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  • Shuyu Lim

Jair Bolsonaro's Covid Response: A Crime Against Humanity?


President Jair Bolonsaro pictured in October 2021.

On the 20th of October, Brazil’s Senate formally presented a nearly 1,200-page report calling for President Jair Bolsonaro to be indicted for nine crimes. This includes epidemic resulting in death, infraction of preventive sanitary measure, charlatanism, incitement to crime, forgery of private documents, irregular employment of public funds, malfeasance, crimes against humanity, and crimes of responsibility, for violating social rights and for incompatibility with the dignity, honor and decorum of the presidency.

This begs the question, is the report a fair judgement of his actions?

The report forces Bolsonaro to take ownership of his macabre actions that have resulted in grave health and economic consequences for Brazil. Bolsonaro’s strong personal disregard for science has bled into his legislation. This is evident in his negligence in implementing COVID-19 prevention measures and tardy mass vaccination mandates. Bolsonaro’s opponents are critical of his behavior, touting his missteps as the cause of high death rates, a worsening economy as well as the resultant high levels of fear in Brazil.

The dire consequences of Bolsonaro’s unthinking actions resulting in the exacerbation of COVID in Brazil could have been prevented if he had corrected his mistakes and released newer mandates to safeguard the nation’s health. In the aftermath, Bolsonaro did not show any signs of remorse and continued his recklessness in organising mass gatherings across Brazil. Brazil currently sits on the brink of no return, where no countermeasures will be sufficient to rein in the alacrity of proliferation of COVID-19. Thus, there is an urgent and immediate need to stop Bolsonaro from influencing the public further. This can only be done through legitimising political action in prosecuting him, in the form of a thorough inquiry.

The report addresses Bolsonaro’s dishonesty towards his people, especially regarding his quacking statements towards COVID-19. Bolsonaro’s promotion of fake cures as efficacious is life-threatening for the masses. Not only would individuals utilise such drugs, this also sets a dangerous precedent for hospitals and insurance companies. Prevent Senior, a hospital chain, was accused in the commission's report of pressuring doctors to prescribe ineffective drugs such as hydroxychloroquine as part of a study performed in conjunction with the federal government and without the consent of patients. Vested stakeholders may adopt fake cures as the golden rule for treatment, thus putting the lives of unwitting civilians at risk. Thus, Bolsonaro must be stopped before the ripple effect of his words become too pervasive and inflict widespread harm on the populace.

In another vein, Bolsonaro’s mendacious comments regarding COVID-19 stymie collective action by the masses. This is disconcerting as organising efforts to combat COVID-19 have seen different politicians providing differing directives. Brazil’s Former Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who had received early praise for mobilising Brazil’s universal healthcare system, began alerting the population of the risks of self-administering hydroxychloroquine as it could cause severe heart problems. Bolsonaro responded, isolating and challenging Henrique Mandetta in public events and meetings, while the President’s supporters began attacking Mandetta’s reputation on social media. This display of political prowess seems unnecessary and counterintuitive. Such divisiveness in health policies will confuse the masses and hinder the country’s ability to move forward progressively in combating COVID. This may even divide them along pseudo-health faultlines - where one chooses to abide by a politician’s health guidelines due to their political beliefs instead of scientific facts.

On the surface, Bolsonaro’s mountebankery may seem like just a ruse. Yet, a deeper analysis may reveal his political motives. This may be Bolsonaro’s attempt to garner and secure political support by pitting the masses against doctors, mainstream scientists, and public health authorities. Hydroxychloroquine is the perfect populist tool, not only because of its promising scientific claims to cure COVID, but especially due to the fact that it emerged from, and helped foster, a far-reaching alt-science movement, in an unusual alliance between Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, the far-right media, and maverick scientists such as Didier Raoult (whose views on hydroxychloroquine have validated efforts by Brazil’s Prevent Senior operator and several Bolsonaro supporters).

Another implication of Bolsonaro’s disinformation is that it fosters a false sense of security within the masses. Bolsonaro’s slew of misinformation undermines the severity of COVID-19, painting a narrative that COVID does not have to be taken seriously. This may cause the masses to be complacent and neglect precautionary measures to safeguard their health. Bolsonaro has dismissed media “hysteria” over coronavirus and has famously touted the illness as “a little flu”.

His unfounded claims are perpetuated throughout Brazilian media. In a tetchy television interview, he claimed that “(t)he people will soon see that they were tricked by these governors and by the large part of the media when it comes to coronavirus”. Such news only seeks to reinforce Bolsonaro’s credibility and mandate to rule, whilst disproportionately harming the welfare of the general public. This reveals the self-serving character of the far-right populistic leader. Even though Bolsonaro’s claims have been constantly torn apart by fact-checking agencies, Bolsonaro shows no signs of retracting his false claims and providing the truth. Thus, the report is necessary to pressurise Bolsonaro into speaking the truth and in educating the masses in perceiving COVID as a perilous and pernicious threat.

However, critics argue that associating Bolsonaro’s mismanagement of COVID as a crime against humanity is an exaggeration. This is because Bolsonaro’s malfeasance and negligence may not be equivalent to the level of egregiousness the world typically associated with war and repression.

However, according to the Rome Statute, a crime against humanity exists “when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack” and includes “other inhumane acts of similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.”Bolsonaro’s purported mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly towards his negligence of the Indigenous people, could be seen as a purposeful attempt in eliminating the natives. Indigenous leaders across the country say federal government agencies have not provided them with sufficient support to combat the pandemic -- like universal access to food and healthcare, which are guaranteed by federal law. This is further complicated by Bolsonaro’s anti-Indigenous stance, thus calling into question if his negligence was truly out of ignorance, or was underscored by a deliberate intent to harm. This legitimises the claim brought forth by the report.

Due to party politics, experts speculate that Bolsonaro is unlikely to be prosecuted or impeached in the short-term. The most likely impact will be on his ability to win a second term in next year’s election. With his approval rating trailing behind popular candidate Lula da Silva and the economy in shambles, Bolsonaro faces an uphill task in continuing his populistic measures. With Bolsonaro’s reputation coming under intense heat, would he remain as a teflon president, or would it break down under the swathe of allegations?

Image - Flickr (Palácio do Planalto)



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