Jair Bolsonaro ignored repeated warnings that his anti-scientific response to Covid-19 was leading Brazil down an “extremely perilous path” and putting tens of thousands of lives at risk, the country’s former health minister has claimed.
Giving oral evidence to a senate inquiry into Brazil’s coronavirus calamity on Tuesday, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who led the health ministry at the start of the pandemic, said he believed the Brazilian president’s conduct had helped generate an unnecessarily large tragedy.
Asked by one senator if Bolsonaro – whose sabotage of social distancing has been globally condemned – had understood that failing to heed international scientific consensus on Covid containment measures could cause “death on an enormous scale”, Mandetta replied: “Yes, sir.”
“I warned him systematically, with projections even,” added the 56-year-old doctor-turned-politician who is the inquiry’s first witness.
Not long before he was sacked in April last year, Mandetta claimed he had warned Bolsonaro 180,000 Brazilians could die by the end of the year unless restrictions were introduced by the federal government. They were not, and by the end of the year 191,000 Brazilians had died.
“We were off by 11,000,” Mandetta told the inquiry, which Bolsonaro’s political foes hope will extinguish his chances of re-election next year and secure justice for the families of the dead.
Brazil’s Covid emergency has gone from bad to worse in 2021, with the official death toll more than doubling to 408,000, the second highest number after the US. Before Mandetta’s testimony on Tuesday, the inquiry’s rapporteur, Renan Calheiros, said Brazil needed answers over who was to blame for the “Dantesque situation” facing South America’s biggest country.
The parliamentary inquiry was set up last week amid growing public anger at Bolsonaro’s handling of one of the world’s worst Covid outbreaks, his refusal to impose lockdowns and his government’s failure to acquire sufficient vaccines.
At its inaugural sitting last week, Calheiros drew an indirect but unmistakable parallel between Bolsonaro and the “butcher of the Balkans”, Slobodan Milosevic, who ended up on trial in the Hague. “There are culprits … and they will be held responsible,” Calheiros vowed.
“The country has the right to know who contributed to all these thousands of deaths and those people must be punished immediately and emblematically.”
Mandetta, who was fired after publicly challenging his boss over the pandemic, defended his own response to what he called Covid’s “global attack”. “We didn’t take a single step that wasn’t based on science,” Mandetta insisted, claiming he had fought to secure medical supplies and convince Brazilians – including the president – of the need for physical distancing.
Bolsonaro, however, ignored such advice, instead lending his ear to aides and allies who were playing down coronavirus, promoting ineffective remedies such as chloroquine and pushing the idea that Brazil could achieve herd immunity without shutting down its economy. One such ally, the rightwing congressman Osmar Terra, claimed last April that Brazil’s epidemic was almost over.
Mandetta said: “I did everything I could have done in terms of trying to convince him not to go down this extremely perilous path [of rejecting scientific advice]. But he probably had other people telling him that what the health minister was saying was wrong.”
The former minister produced a three-page letter he claimed he had delivered to Bolsonaro in March 2020, which concluded: “We expressly recommend that the presidency reconsiders the stance it has adopted, in accord with health ministry guidelines, since taking steps in the opposite direction could cause the health system to collapse and extremely serious consequences for the health of the population.”
Mandetta said he suspected Bolsonaro had been convinced that herd immunity could be achieved by allowing Covid to spread unchecked through the population “and only those who have to die [such as the elderly], will die”. Humberto Costa, a leftwing politician who is one of 11 senators on the inquiry, said: “If this is true, it represents an absolutely criminal act.”
Bolsonaro still has the backing of about a third of Brazilians but appears rattled by the senate investigation, with hardcore supporters staging protests in several major cities last Saturday.
The inquiry even led one of the president’s sons, Flávio Bolsonaro, to embrace the concept of social distancing as he tried to argue that its hearings should be postponed because it was too dangerous for senators to meet to debate the federal government’s Covid response. Four days later Flávio Bolsonaro hailed thousands of Bolsonaro supporters for congregating on Copacabana beach in the yellow and green colours of his father’s far-right movement.