Brazil senate opens probe on Bolsonaro's pandemic handling

Brasília, Brazil: Brazil's Senate launched an investigation into the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday, a politically volatile move that could damage President Jair Bolsonaro as he prepares to run for re-election next year.

Bolsonaro has ignored expert advice on the pandemic at nearly every stage, criticizing lockdowns, eschewing masks, refusing vaccinations, and promoting medications like hydroxychloroquine that researchers claim are useless against the virus.

This position has made the far-right leader politically weak as Brazil's death toll has risen to nearly 400,000, second only to that of the United States, and the government has struggled to find adequate vaccinations for the country's 212 million inhabitants.

The parliamentary investigation commission will look into whether federal or state officials committed criminal negligence or corruption, even in horrific scenes like oxygen shortages that caused Covid-19 patients to suffocate earlier this year in the Amazon rainforest's hard-hit city of Manaus.

"I think this (investigation) is going to create a lot of problems for the president," said political analyst Andre Rehbein Sathler, of news site Congresso em Foco's research unit.

"They don't even really need an investigation. The government's actions on the pandemic are there for all to see," he told AFP.

"Not just omissions, but actions. The administration went to the Supreme Court to try to block states' social distancing measures, it refused to purchase vaccines, it minimized the pandemic."

The question now is how much harm the Supreme Court-ordered investigation will do.

Such commissions have also been disastrous, for example, laying the groundwork for the impeachment of President Fernando Collor in the 1990s.

They can, however, fizzle depending on how the political winds blow.

Bolsonaro formed an alliance with a strong coalition of center-right parties known as the "Centrao" earlier this year, most likely to shield himself from just this kind of fallout.

However, the coalition is showing signs of fraying.

And, with his disapproval rate now well above 50%, Bolsonaro seems weak ahead of the October 2022 elections.

Recent polls show him trailing leftist ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, his most likely rival in the race.

'Surgical' damage

There is speculation that the administration would try to pin the blame for its failures on former health minister Eduardo Pazuello, an army general whose handling of the pandemic was widely criticized before Bolsonaro shot him in March.

However, he may be a dangerous fall guy: it's unclear if the general will be able to face possible prison time without bringing others down with him.

The commission's mandate is renewable every 90 days.

Its first order of business was to choose a president, a vice president, and the influential position of the rapporteur.

The commission's 11 full members chose the government's option, moderate Senator Omar Aziz, to preside.

Senator Randolfe Rodrigues, the leader of the Senate opposition, was elected vice president.

In a blow to the president, Aziz quickly named Bolsonaro critic Renan Calheiros as rapporteur.

Calheiros, a veteran moderate, is seen as a challenge to Bolsonaro because he has recently told allies that he wants to write a "surgical" final report detailing the government's mistakes.

All three senators were widely predicted to win the top jobs.

But, in a potential foreshadowing of the drama to come, a court ruling late Monday night barred Calheiros from becoming rapporteur because he is the subject of ongoing corruption and money-laundering investigations.

Shortly after the commission's opening session began, the last-minute decision was reversed on appeal.

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