Health & Fitness

Brazil braces for renewed Covid surge as Bolsonaro faces parliamentary inquiry over pandemic response

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is undergoing a probe carried by the Congress on mismanagement of the pandemic.

Andressa Anholete | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Health experts fear Brazil’s Covid-19 catastrophe could get even worse in the coming months, while a parliamentary inquiry into the government’s response to the pandemic is expected to ratchet up political pressure on President Jair Bolsonaro.

South America’s largest country, previously renowned for demonstrating leadership during health crises, has become an international pariah amid the coronavirus pandemic. Brazil has recorded the highest coronavirus-related death toll in the world outside the U.S., is lagging in terms of vaccinations and is still without an effective and coordinated public health response to the outbreak.

An official inquiry, approved by Brazil’s Supreme Court, was opened late last month to investigate the government’s handling of the pandemic that has killed more than 430,000 people. The inquiry could pave the way to Bolsonaro’s impeachment, though analysts say political opponents of the right-wing leader may prefer to contest the president at elections in October 2022.

Bolsonaro has reportedly said he is “not worried” about the inquiry. A spokesperson for Brazil’s government did not respond to a request for comment when contacted by CNBC.

Bolsonaro has repeatedly spoken out against public health measures, which have become a political battlefield in Brazil, and continues to oppose any lockdown measures to curb the spread of the virus.

“The current unmitigated epidemic won’t be overcome without a dramatic change of direction,” said Dr. Antonio Flores, an infectious disease specialist and Covid medical advisor for aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres in Brazil.

He said that if life continues as normal “at such high daily incidence, one can only expect a new wave of cases, additional thousands of deaths and more pressure on the already stretched health system.”

A gravedigger walks among graves of COVID-19 victims at the Nossa Senhora Aparecida cemetery in Manaus, Amazonas state, Brazil, on April 29, 2021.

MICHAEL DANTAS | AFP | Getty Images

His comments echo warnings from other health experts that say Brazil could soon see a third wave of Covid infections in the coming weeks. It is feared that the country’s lackluster vaccination effort won’t be enough to prevent a new surge during the winter months of June through to September, with indoor gatherings and activities especially risky.

Flores told CNBC that all available public health measures should be stepped up “as soon as possible” and the country’s vaccination campaign needs to be accelerated. He added that an effective testing and tracing system along with coherent guidance on public health restrictions must also be implemented.

‘A decisive element of next year’s election’

As of May 12, around 15% of Brazil’s population of roughly 211 million have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, according to statistics compiled by Our World in Data. Chile, meanwhile, has vaccinated close to 46% of its population with at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, reflecting one of the highest vaccination rates worldwide.

Brazil’s lower rate of vaccination means millions of people nationwide, and beyond its borders, are at risk from more than 90 variants of the coronavirus currently circulating in the country — in addition to any new mutations that may emerge.

Brazil’s Covid vaccination campaign is in stark contrast to its response to the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009, when it vaccinated 92 million people against the virus in just three months. The key difference this time around, analysts say, is Bolsonaro’s refusal to embrace a science-led approach to the health crisis.

This is a very dangerous government but because it was democratically elected there is very little that can be done at the moment to push back.

Ilona Szabo

President of the Igarape Institute

The Pan American Health Organization said on Wednesday that almost 40% of all global Covid-related deaths reported last week occurred in the Americas, with nearly 80% of the region’s intensive care units currently filled with patients. PAHO Director Carissa Etienne warned it was clear that transmission is “far from being controlled,” even as the U.S. and Brazil report reductions in cases, Reuters reported.

Brazil recorded more than 74,000 cases of the coronavirus on Thursday, down from a peak of over 100,000 daily infections in April. In terms of infection numbers, it remains the third-worst Covid-hit country in the world, behind the U.S. and India respectively.

“I think that, whereas the situation in India has worsened considerably recently, in Brazil, numbers have plateaued at a very, very high level. The country has been in a state of collapse for months actually,” Oliver Stuenkel, associate professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo, told CNBC via telephone.

A man is vaccinated against Covid-19 by a health worker in a remote area of Moju, Para state, Brazil on April 16, 2021.

JOAO PAULO GUIMARAES | AFP | Getty Images

“What is really so fascinating is whereas (former U.S. President Donald) Trump and to some extent (Indian Prime Minister Narendra) Modi are paying a political price, Bolsonaro through a combination of factors has been able to retain fairly high political support and has not yet had to pay for it because his strategy of avoiding responsibility has been remarkably successful so far,” he added.

Analysts said the length of the inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic would typically be expected to take around three months, but there is scope for the process to drag on for much longer.

Stuenkel said he expected the inquiry to take around six months to complete given that “the actual goal is to hammer home the message on the evening news that Bolsonaro is to blame.”

“In essence, I think the investigation will be crucial because if the investigation cannot alter public opinion at this stage, after 400,000 people have died and after basically the permanent collapse of the health system, then basically nothing can … To me that is a decisive element of next year’s election,” he added.

What happens next?

Earlier this week, Brazil’s former health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta — who was fired over a year ago after opposing Bolsonaro’s push to use the malaria drug chloroquine as a Covid treatment — testified before a parliamentary inquiry.

Mandetta said Bolsonaro was fully aware that the treatment had no scientific basis. Former U.S. President Donald Trump had also pushed for the use of the related drug hydroxychloroquine amid the pandemic despite a lack of scientific evidence.

“Unfortunately, this is a very dangerous government but because it was democratically elected there is very little that can be done at the moment to push back,” said Ilona Szabo, president of the Igarape Institute, a think tank based in Rio de Janeiro.

Szabo said that while she did not believe the inquiry would have “immediate” ramifications for Bolsonaro in political terms, “it is important that what is happening today has consequences in the future.”

“It will be proved that they are responsible and that most of the deaths were preventable,” Szabo said.

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