SÃO PAULO – After six months of activity, a Brazilian Senate inquiry committee presented on Tuesday its final report on President Jair Bolsonaro’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The document contains nine charges against Bolsonaro, including “charlatanism” and crimes against humanity.
While members of the opposition claimed the report could have been harsher against the president, most of his critics – including several Catholic leaders – think the document is an important step to hold him accountable of his actions during the pandemic.
More than 600,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the South American country. Experts estimate that at least 120,000 lives could have been spared if the government had adopted protocols suggested by medical experts, such as imposing social distancing measures and the regular use of face masks.
Bolsonaro has continually declined to declare a lockdown and criticized Brazilian state governors and city mayors who established restrictions in their own jurisdictions. On several occasions, he personally met with his supporters and promoted large rallies, usually without wearing a face mask.
Bolsonaro has frequently expressed doubts about the effectiveness and safety of COVID-19 vaccines and failed to buy doses which were offered to Brazil in 2020, causing a delay in the country’s eventual vaccination rollout. At the same time, he promoted a so-called “early treatment” with unproen medicines like ivermectin and chloroquine.
The committee issued its report after hearings with dozens of witnesses and suspects. Seventy-eight people – including Bolsonaro and three of his sons – and two companies were charged by the committee.
The document was taken to several authorities, including the Prosecutor-General Augusto Aras, who will decide whether the committee’s findings will lead to legal action. Aras is seen by many as an ally of Bolsonaro, who appointed him to his office. Thus, many members of the opposition doubt that the committee’s work will result in concrete penalties for Bolsonaro.
In the Chamber of Deputies, Brazil’s lower house, the report is unlikely to lead to Bolsonaro’s impeachment. The president is backed by a hegemonic group in the lower house, and its leader, Arthur Lira – who has the power to decide to open an impeachment – has been criticizing the committee’s work.
Nevertheless, the committee’s charges against Bolsonaro may ultimately motivate legal actions conducted by the Supreme Court and even by the International Criminal Court. Analysts have been saying that the political atmosphere will be a decisive factor in this context.
Catholic activists like Daniel Seidel, the Bishops’ Conference’s Justice and Peace Commission’s Secretary General, plan to publicize the reports’ charges against Bolsonaro in order to strengthen protests against him, with the next street demonstrations scheduled for November 20.
“We are aware of all obstacles that exist in the Brazilian Congress and other branches of the Republic. That is why we will spread the report among Catholics and the society as a whole,” he told Crux.
Seidel said the Bishops’ Conference has supported the Senate inquiry committee since the beginning, something that resonated among lay Catholics who have been organizing in defense of life and against the mismanagement of the pandemic.
“The Bishops’ Conference wanted to ensure that the Senate was fulfilling its role during the investigation and repudiated the continuous attempts of demoralizing the committee,” he said.
Seidel thinks that the International Criminal Court may take legal action against Bolsonaro with the evidence gathered by the committee. At the same time, he believes in the strength of the popular political pressure against him.
“Our idea is to create an atmosphere in which the permanence of the current administration becomes impossible. We believe that such a slaughter will only end when the president is ousted,” he said.
Catholics also played an important role at the committee’s final hearings. After several sessions in which government officials, politicians, and businessmen were questioned, the Senate invited COVID-19 patients and relatives of those that died in the pandemic to speak.
The idea of inviting the pandemic victims and their families was suggested to the committee by the Life and Justice Association, which advocates the rights of people impacted by the disease.
“Society has been much divided on the pandemic’s political dimension. The voice of the COVID-19 victims and their relatives had to be heard. They carried an ethical strength that was able to raise awareness among the people,” said Renato Simões, a Catholic activist and executive director of the association.
A member of the left-wing Workers’ Party, Simões said that the Life and Justice Association is in contact with several ecclesial movements in order to organize demonstrations in honor of the COVID-19 victims on November 2, All Souls’ Day.
“We still have a long way to go in order to secure the rights of people impacted by the pandemic, including social protection to the orphans and the creation of a social service network to aid the victims,” he added.
Archbishop Zanoni Demettino Castro of Feira de Santana considers that the Senate inquiry committee has been able to “influence the public opinion, despite its limitations.”
“There is a dispute of narratives concerning the pandemic going on. But the poor have been hugely impacted, especially the Black people. The final report’s denouncements have helped many to understand what is really going on,” he told Crux.
Castro added that there is a growing dissatisfaction with Bolsonaro, despite his allies’ attempts to discredit the charges.
“Unemployment, extreme poverty and hunger are increasing. The number of people standing for Bolsonaro is progressively declining,” he said.