Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro Under Senate Investigation for Politicizing Pandemic, Failing to Obtain Vaccines

Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro is under Senate investigation for politicizing the pandemic and failing to purchase vaccines, Brazilian news website UOL reported Sunday, according to the Associated Press.

An investigation into the Brazilian government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic was launched by its Senate on Tuesday and could potentially lead to charges and impact Bolsonaro's chances of re-election in October 2022.

"This inquiry will not punish anyone criminally; that's for the attorney general. But the negative exposure will be strong, every day," said political scientist Beatriz Ray, who specializes in Brazil, according to AP.

UOL reported that an internal investigation document anticipated 23 potential avenues of investigation.

Opposition Senator Randolfe Rodrigues, who is a part of the investigation commission, said on Twitter on Monday that the 23 lines of inquiry are just the beginning.

"Here's a spoiler for the government: There is much more to add. Apparently it is easier for them to plan their defense than to protect people's lives," Rodrigues tweeted, according to AP.

Since January 3, the World Health Organization has recorded 14,340,787 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Brazil, with 390,797 deaths. As of Friday, 35,525,209 vaccine doses have been administered.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (right) leaves Alvorada Palace in Brasilia on April 27, 2021. Brazil's Senate opens an inquiry Tuesday into the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a politically explosive probe that could damage Bolsonaro as he gears up to seek re-election next year. Evaristo Sa/AFP via Getty Images

Bolsonaro has been one of the world's most prominent opponents of restrictions aimed at curbing the disease, whose effects he has often downplayed. He has also encouraged use of medications that scientists said are worthless, and critics said his policies, along with a bungled vaccine campaign, have contributed to the world's second-highest COVID-19 death toll.

The investigation is likely to provide a months-long drumbeat of embarrassing accusations ahead of the October 2022 presidential election.

The probe could weaken Bolsonaro's chances against his chief political rival, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who can run for office again only because the Supreme Court recently annulled his two criminal convictions.

It could even damage Bolsonaro's chances of reaching an eventual presidential runoff, said Gilberto Kassab, leader of the Bolsonaro-allied Social Democratic Party, in an interview with newspaper Valor Economico.

Bolsonaro has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and instead blames governors and mayors, saying their restrictions on activity have caused more problems than the virus itself.

He has frequently flouted public health experts' recommendations and has had four different health ministers since taking office in 2019. While the nation's pandemic problems have dented his popularity ratings, roughly one-third of Brazilians still back him, according to recent polls.

"I don't see this inquiry as enough for an impeachment drive because that would depend on other factors, but it does make that possibility bigger," Rey said.

The investigating commission has the power to subpoena documents and compel witnesses to testify, and it can submit its findings to police or other authorities with power to prosecute wrongdoing.

Bolsonaro can count on support from four of the 11 senators on the inquiry commission. And at least two of the president's allies have been called to testify: former Health Minister General Eduardo Pazuello and former Communications Secretary Fabio Wajngarten.

In an interview this week with the news magazine Veja, Wajngarten absolved Bolsonaro of blame for vaccine shortfalls and blamed Health Ministry officials for failing to secure a deal to buy 70 million doses of Pfizer's vaccine.

Senator Eduardo Girão, one of the president's allies on the commission, said Monday on Twitter that the investigation must be balanced and should also assess mayors' and governors' performance. He said that Congress should be prioritizing things like tax reform and administrative reform to aid the country's rebound from the pandemic-induced recession.

Brazil is almost certain to hit the milestone of 400,000 COVID-19 deaths this week, trailing only the U.S. total. The South American nation has recorded more virus deaths in the first four months of 2021 than in all of last year, though the number of daily cases and deaths has retreated slightly over the last two weeks.