By Orla Guerin
BBC News, Brasília
Had he lived Josildo de Moura would have celebrated his 40th wedding anniversary this December. Instead the devoted husband and father of five died of Covid in May, gasping for breath outside a neighbourhood clinic on the outskirts of São Paulo. He was 62, and like the vast majority of Brazilians, still waiting to be vaccinated.
“The pain is endless,” says his wife Cida, sitting at her kitchen table, ringed by her children and grandchildren. “And every day we hear about more families suffering as we suffer, losing a loved one.”
The losses here are staggering. More than half a million Brazilians have died with Covid-19, the second highest death toll worldwide, behind only the United States. Experts here predict their country is on course to overtake the US.
How did it come to this, in a middle-income country, with an established system for vaccinating against diseases? For many, responsibility rests with Brazil’s far-right President, Jair Bolsonaro.
“He could have helped everybody take the right measures,” says Cida, who has an unwavering voice, and tight grey curls. “He did the complete opposite. He didn’t have respect for the people. It’s really revolting.”
Even as Brazil is still burying its dead, the handling of the pandemic is being dissected by the Brazilian senate. The hearings, which began in April, are broadcast live. For many here they have become must-watch TV, a kind of telenovela of tragedy and explosive testimony.
Evidence from a representative of the vaccine manufacturer Pfizer was particularly damning. He told the inquiry the company repeatedly offered to sell the government vaccines last year. It was ignored – for months. Over 100 emails were unanswered.
Another witness at the inquiry accused President Bolsonaro of turning a blind eye to irregularities and massive overcharging, in a contract to buy an unapproved Covid vaccine from India. The President has denied any knowledge, and any wrongdoing.
The inquiry is headed by the opposition senator, Omar Aziz, a towering figure from the hard-hit state of Amazonas, who fist-bumps his way through the corridors of parliament. His own brother, Walid, is among the dead. He lost a life-long friend to the virus on the day we met.
“What saves lives is two jabs in the arms of Brazilians,” he told us. “If the government had bought vaccines early, we would have saved a lot of lives. We have a President who does not believe in science. He believes in herd immunity.” The senator insists his inquiry is not partisan. “The virus does not choose political parties,” he told us. “Everyone is dying.”
From the outset of the pandemic, the Brazilian leader has been dismissive of Covid-19, calling it “a little flu.” Asked last year about deaths from the virus he replied “that’s a question for a grave digger”.
He has scorned social distancing, insisting the economy must remain open, and said staying home is “for idiots”. Just last month he was fined for not wearing a mask as he led a motorbike rally of his supporters.
As the president has minimized the risks, Professor Pedro Hallal has counted the dead. He is an epidemiologist, leading the largest Covid study in Brazil. As a scientist, and as a Brazilian, he says it has been a waking nightmare.
“At some point in life everyone has that dream in which they can’t move, or can’t shout,” he says. “This is exactly my feeling for these 16 months. I have been trained to understand what is happening in a pandemic and I say that and no one in the government is listening. As we are speaking today another 2,000 Brazilians will die.”
Professor Hallal, who has lost several friends, says his country has been a laboratory for everything that could be done wrong in a pandemic. The result, according to his research, is 400,000 deaths that could have been avoided, a quarter of them (100,000) caused by the failure to sign vaccine contracts last year.
“Everything that you should not do,” he said “Brazil has done.”
“It said that the pandemic would not be important. In April last year, our president said it is coming to an end. Then he said the vaccines were not safe. These statements from the president himself produced damage, and they killed people and this is what needs to be said.”
Professor Hallal, who has given evidence at the inquiry, has a message for the Brazilian leader. “Just quit your job,” he said. “This is the best thing you can do to help Brazil.”
There’s little likelihood of that, but Jair Bolsonaro is under pressure on several fronts. While the Senate inquiry is not expected to lead to his impeachment, the Supreme Court has authorized a criminal investigation. His approval ratings are at an all-time low and there have been a series of nationwide protests.
If President Bolsonaro is troubled by the gathering storm, or the soaring death toll, he isn’t showing it. He has political allies and die-hard supporters.
With so many dead, Cida de Moura struggles to understand how he remains in office. “He is still in power as if nothing has happened,” she told us. “He should have been pushed out. I would like to hear that Bolsonaro is not president of Brazil any more.”
Like many of the bereaved she is hoping that Brazil’s dead will speak, and there will be a reckoning at elections next year, if not before.
July 9 (GMT)
- 148 new cases and 4 new death