RIO DE JANEIRO — The plot twists in the coronavirus vaccine kickback scandal that has shook Brazil’s capital are worthy of a reality TV show.
The main stage has been a congressional hearing room, where scores of witnesses have shed light on the government’s disorganised response to the pandemic, which has killed over 520,000 people in the country.
There has been much yelling, some crying, and some pearl clutching as the audacity and scope of a scheme by health ministry officials to solicit bribes from vaccine dealers has come to light. Tens of thousands of Brazilians protested across several cities on Saturday, the third large wave of protests in recent weeks, in response to the outrage.
Much about the scandal, which is being investigated by federal prosecutors, is still unclear and debatable. However, the expanding investigation is likely to jeopardise President Jair Bolsonaro’s re-election bid next year — and possibly even his ability to serve out the remainder of his term.
The attorney general’s office opened an investigation into Mr. Bolsonaro’s role in the vaccine corruption scheme on Friday, at the request of a Supreme Court justice. The president is being investigated in connection with a deal to secure 20 million doses of a vaccine that had not yet completed clinical trials or been approved by regulators. He is accused of ignoring a warning that the transaction contained some irregularities.
Earlier in the week, a group of 100 legislators from various parties presented draught impeachment articles outlining a slew of alleged crimes. They range from the president’s actions to undermine democratic institutions to allegations of negligence and malfeasance in Brazil’s Covid-19 vaccine campaign.
Members of Congress from the opposition say the vaccine scandal has the potential to spark street protests similar to those that led to President Dilma Rousseff’s ouster in 2016.
“Every crime committed by the president is serious, but this one is even more serious because it involves people’s lives,” said Joice Hasselmann, a member of Congress from So Paulo who was one of Mr. Bolsonaro’s staunchest supporters until their feud in 2019. “Brazil cannot afford another year under Bolsonaro.”
Mr. Bolsonaro has not denied that senior officials in his government may have engaged in illegal behaviour during vaccine negotiations. However, he deemed efforts to blame him for the wrongdoing to be unjust.
On Monday, he told supporters, “I have no way of knowing what’s going on in the ministries.” “We didn’t do anything wrong.”
The outpouring of rage over the latest revelations was palpable on Saturday, as tens of thousands took to the streets in the third round of recent protests against the Bolsonaro government.
Thousands marched to the beat of drums in downtown Rio de Janeiro, chanting “out with Bolsonaro!” as activists delivered fiery speeches from sound trucks. A man held a large cardboard sign that read, “People only take to the streets during a pandemic when the government is more dangerous than the virus.”
Amanda Machado, 45, a veterinarian, dressed up as a grim reaper and carried a replica of a bloodied severed head with Mr. Bolsonaro’s face plastered on it.
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“This represents my desire,” she said, holding up the gory prop.
Ms. Machado blamed Mr. Bolsonaro for the deaths of colleagues, friends, and relatives who died as a result of the virus, despite the fact that the president repeatedly downplayed the risk, cast doubt on vaccines, and encouraged large gatherings.
“Being out here is a risk,” she explained. “However, staying at home accomplishes nothing.”
The vaccine scandal began in June, when members of a Congressional commission formed in April became suspicious of the terms of the government’s $316 million deal to purchase 20 million doses of the Indian Covaxin Covid-19 vaccine.
The purchase was unusual because Brazil had ignored Pfizer’s repeated offers of millions of early doses of its vaccine for months. The hasty approval of the Covaxin transaction was also perplexing because the vaccine had not yet completed clinical trials and had not been approved by Brazil’s health regulator. Its price was significantly higher than the manufacturer’s earlier this year announced price. And the transaction was mediated by a third party.
Luis Claudio Miranda, a lawmaker allied with Mr. Bolsonaro, wore a bulletproof vest to give explosive testimony to Congress in late June. He told lawmakers that he and his brother, health ministry official Luis Ricardo Miranda, met privately with Mr. Bolsonaro in March to warn him about irregularities in the Covaxin deal. There is no evidence that Mr. Bolsonaro asked law enforcement officials to investigate the allegations, according to lawmakers who lead a Covid-19 special committee.
Days later, Luiz Paulo Dominguetti, a medical supplies executive, told the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo that the country’s health ministry’s head of logistics, Roberto Ferreira Dias, had attempted to negotiate a deal to buy AstraZeneca vaccines that included a $1 per dose kickback.
Then, at a congressional hearing, Mr. Dominguetti stunned lawmakers by claiming that Mr. Miranda, the congressman who had blown the whistle on the Covaxin deal, had a role in negotiating the shady AstraZeneca deal. Mr. Miranda has vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
As the outpouring of rage over the allegations grew, Mr. Bolsonaro fired Mr. Dias, the health ministry official who has denied seeking bribes. The ministry is now attempting to back out of the Covaxin agreement.
According to Humberto Costa, a senator on the Covid-19 special committee, the scandal has harmed Mr. Bolsonaro’s image as a fundamentally honest politician, which was critical to the far-right leader’s election victory in 2018.
“The congressional investigation has severely harmed the government’s and the president’s anti-corruption image,” Mr. Costa said.
Surveys show that as the pandemic’s human and economic toll has devastated Brazilian families over the last 15 months, Mr. Bolsonaro’s support has shrunk precipitously. According to a poll released late last month by the public opinion research firm Ipec, Mr. Bolsonaro would be defeated by his main political rival, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, if the election were held today.
According to Guilherme Casares, a political analyst and professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in So Paulo, the president’s growing political isolation has made him more radical, rather than conciliatory.
According to Mr. Casares, “this can leave him in a more virulent situation,” which could lead to a democratic breakdown. “He has already made it clear that he does not respect institutions, ranging from the Supreme Court to Congress.”
Danielle Oliveira, an attorney in Rio de Janeiro, said she avoided the streets during the pandemic out of fear of contracting the virus, but she decided to join the crowds on Saturday after receiving the first dose of a vaccine.
“Impeachment does not appear likely at this point,” said Ms. Oliveira, 47, who attended the protest wearing a double mask and a face shield. “However, if we remain on the streets, that could change.”
As more lawmakers have come out in favour of impeachment, the president has begun to warn of fraud in next year’s presidential elections, which are scheduled for October 2022. Mr. Bolsonaro has suggested, without providing evidence, that Brazil’s electronic voting machines are easily rigged and that an electoral loss next year would be due to fraud.
Mr. Bolsonaro has slammed the congressional investigation, calling lawmakers “bandits” and dismissing talk of impeachment as nonsense.
“It’s pointless to provoke us, to make things up, to defame us, to attack us 24 hours a day, because it won’t accomplish anything,” he said last weekend. “There is only one thing that can take me out of Brasilia: God.”