SÃO PAULO (AP) – A few kilometers from the presidential palace, the bodies of the victims of COVID-19 were deposited on the floor of hospitals whose morgues were overflowing. Lawmakers answered calls from panicked constituents across the country, where thousands awaited intensive care beds, and they lacked an effective health minister to consult on Sunday.
Meanwhile, smiling President Jair Bolsonaro met with hundreds of supporters to distribute pieces of a green and yellow cake in celebration of his 66th birthday. The climate was joyful, even as the country approached a dismal coronavirus milestone.
Brazil was in political turmoil, having surpassed 300,000 deaths from the virus on Wednesday night. Enemies and allies are begging the president to change course to contain the recent rise in daily deaths, accounting for almost a third of the world total.
Bolsonaro this month began to change the rhetoric about the value of vaccines, but continues to refuse restrictions on the activity he paints as a violation of personal freedom and still promotes unproven COVID-19 cures.
“Should I change my narrative? Should I become more malleable? Should I give in? Do what the vast majority are doing? ”Bolsonaro said Monday during a ceremony at the presidential palace. “If I am convinced to do the opposite, I will do it. But I am still not convinced. We must fight the virus, not the president ”.
Lawmakers have been looking for ways to prevail over Bolsonaro. With the collapse of hospital systems and depletion of essential supplies, four legislators in the lower house told the Associated Press that their voters are calling them “accomplices”. Two are members of allied parties and spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
“There is a lot of solidarity, but everything has its limit. Everything, ”said the president of the Chamber, Bolsonaro’s ally Arthur Lira, on Wednesday afternoon in Congress. “Congress’ political remedies are known and all bitter. Some, fatal. ”
Opposition senator Alessandro Vieira, who is recovering from COVID-19 at home, said the Senate president will not be able to withhold a Congressional investigation much longer. Another prominent senator from a center party, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely, anticipates that the House will open an investigation next month. This could further undermine Bolsonaro’s popularity before his candidacy for re-election in 2022.
Bolsonaro made some openings to show that he is taking the pandemic seriously – a year after declaring it was a “small flu”. On Tuesday night, hours after Brazil posted a record for a single day, he made a national speech to blame the variants for the more aggressive spread of the virus and to defend his government’s actions to close deals for more than 500 million doses of vaccines.
“We will make 2021 the year of vaccination,” said Bolsonaro, who until recently cast doubt on the effectiveness of some vaccines, although he completely rejected offers from some producers. Most of the vaccines that his ministry of health guaranteed will only reach Brazilian arms in the second half of 2021. His speech was met with violent protests in major cities, including the capital Brasília.
On the same day, the country’s fourth pandemic health minister took an oath, a week after he was appointed. Marcelo Queiroga secured the vacancy after the original nominee, Ludhimila Hajjar, refused the job.
When interviewing for the post, Bolsonaro and one of his son lawmakers bombarded Hajjar with questions not only about contentious pandemic clashes, but also topics of concern for his conservative base, such as abortion, according to two ministers present at the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not allowed to speak publicly. Supporters of Avid Bolsonaro also launched an aggressive smear campaign against her, made death threats and tried to infiltrate her hotel in Brasilia.
The choice of Queiroga, loyal to Bolsonaro, convinced some lawmakers that the president still cannot understand the gravity of the situation.
On Wednesday, Bolsonaro held the first meeting with leaders from all branches of the federal government to coordinate efforts. Once again, he defended anti-malarial drugs that have shown no effectiveness in treating COVID-19 and has not proposed any policy to deal with the pandemic.
It also offered no update on the imminent risks to oxygen supply in various states, ever-decreasing stocks of sedatives for intubation of patients with COVID-19, or whether the federal government will resume timely reimbursements to governors for expanding the capacity to hospital beds. Among the 26 states and the federal district of Brazil, 18 report at least 90% occupancy in an intensive care unit.
The health system in the state of Mato Grosso has already collapsed. Dr. Maria Auxiliadora Rosa, director of the Evangelical Hospital of the small Vila Bela, said in a video that went viral on social networks that she fears that there will be no oxygen for patients until the weekend.
“We need help,” pleaded Rosa.
One of the few governors who attended Wednesday’s meeting, Renan Filho, from the center party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement in Alagoas, was perplexed by Bolsonaro’s performance.
“The president is trying to change, he is trying hard, but he still has a lot of doubts and little conviction,” Filho told reporters later. “This looks like a survival instinct. He is trying to build a national strategy, but it is not easy for someone who was so vocal with his narrative ”.
Political scientist Luciano Dias, a CAC consultant based in Brasilia, said Bolsonaro is at his worst since the start of his government in January 2019. A Datafolha survey published on March 17 says that 54% of Brazilians disapprove of his response to the pandemic, an increase of six percentage points compared to two months earlier.
“The drop in popularity made him review some of his behaviors, such as his interest in vaccines and talking to other authorities,” said Dias. “The president had to bow to reality. The continuation of this crisis increases the risk that he will begin to lose staunch supporters and see his chances of re-election disappear. “
Opposition MP Alexandre Padilha, a former Health Minister, highlighted another factor that forced Bolsonaro to adapt: the return of his rival, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The leftist leader who ruled between 2003 and 2010 had his political rights restored this month by the Supreme Court and is a likely candidate in next year’s election.
“It will boost the debate in Brazil. He is trying to understand the problems, to offer solutions ”, said Padilha.
Lula has already presented himself as a counterpoint to Bolsonaro: always wearing masks in public, supporting restrictions on activities to slow the spread of the virus, expressing empathy for the victims’ families and reaching out to foreign leaders to increase the supply of vaccines.
Wednesday’s meeting also ostensibly sought to repair the barriers between Bolsonaro and the Supreme Court, which the president often accused of undermining his authority during the pandemic, by defending the jurisdiction of governors and mayors to impose restrictions on activity.
During the court session after the meeting with the president, Minister Luis Roberto Barroso offered a sarcastic review.
“After a year of delay, they decided to create a committee of specialists and doctors,” said Barroso. “That was very good. After a year of delay and 300,000 deaths. “
Álvares reported from Brasília. AP reporter Marcelo Sousa contributed to this report from Rio de Janeiro.