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Bolsonaro faces criminal investigation, possible impeachment over COVID response in Brazil

Brazil formalized a criminal investigation last week into President Jair Bolsonaro’s response to the pandemic. It could lead to his impeachment. The country just passed 400,000 total fatalities so far, with no significant slowdown in sight. With support from the Sloan Foundation, special correspondent Simon Ostrovsky and producer Charles Lyons bring us the first of two reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Brazil's Supreme Court formalized a criminal investigation last week into President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the pandemic. It could eventually lead to his impeachment.

    At the same time, Brazil's death toll from COVID-19 continues to spiral out of control. The country just passed 400,000 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic, with no significant slowdown in sight.

    With support from the Sloan Foundation, special correspondent Simon Ostrovsky and producer Charles Lyons bring us the first of two reports.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    With a universal health care system, a long history of successful mass vaccination campaigns, and the delayed arrival of the coronavirus to its shores in 2020, Brazil had ample expertise and time to prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic.

    These are the grim scenes unfolding in hospitals around South America's most populous nation, as they reach the point of collapse, crowded waiting rooms and crowded ICUs, a medical staff that's barely able to keep up.

    The situation in this municipal hospital in Sao Paulo is typical of the situation in hospitals around the region and around the country. This is a neighborhood hospital. Originally, it had just seven ICU beds, but they have increased that to 94; 94 beds isn't nearly enough.

  • Dr. Mauricio Beskow:

    The symptoms are much worse, much faster. And we have almost 50 percent of the patients are below 50 years. That didn't happen last year.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Dr. Mauricio Beskow staffs the hospital's newest COVID ward with 20 ICUs. He told "NewsHour" it was the worst medical catastrophe he'd witnessed over his 20-year medical career.

  • Mauricio Beskow:

    This hospital is 100 percent COVID. So, it's very high. It's very high. The disease is terrible.

    The disease is very, very hard on the patients. They die very quickly sometimes. Sometimes, two or three days, and they are dead. And the family, I think, it's the worst part, because, at the moment the patient comes into the hospital, the family can't see the patient anymore at all.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    From big cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, to remote river communities along the Amazon, over 400,000 Brazilians have died of COVID since the pandemic began here last year.

    It's a death toll second only to the United States. Many Brazilians blame this man, the country's right-wing populist leader, Jair Bolsonaro. Here he is speaking in November, just as the disastrous second wave was getting under way.

  • Pres. Jair Bolsonaro (through translator):

    Everything is about the pandemic nowadays. We have to stop with this. I'm sorry for the dead. I'm sorry, but we're all going to die one day. Everybody here is going to die. We have to stop being a country of sissies.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Marcia Castro is a Brazilian researcher and chair of the department of Global Health and Population at Harvard's Chan School of Public Health.

  • Marcia Castro:

    The president of Brazil was very similar to what Donald Trump used to be when he was the president. They both denied the importance of the virus. They both completely ignored science.

    They both had behavior of going out, hanging out with people, shaking hands not using masks, so completely against what had to be done. And they also were both against lockdowns.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    The country's top leadership allowed the virus to spread unhindered in the name of the economy and with the belief that so-called herd immunity could end the pandemic.

  • Marcia Castro:

    It was a sequence of mistakes that accumulated and end up with what we're seeing now, many more deaths than we should see and hospitals not about to collapse, but completely collapsed already.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    The city of Manaus, deep in the Amazon, was where the health system collapsed first and hardest. It became so overwhelmed that doctors ran out of oxygen, and many COVID patients simply suffocated to death.

    According to Jorge Kalil, the head of clinical immunology and allergy at the University of Sao Paulo School of Medicine, it became a breeding ground for a new highly infectious variant called P.1.

  • Jorge Kalil:

    In Manaus, for instance, we had many people that had already the disease, so we had partial immunity. When you have partial immunity, you can select mutants that have a better adherence to the receptor or can escape from the immune response.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    The idea that herd immunity could provide a population with protection was disproven disastrously here.

    David Almeida only been the mayor of Manaus for a few months. When the virus encountered a large number of people who had previously been infected in his city, it evolved to become even more deadly.

  • David Almeida (through translator):

    At the peak of the pandemic, we were burying more than 200 people a day.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    What lesson does Manaus have to teach the world about the effectiveness of the so-called herd immunity concept?

  • David Almeida (through translator):

    The emergence of a new variant happened exactly because of the great proliferation of the virus, in which the virus became more resistant to the treatment. There are only two paths to solving the pandemic issue, social distancing and vaccination

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    But Brazil is lagging behind the rest of the world. One of the reasons is Brazil's president, who was offered 70 million Pfizer doses last summer and declined to sign a contract, alleging that the American pharmaceuticals giant refused to take responsibility for potential side effects.

  • Jair Bolsonaro (through translator):

    If you turn into a crocodile, it is your problem. If you turn into Superman, if a woman grows a beard or a man starts speaking in a high voice, they want nothing to do with it.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Only now, over a year into the pandemic, has the Brazilian government joined the global scramble for vaccines. The change of heart came as Bolsonaro's popularity plummeted, as tens of thousands of graves are being added to cemeteries like this one.

    With space running out, gravediggers who can barely keep up with the pace exhume older bones to make way for the deluge of COVID dead here in Sao Paulo. Even so, there are still millions of Bolsonaro supporters who seem fazed by nothing. They argue that the lockdowns hurt the economy and that the science behind mask-wearing is unproven, echoing rhetoric that the president himself has used throughout his tenure.

  • Patrick Folena:

    We are a poor country, a lot of people dying, starving, in starvation, because we need to work. Everybody needs to work here. It's sad to see what's going on in the economy in Brazil.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Patrick Folena is a self-described investor who spoke to me at a small protest camp in Sao Paulo that was set up by supporters of the president.

    I have got to ask you, why aren't you wearing a mask?

  • Patrick Folena:

    I'm not afraid. I respect. I use the mask inside the building.

  • Dr. Mauricio Beskow:

    People don't seem to understand the severity of the disease. They still are going shopping. They're partying and outside in the streets, don't even use a mask. But they don't see what we see here. The patients are suffering a lot.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Professor Kalil said he fears what happened in Manaus could lethally repeat in cities across Brazil if large numbers of immunized people drop their guard and re-encounter the virus, giving it the opportunity to mutate again.

  • Jorge Kalil:

    The vaccines that we have so far, mostly based on the original spike protein with no variants. If you have mutations, you are going to lose some of the targets.

    It's a kind of war. You have your ammunition, and then you have the enemy. Sometimes, the ammunition is not enough for the enemy. Sometimes, it is.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    That's why it's important for vaccine rollouts to happen as quickly as possible. Brazil was once a country that led the world through its accessible and universal health system. No longer.

  • Marcia Castro:

    Brazil has a national immunization program that has also been recognized internationally as being extremely well-designed. When we had the threat of H1N1, Brazil vaccinated 80 million people in three months.

    So, Brazil knows how to do it. They have the network across the country to do it. We just need the vaccines.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Simon Ostrovsky in Sao Paulo.

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