SÃO PAULO – On January 21, the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) released a joint statement with other civic organizations condemning the campaign against the vaccination of children in Brazil.

Although the declaration does not directly mention President Jair Bolsonaro, its target is clearly his rhetoric against the COVID-19 vaccine, especially for the youth.

On several occasions, Bolsonaro has expressed his opposition to vaccinating young people, claiming that the risk of death from COVID-19 among children and teenagers is “almost zero” and saying that he would not let his 11-year-old daughter be vaccinated.

According to the news website Poder 360, at least 558 children between the ages ranging of 5 to 11 died from COVID-19 in Brazil last year, more than all circulatory diseases combined.

The outbreak of the omicron variant in Brazil caused a surge in the number of cases of COVID-19 among children, leading all pediatric ICU beds to be occupied in several major cities.

On Dec. 16, the governmental health regulatory agency allowed the Pfizer vaccine to be used for children between 5 and 11 years old. But the spread of rumors on social media concerning the vaccine, including alleged cases of severe reactions, has been causing hesitancy in many parents.

Nevertheless, a recent survey showed more than 70 percent of Brazilians support the vaccination of kids.

The letter from the CNBB said the progress of the pandemic showed that “the vaccination would have to reach the children, protecting them from a contagious and mutant virus,” but when the time to do it came, once again the “circus of insanity” was erected in Brazil, “trying to disseminate chaos.”

“Maneuvers to discredit the vaccines, with an incessant artillery of unfounded declarations, have the only goal of harming the parents’ reliance on that which is the correct and unavoidable thing to do: vaccinate the children, securing their protection to a serious infectious agent,” the letter read.

The document recalled that Brazil has a historical and successful vaccination program, responsible for keeping several diseases under control for decades. It also called the Bolsonaro administration campaign against the vaccine as “sabotage” and a “blatant disrespect” to the Constitution and to Brazil’s Child and Teenager Act.

The signatories concluded the letter by calling for State governors and city mayors to do all that is needed in order to accelerate the vaccination rollout for children. It also invited every citizen to form a “lucidity belt” to fight the pandemic.

Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, director of the Center of Faith and Culture at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, said that stances for or against vaccination cannot be detached from ideology and politics, including their relations with religions in Brazil.

“In practice, every explicit rejection of the vaccine, at any age group, comes from segments which back President Bolsonaro,” he told Crux. “Now, there is a clear party divide between ‘Bolsonarist antivaxxers’ and ‘all the others, pro-vaccine.’”

Ribeiro Neto noted Bolsonaro received 3 out of 4 Evangelical votes in 2018 and had a slight advantage among Catholics, too. Now, general support for him is declining, and only 1 out of 5 Catholics intend to vote for him in the first round of the upcoming presidential elections in October.

The CNBB has always expressed some distance from Bolsonaro’s ideas, criticizing his policies towards environmental protection and the lack of assistance to the poor. Such differences became more and more intense over the years – and now they seem to constitute the major sentiment of Catholics regarding the president.

“In this context, CNBB’s explicit stance in defense of child vaccination is understandable,” Ribeiro Neto said

At the same time, it demonstrates the paradoxical relationship between Bolsonaro and Christian conservatism, he added.

“Bolsonaro opened space for conservative Christians and their demands in the public debate again. But his involvement with quirk ideological battles and his doubtful political behavior have taken a toll on his strength, discrediting conservative demands among moderates and the left-wing,” he said