Brazil Senate opens pandemic probe, adding to pressure on Bolsonaro

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro wears a protective mask during a ceremony at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil

A Senate inquiry into the Brazilian government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic kicked off on Tuesday, with lawmakers launching what may be a major headache for President Jair Bolsonaro ahead of next year’s election.

Nearly 400,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Brazil, the second-highest death toll in the world after the United States. Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain, has drawn harsh criticism due to his long-running efforts to minimize the dangers of the virus, shun masks and push unproven remedies.

The inquiry will be overseen by Senator Renan Calheiros, a veteran lawmaker and Bolsonaro critic responsible for the final report. Procedural decisions will fall to Senator Omar Aziz, from the hard-hit state of Amazonas, as committee president and Senate opposition leader Randolfe Rodrigues as vice president.

The probe is expected to focus on the government’s delays in securing vaccines, including the details of drawn-out negotiations with foreign drugmakers, and missteps in Amazonas, where an infectious new variant sprung up late last year.

Beyond the new facts uncovered, the inquiry is expected to generate a political spectacle, with lawmakers pinning Bolsonaro on the ropes ahead of next year’s fraught presidential election, where he is almost certain to seek re-election.

Although the probe could add to calls for impeachment of Bolsonaro, experts say that is an unlikely outcome. Instead, they suggested the government could deflect blame toward former Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello, who oversaw the chaos in Amazonas and has been criticized for slow vaccine negotiations.

Bolsonaro’s early efforts to undermine the probe reflect its potential to cause him damage. He and his allies strove to have Calheiros removed from leading the inquiry, alleging he could not be impartial as his son is the governor of Alagoas state, and the inquiry will probe federal funding of state programs.

Carla Zambelli, a lower house lawmaker and Bolsonaro ally, convinced a court to block Calheiros on Monday night, but the decision was later reversed by another federal court.

On Tuesday, Calheiros said he would act impartially and that the probe would be “deep, technical, focused on its objectives and depoliticized.”

“The country has a right to know who contributed to the thousands of deaths, and they should be punished,” he added.

He said he had proposed calling for testimony from current Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga, as well as his predecessors during the pandemic, including Pazuello.

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