The Charges Against Bolsonaro Are a Welcome Start

The Charges Against Bolsonaro Are a Welcome Start 1

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — If my country had managed just an average response to the pandemic, over 400,000 Brazilians would still be alive. That’s the stark conclusion of the epidemiologist Pedro Hallal, whose testimony, along with many others, is collected in the final report on the government’s handling of Covid-19. Released last week, it’s the culmination of a riveting monthslong congressional inquiry.

We don’t know, of course, exactly how many of the country’s 606,000 deaths could have been averted: Mr. Hallal’s is just one estimate. But the truth is that we don’t have an average president. Not even a slightly bad one. We have Jair Bolsonaro, a man who maintains that the primary victims of Covid-19 have been “the obese and those who became frightened.”

It was about time someone documented Mr. Bolsonaro’s catastrophic stewardship of the country through the pandemic, and the 1,288-page report does just that. (I read it and I’m still burning with rage.) Painstakingly assembled, it details how Mr. Bolsonaro actively helped to spread the virus, no matter the cost to human life. And it recommends that he be charged with nine crimes, including irregular use of public funds, violation of social rights and, most damningly, crimes against humanity.

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A product of six months of work by a special Senate committee, the document is a welcome effort to provide Brazilians with the beginnings of accountability. But, probably, no more: It’s unlikely Mr. Bolsonaro, protected by a friendly prosecutor general, will ever face the charges leveled against him. It now falls to international bodies, like the International Criminal Court, to hold him to account. For true justice and restitution, Brazilians will have to keep waiting.

The report certainly won’t rein in Mr. Bolsonaro’s behavior. He dismissed it last week, saying, “We know we did the right thing from the first moment.” So he continues to undermine measures to curb Covid-19 transmission, such as masking, social distancing and mass testing. He still promotes an “early treatment” with ineffective drugs such as hydroxychloroquine and says publicly that he’s not going to be vaccinated. (In December he said he “got the best vaccine: the virus.”) Last week, he even suggested that fully immunized people are more vulnerable to H.I.V.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s commitment to fake news is fully captured in the report. Together with his three eldest sons and other high-ranking officials, he used the power of government to pump out misinformation. The Secretariat of Social Communication, for example, admitted to paying social media influencers to advocate ineffective drugs. And the department celebrated the fact that Brazil was one of the countries with the highest number of people “healed” of Covid-19. (Which is basically saying that Brazil has one of the highest rates of infection, hardly something to brag about.)

The document is full of revelations and macabre anecdotes, including one of my favorite bizarre statements from a government official. (It’s difficult to choose, I admit.) During a radio interview in March 2021, Onyx Lorenzoni, then secretary general of the presidency, said that lockdowns were not effective at reducing the spread of the virus. Why? “Can anyone prevent, in urban areas, the circulation of birds, street dogs, cats, rats, fleas, ants, insects? Can anyone promote the lockdown of insects? Of course not. And all of them carry the virus.”

But underneath the anecdotes is a terrifying account of the government’s apparent mendacity and corruption. For example, the government delayed the purchase of hundreds of millions of vaccine doses from proper sources while reportedly trying to negotiate with murky middlemen for an unapproved (and overpriced) vaccine. Mr. Bolsonaro was informed about irregularities in the deal, but there’s no evidence that he warned law enforcement officials about it.

Even worse, the government allegedly made a pact with Prevent Senior, a major private health care chain, to produce data about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine and other unproven drugs in the treatment of Covid-19. Twelve whistle-blowing doctors have accused the organization of testing drugs on patients without their knowledge and without having proper authorization from the ethics commission. (Prevent Senior has denied all wrongdoing.) This shady human experiment took place, the report claims, with the blessing of the president and members of the federal government.

On Tuesday, the report was approved in a Senate vote. “There is a murderer hidden at the presidential palace,” said Renan Calheiros, a senator and the report’s main author, at the end of session. It was a victory, but it could have been even more: The initial draft proposed that Mr. Bolsonaro be charged with mass homicide and genocide against Brazil’s Indigenous population, who have been particularly hard hit, but those charges were later removed. Even so, the vote — effectively accusing a sitting president of crimes against humanity — amounts to a remarkable condemnation of Mr. Bolsonaro.

The report also recommends indicting two companies and 77 other people, including Mr. Bolsonaro’s three eldest sons, two of his aides, the current health minister (and his predecessor), a handful of other ministers, a few congressmen, the former secretary of social communication, the president of the Brazilian Federal Council of Medicine, and the owners and the C.E.O. of Prevent Senior. A whole gallery of rogues could be called to answer for their sins.

But that’s unlikely to happen. While the document is certainly something to celebrate, it’s sadly not enough to make Mr. Bolsonaro and his allies answer for their actions. A criminal case would have to be brought by Brazil’s prosecutor general, Augusto Aras, who was appointed by the president and is considered an ally. It’s hard to imagine that happening.

I tend to think that history will condemn Mr. Bolsonaro and his allies for their horrendous crimes against our people, for making us crave an average government. But that’s for the future. In the present, I have just one simple wish: that the International Criminal Court takes a good look at the report, with my compliments.

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