved without vaccines.
“I was looking for a way of taking care of the people. But not only me, the captain; President Jair Bolsonaro with doctors, with the ambassadors we have all over the world. It’s not that I’m a charlatan, a witch doctor, I didn’t invent anything. I only gave [the people] an alternative,” Bolsonaro told Capital Notícia Cuiabá radio on Tuesday.
Charlatanism and witch doctoring were first criminalized in Brazil by the 1890 penal code.
“It was the response of medical positivism to the African healing practices that were common among the poor in Brazil,” explained anthropologist Marcelo Camurça, a retired professor of religious studies at the Juiz de Fora Federal University.
As part of their religious rites, spiritual leaders of African religions in Brazil traditionally used herbs and other natural substances to treat people from all kinds of disease. In the 19th century, Spiritists influenced by the doctrine of French thinker Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail, known as Allan Kardec, also began carrying out medical treatments.
“But Kardecists managed to avoid State repression after legally proving that their practices had a religious and not medical nature,” Camurça explained. Many doctors were Kardecists in Brazil at the end of 19th century. Over the years, the more direct healing practices were abandoned by them.
On the one hand, the outlawing of such activities had a progressive character, given that it was a science-based effort to modernize public healthcare in Brazil, said Camurça.
“But it was at the same time a repressive and discriminatory measure against the African cults,” he said.
Camurça explained that decades later scientific studies would demonstrate that many of the herbs used by African Brazilian spiritual leaders have chemical effectiveness to treat diseases.
“Most of them didn’t charge people to take care of them. It was an authoritarian law, backed by the medical association, the judiciary and the police, with the ideological background of Positivism,” he said.
The Catholic Church at that time also preached against such practices and benefited from their prohibition.
Ironically, it’s now the Evangelical-backed Bolsonaro who is suffering an accusation of charlatanism.
“But there’s a big difference. Those African Brazilian religions were very weak from a social and economic point of view. Now, it’s the head of the State, supported by multimillionaire Christian churches, who is being called a witch doctor,” said Camurça.
Father Rino Bonvini, an Italian-born priest and physician who lives in Brazil, stressed that the term charlatan comes from the Italian ciarlare, which means to chatter with the intention of deceiving people.
“The goal of his strategy was to incentivize the so-called ‘precocious treatment’, something that the World Health Organization repeatedly affirmed was impossible. So, people could go out and keep working, thinking those medicines would help them in case of infection,” he told Crux.
But Bolsonaro was only “imitating his master, Donald Trump,” Bonvini added.
“Trump was the one who began defending the use of chloroquine against COVID-19. All this rhetoric is connected to an antidemocratic strategy. They want to repeat here the invasion of the Capitol,” he said, referring to the upcoming 2022 elections.
Other members of the Bolsonaro administration are also being accused of the same crimes.
On August 19, Senator Randolfe Rordigues, who is the parliamentary inquiry commission’s Vice President, told the news website UOL that the committee’s final report will contain charges against Bolsonaro’s former Health Minister, General Eduardo Pazuello.