The Brazilian Senate has launched an inquiry into President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, widely condemned by medical experts as one of the world’s worst.
The country’s death toll from the disease, the second-highest after the United States, is expected to surpass 360,000 on Wednesday, as the seven-day average of daily deaths remains above 3,000.
The National Council of Health Secretaries reported 3,808 deaths and 82,186 new cases on Tuesday.
Bolsonaro, a far-right populist and former army captain, downplayed the pandemic from the start, dismissing it as a “little flu” and casting doubt on the effectiveness of masks and vaccines, and has continued to rally against lockdown measures and authorities that implement them.
“Can’t they understand that this policy of closing everything, of lockdown is wrong?” Bolsonaro asked a crowd of his supporters at the gates of the presidential palace in the capital Brasilia on Wednesday.
The same afternoon, Brazil’s Supreme Court authorised the opening of the Senate inquiry, known locally by its Portuguese acronym CPI, in a move welcomed by opposition senators.
“The performance of the government in tackling the pandemic was the worst it could have been,” Humberto Costa, a former health minister and senator with the left-wing Worker’s Party, told Al Jazeera.
“Bolsonaro is scared to death of the CPI … of the denouncements that will come and what will be revealed … of the possibility of impeachment and not getting re-elected next year.”
Costa said the inquiry would investigate allegations that Bolsonaro sabotaged social distancing measures, targeted local authorities that tried to implement lockdowns, acted negligently in acquiring vaccines, as well as touted ineffective medicines such as chloroquine. Altogether, 11 senators and seven substitutes will form the committee who will call witnesses to testify.
One of the main focuses will be how hospitals in the Amazonian capital of Manaus came to run out of oxygen. Another will be former health minister General Eduardo Pazuello, who federal prosecutors on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against for omission during the oxygen crisis in Manaus.
Senators in the president’s ruling coalition have urged that the inquiry not be used for “political” purposes. “We need to focus on bringing positive results to our country,” Senator Nelsinho Trad, a Bolsonaro ally, told CNN Brazil Tuesday.