By Octávio Luiz Motta Ferraz
When my first piece in this series was published on May 12th, Brazil counted 11,000 deaths caused by COVID-19. A new health secretary had just been appointed to replace Dr. Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who was sacked for disagreeing with President Jair Bolsonaro’s views that the pandemic (which he infamously called a “little flu”) was a conspiracy of the media and that public health measures should be immediately lifted to avoid damage to the economy.
Fast forward to September 10th and the situation, predictably, has gotten significantly worse. Brazil now counts 128,539 deaths, the second highest number in absolute terms (after the U.S., where the death toll is 190,872), and the sixth in per capita terms, with just over 60 deaths per 100,000 population. When Brazil reached the 100,000 deaths mark in early August, the president thought it more appropriate to use his Twitter account to celebrate his football team’s win at the local tournament than to make any statement on the health crisis.
Throughout the period of the pandemic, whenever the president has mentioned the crisis, it has been either to dismiss it, or to promote the drug hydroxychloroquine — whose efficacy has not been proven – as a miraculous cure. The new health secretary mentioned earlier, Dr. Nelson Teich, resigned less than a month after his inauguration. Although he cited personal reasons, it is known that he resisted Bolsonaro’s pressure for hydroxychloroquine to be authorized for prescription across Brazil, which requires an ordinance by the Ministry of Health. The ordinance followed swiftly, a day after his resignation, as soon as the Ministry of Health came under the control of General Eduardo Pazuello, who is not a doctor and has no experience in health. He has been the interim health secretary ever since, and has already appointed another 17 members of the armed forces to work in the ministry.
So, here we are. Almost 130,000 deaths, no permanent health secretary, a Ministry of Health populated by military men, and a president who dismisses the pandemic as a “little flu.” Had this been suggested as a plot for a Netflix series it would likely be rejected as too absurd to be credible. Yet it is the sad reality of Brazil during the greatest health crisis of our times.
Two main questions arise out of this desolate scenario: How has the health crisis impacted the democratic crisis that was already underway in Brazil? And what responsibility, if any, can we attribute to Bolsonaro for Brazil’s failure to respond to COVID-19?
Regarding the first question, the likelihood that Bolsonaro would consolidate his authoritarian rule through a coup seems to have diminished significantly during the crisis.
His negationist stance did not resonate across the country, leading his popularity to suffer and allowing other political actors, such as governors, mayors, members of Congress, and judges to counter his attempts to derail public health measures without much fear of retaliation or political cost. Bolsonaro has been forced to lower the intensity of his antagonizing stance against Congress and the Supreme Court, and even the press, and to adopt a more conciliatory tone. This is also a consequence, in great part, of the fear of impeachment (this, however, has less to do with his handling of the health crisis than with a corruption scandal that has reached his Senator son and, most recently, revealed suspicious deposits in his wife’s bank account). Whether this can be counted as a significant reduction of risks to Brazil’s democratic institutions is a disputed matter that I cannot elaborate on here.
What about his responsibility for the 130,000 deaths of the pandemic so far, and the many deaths predicted to come? Should he be tried for genocide and other crimes against humanity as several organizations have argued in three complaints to the International Criminal Court?
There is no doubt, in my view, that a large part of the responsibility for Brazil’s dismal performance during the pandemic must lie with the highest public officer of the country, i.e., the president, whose power to act is unparalleled in the Brazilian democratic system.
The president has failed to use these powers to minimize the effects of the pandemic, and has, in fact, done everything possible to disrupt others’ efforts in that direction — going against expert advice from both the WHO and Brazil’s own Ministry of Health. He must face blame for the lives that could have been saved had he acted in accordance with his duties to safeguard health, as established in international and domestic law.
Whether genocide is the appropriate classification for his conduct is debatable, but that the president has acted with willful and reckless disregard for life, and should thus be held accountable for this gross negligence, seems, to me, beyond doubt.
Octávio Luiz Motta Ferraz is co-director of the Transnational Law Institute, King’s College London and Senior Global Fellow, Fundação Getúlio Vargas (São Paulo).