Bolsonaro may face criminal charges for botching COVID response over ‘false dilemma’

A Brazilian Senate committee investigating President Jair Bolsonaro submitted their findings to the country’s attorney general Wednesday. It recommended criminal charges for Bolsonaro's pandemic response. The inquiry is unprecedented and scathing, accusing a sitting head of state of crimes against humanity for Brazil’s COVID death toll, the second highest in the world. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A Brazilian Senate committee investigating President Jair Bolsonaro submitted their findings today to the country's attorney general, recommending the president face criminal charges for his handling of the pandemic.

    The inquiry is unprecedented and scathing, accusing a sitting head of state of crimes against humanity for Brazil's COVID death toll, the second highest in the world.

    Here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It is a memorial of grief, what activists call a shrine of shame, 600 tissues for more than 600,000 Brazilian lives lost.

    Their posters ask, who is responsible for this tragedy? The Senate's answer, largely one man. From the beginning, President Jair Bolsonaro opposed a nationwide lockdown, blocked mask mandates and social distancing requirements, and denied the virus' gravity.

  • Jair Bolsonaro, Brazilian President (through translator):

    In my case, given my athletic history, if I was to be infected, it would not necessarily concern me. I wouldn't feel anything other than at most a little cold or be under the weather.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He touted unproven therapies. After testing positive, he called antimalarial hydroxychloroquine a cure and, just this week, disparaged vaccines with lies.

  • Jair Bolsonaro (through translator):

    The reports from United Kingdom government officials suggest that they are completely vaccinated. They are developing AIDS faster than what was expected.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Facebook and YouTube later took down this and other Bolsonaro videos.

    While spraying that fire hose of falsehood, Bolsonaro told Brazilians to stop whining and pushed to reopen the economy.

  • Jair Bolsonaro (through translator):

    The collateral damage of the measures to fight the virus cannot be worse than the very illness.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Brazil ended up with the world's second highest official death toll, just after the U.S.

    Senator Omar Aziz led the inquiry.

  • Omar Aziz, President, Brazilian Parliamentary Inquiry Committee (through translator) :

    The presidency is an institution. The presidency is not an office in a bar where you CAN say what you want while drinking beer and eating barbecue. Bolsonaro tells the Brazilian people about unfounded studies, when we ask to vaccinate the population.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A majority of the commission's members endorsed the report's recommendations to accuse Bolsonaro of crimes against humanity, inciting an epidemic, charlatanism, and misuse of public funds. The 1, 200-page document found Bolsonaro's government omitted and opted to act in a non-technical and reckless manner in the fight against the pandemic, deliberately exposing the population to a concrete risk of mass infection in order to achieve herd immunity.

    Today, the report was submitted to Brazil's Attorney General Augusto Aras. He is a Bolsonaro appointee and doesn't have to pursue charges. Bolsonaro himself has repeatedly dismissed the committee and its report as politically motivated.

  • Jair Bolsonaro (through translator):

    How good would it be if this Senate committee was doing something productive for our country? They took time from our Ministry of Health, public employees, humble people and businessmen. They produced nothing besides hatred and rancor.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For more, we turn to Dr. Luiz Henrique Mandetta. He served as Brazil's minister of health in 2019 and 2020, until President Bolsonaro fired him over their differences in how to respond to the pandemic. He is now laying the ground work to run for president of Brazil, and joins us from Brasilia.

    Dr. Mandetta, thank you. Welcome to the "NewsHour."

    You were the committee's first witness. Do you agree with the charges recommended?

    Dr. Luiz Henrique Mandetta, Former Brazilian Minister of Health: Yes, yes, thanks for having me here on PBS.

    Well, the committee made six months' work, and in the six months, they showed too many mistakes that were under COVID, the negotiations on buying the vaccines, not negotiating with Pfizer, 81 e-mails from Pfizer offering vaccines, and they said no. Then they tried to buy vaccines from India from Covaxin that didn't have not even a phase two.

    Then they showed very clearly that the president had another office, a parallel office, that was trying to sell chloroquine and ivermectin and make all those fake news. So, there were so many mistakes, so many things that they were — that was shown by this committee, that we think that it's going to take more time to really put them under justice.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As we just heard, President Bolsonaro says that these charges are politically motivated, created by political opponents. You're running for president against Bolsonaro.

    Are you making your charges because of your political opposition to the president?

  • Dr. Luiz Henrique Mandetta:

    Well, they talk, but there are facts. They are not.

    They don't have answers for anything. There are so many mistakes and wrong things, wrong decisions, and a toxic leadership that he made. Last week, he said that who takes the vaccines goes into HIV. So he keeps on doing it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    When you urged him to take the virus more seriously, why did he say he was resisting? And where was he getting his information?

  • Dr. Luiz Henrique Mandetta:

    Well, he said that he got into a false dilemma that says, between economy and health, I will keep with economy.

    And he decided to do that when he came back from a trip that he made to Mar-a-Lago, where he met President Trump. Well, the next week, they were both with a chloroquine box on their hands. And they started saying to governors and mayors not to stop the economy, let's keep on working, take this medicine, that it will work.

    They didn't want to prepare the system to anything. By the time I was looking and saying, well, maybe the Americans have some — just like on the movies, that they come with some kind of vaccine or a medicine that will solve the problem, because they're really not taking any — any kind of measure to protect their people.

    And when I saw what happened in New York in all those hospitals, at Central Park, the health system could not handle all of that, I gave to him three kind of scenario, one very optimist, another realist, and another pessimist.

    And I showed him that if he would take the way, the decisions that he was going to do, that we would have these kind of deaths that, unfortunately, we had. So he knew what he was doing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you believe President Bolsonaro believed what he was doing could actually save the economy?

  • Dr. Luiz Henrique Mandetta:

    No, he always knew that he would have more problems with the economy.

    But he just want a political vaccine. So he made that choice in the election way, thinking on the elections.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What happens if the attorney general equivalent does not pursue criminal charges? Do you think, actually, that the penalty that Bolsonaro may face is actually more political?

  • Dr. Luiz Henrique Mandetta:

    Well, I think that, by this time, this is a Senate committee.

    They have a lot of things that were shown and now are going to be sent to the prosecutors. I don't know which — they're going to — they're going to probably go deeper in these investigations.

    This is not the end. This is just the beginning. It's like you show, you turn the light on, but now you're going to have the cases. And this is for the prosecutors.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Dr. Luiz Henrique Mandetta, thank you very much.

  • Dr. Luiz Henrique Mandetta:

    Thank you. Thank you for having me here.

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