Hundreds of people joined caravans across Brazil on Jan. 31 calling for the impeachment of President Jair Bolsonaro over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic for the second consecutive weekend, according to Al Jazeera.
Protests emerged on Jan. 23 when thousands took to the streets angered by the government’s response to the pandemic and the end of the emergency financial assistance in December that helped 68 million Brazilians.
“President Bolsonaro downplayed Covid-19, which he called ‘a little flu’,” Human Rights Watch stated. “He fired his health minister for defending World Health Organization recommendations, and the replacement health minister quit in opposition to the president’s advocacy of an unproven drug to treat Covid-19.”
As of Feb. 6, Brazil has had over 9.4 million cases of COVID-19 and over 230,000 deaths. Protestors accused Bolsonaro of mishandling the response to the pandemic and vaccine distribution.
In June 2020, Brazil announced it signed a $127 million deal with AstraZeneca to produce their vaccine in a Rio de Janeiro facility, in an effort to produce 30 million doses by the end of January 2021. According to Reuters, the facility has yet to produce a single dose, caused by the lack of a necessary active ingredient due to a shipping delay.
Bolsonaro, an outspoken critic of China, announced that he would refuse to purchase any vaccines from China. When the Chinese Sinovac shot showed just a 50.4% efficacy rate during its Brazilian trials, he emphasized the disappointing number to his supporters. Due to many difficulties, Brazil’s Health Ministry announced the purchase of 100 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine from the Butantan Institute, a public biomedical research center in São Paulo.
Due to the delays, Brazil did not start giving out the vaccine until Jan. 17, while other Latin American countries were able to begin weeks prior, according to Reuters.
“I feel as if Brazil doesn’t have a government,” said protester Ana Claudia on Jan. 23. “Brazil has been left to fend for itself. We’re not going to wait for a million of our people to die for our people to rise up.”
In the Amazonas city of Manaus, hospitals ran out of oxygen and the federal government was forced to fly in tanks from across the country. On Feb. 5, Brazil’s prosecutor general opened an investigation on Bolsonaro and Brazil’s health minister, Eduardo Pazuello, for possible negligence in regards to the response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Manaus.
Organized by leftist groups, approximately 500 vehicles paraded along the capital’s Esplanade of Ministries with signs such as “Bolsonaro out” and “vaccination for everyone” on Jan. 23.
On Jan. 24, many people in attendance at protests had supported and voted for Bolsonaro during his 2018 presidential campaign, but have since become discontent with the President’s performance.
“I’m so revolted by my vote,” said Meggy Fernandez at a pro-impeachment rally organized by right-wing groups in Rio de Janeiro, according to Reuters. “Bolsonaro is overseeing a terrible government. He’s doing a disservice to the nation. His handling of the pandemic is completely wrong.”
Professor of public administration at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, Gabriella Lota, commented on the contrast of the protests from Jan. 23–24. “We had two protests, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. The one on Saturday was about the people on the left side and the Sunday one was from the people on the right side,” Lota said. “Society is very divided but everybody is somehow blaming the president about the crisis—the economic and pandemic crisis.”
Bolsonaro’s approval rating has dropped during the recent pandemic wave. According to January polls from Datafolha, 40% of respondents rated the Bolsonaro administration “bad” or “terrible.” That rating is up from 32% in early December.
Despite growing disapproval rates, the poll also showed that support of impeachment proceedings had dropped 3% since the previous survey.
After announcing that he will not be taking any vaccine, Bolsonaro has defended his government’s vaccine distribution plans. “With respect, nobody would do better than my government is doing,” Bolsonaro said in a Jan. 15 television interview.
According to Reuters, Brazil has a “long history of successful inoculation drives, and its state-funded production facilities can churn out vaccines at scale.” This may put Brazil in a better position than many countries that also struggle with making vaccines accessible.
“It’s a succession of errors that began from the start of the pandemic,” said Marcia Castro, a native Brazilian and professor at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, according to Al Jazeera. “And sadly, we’re measuring those mistakes in the number of deaths.”