Covid Corruption: Brazilian Protesters Call for Jair Bolsonaro’s Ouster

Relatives mourn at the site of a mass burial at the Nossa Senhora Aparecida cemetery, in Manaus, Amazonas state, Brazil. The cemetery is carrying out burials in common graves due to the large number of deaths from COVID-19 disease, according to a cemetery official. Photo: Edmar Barros / AP
Relatives mourn at the site of a mass burial at the Nossa Senhora Aparecida cemetery, in Manaus, Amazonas state, Brazil. The cemetery is carrying out burials in common graves due to the large number of deaths from COVID-19 disease, according to a cemetery official. Photo: Edmar Barros / AP

The launch of the probe is a major setback for Bolsonaro who is facing reelection next year.

By Rakesh Raman

Protesters continue to occupy streets in several cities of Brazil to demand president Jair Bolsonaro’s impeachment amid charges of alleged corruption and Covid mismanagement. On July 24, protesters gathered in São Paulo’s Paulista Avenue to hold demonstrations while Bolsonaro is already under investigation for his alleged involvement in the Covid corruption scandal.

A parliamentary probe in Brazil has focused on corruption in the government’s deal with Bharat Biotech of India for the purchase of an expensive Covid-19 vaccine Covaxin, which does not have even the approval from health regulators.

As the investigation is progressing, on July 24, the National Health Surveillance Agency of Brazil, Anvisa, announced that it has scrapped Bharat’s Emergency Use Authorisation request. The Collegiate Board of the agency unanimously decided to close the process that dealt with the temporary authorization of emergency use, on an experimental basis, of the Covaxin vaccine.

Earlier, on July 23, Bharat Biotech said it has scrapped agreements with two Brazilian companies – Precisa Medicamentos and Envixia Pharmaceuticals – amid controversy over a $324 million deal to supply  20 million doses of Covaxin.

New reports reveal that a transaction of one million Brazilian reals ($2,00,000) by the Indian firm’s representative to the India-Brazil Chamber of Commerce (IBCC) is also under the scope of the investigation. Investigators are looking at the transfer of money to the Chamber just before the signing of the $300-million deal on February 25, 2021.

The launch of the probe is a major setback for Bolsonaro who is facing reelection next year. Polls indicate that former leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will defeat Bolsonaro in the race.

Incidentally, Lula was convicted following an investigation into a bribery scandal, called Operation Car Wash. In March, a Supreme Court judge in Brazil had annulled his corruption convictions, giving him an opportunity to run for the presidency in 2022.

Lula, who ruled Brazil between 2003 and 2010 – was sentenced to 12 years in prison and jailed in April 2018 on charges of money laundering and passive corruption. He is the first President of Brazil who was arrested for corruption. On November 8, 2019, under the court decision, Lula was released after spending 580 days in prison.

BACKGROUND OF THE BOLSONARO CASE

In November 2020, Bharat Biotech had offered to sell its locally produced Covaxin to Brazil with the possibility of technology transfer. According to a report of June 22 in The Wire news service, the deal was showcased as India’s growing competitiveness in the vaccine production arena.

However, not even a single dose of the vaccine was given to anyone in Brazil, as it was not approved by the Brazilian drug regulator or the World Health Organisation (WHO). According to the report, the deal between the Indian company and Brazil’s ministry of health, brokered by a local firm, has become the main focus of the parliamentary commission of inquiry (CPI), which is already investigating the handling of the Covid pandemic by the government of President Jair Bolsonaro.

As the Brazilian senators are suspecting massive corruption in the deal, they are treating it like a financial scandal involving 1.6 billion reals ($300 million) in the contract for 20 million doses, with each dose costing $15. According to newspaper Estado de Sao Paulo, Bharat Biotech initially quoted a price of just $1.34 a dose. But Brazil agreed to pay $15 a dose, more than any other vaccine it purchased.

Reports reveal that the request for payment for three million doses of Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin vaccine landed on March 18 on the desk of Luis Ricardo Miranda, head of medical imports at the Brazilian health ministry. There were several red flags, according to Miranda, who testified on June 25 before a senate panel investigating the government’s handling of the pandemic.

The target of the probe is Bolsonaro who was promoting “preventive treatments” like hydroxychloroquine and repeatedly downplayed the effect of vaccines. With the aim to surreptitiously allow the import of Covaxin in the shady deal, Bolsonaro questioned the efficacy of vaccines from Pfizer and delayed their acquisition.

In order to ridicule the other vaccines, Bolsonaro had even said that Covid vaccine could turn people into “crocodiles” or make women bearded, emphasizing the fact that vaccines cannot be trusted.

Now the federal prosecutors are investigating if Precisa Medicamentos, the firm in the middle of the deal, was favored by the government in the purchase of Covaxin from India. It is reported that the probe agency has documents which show that Bolsonaro’s government aggressively pushed for a deal with Bharat Biotech. Bolsonaro, however, claims that Brazil never paid for or received any doses of the vaccine developed by  Bharat Biotech.

The senate had started investigation into the Bolsonaro government’s “acts of omission and commission” in handling the pandemic in April. However, now its focus has shifted to corruption in the deals for medicines and vaccines, particularly in the purchase of hydroxychloroquine and Covaxin. According to reports, the money trail for these deals lead to India.

If senators formally accuse Bolsonaro of malfeasance, he could be tried in the Supreme Court and removed from office. Meanwhile, Brazil has decided to suspend the Indian vaccine contract.

INDIA CASE

Similar corruption scandals are being reported in India during the Covid pandemic. A local trader Ramdev – who has links with the present Indian government headed by Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi – has been leveraging coronavirus to expand his business unscrupulously.

As the Modi government has failed to contain coronavirus, it was reported recently that the government was promoting spurious drugs of small-time companies to treat the infection. According to reports, India’s then health minister Harsh Vardhan endorsed a product of Ramdev’s local outfit Patanjali, which falsely claimed that it is offering the “first evidence-based medicine for corona” approved by the WHO. 

The Modi government is also not revealing the details of Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM-CARES Fund) which was floated in a secret manner to collect money to deal with coronavirus. 

As both Modi and Bolsonaro are virtually the deformed clones of the former U.S. President Donald Trump who mishandled the Covid situation in his country, they have been downplaying the effect of the virus. 

While dictator Bolsonaro is accused of Covid-19 genocide in Brazil, Modi is being blamed for crimes against humanity, as India has become a global hotspot of coronavirus and posing a health threat to the entire world.

These days, massive protests are happening in Brazil to get Bolsonaro removed for his corruption and carelessness during the pandemic. Now, the senate has started an investigation into Bolsonaro’s alleged wrongdoings. But since courts are weak in India and the opposition parties are virtually extinct, Modi’s recklessness is not being challenged.

By Rakesh Raman, who is a national award-winning journalist and social activist. He is the founder of a humanitarian organization RMN Foundation which is working in diverse areas to help the disadvantaged and distressed people in the society.

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