Brazil Senate opens Bolsonaro Covid probe

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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has brazenly defied expert advice on the pandemic at virtually every turn, attacking lockdowns, shunning masks, resisting vaccines and touting drugs such as hydroxychloroquine that researchers say are ineffective

Brazil's Senate opened an inquiry Tuesday into the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a politically explosive move that could damage President Jair Bolsonaro as he gears up to seek re-election next year.

Bolsonaro has brazenly defied expert advice on the pandemic at virtually every turn, attacking lockdowns, shunning masks, resisting vaccines and touting drugs such as hydroxychloroquine that researchers say are ineffective against the virus.

That stance has left the far-right leader politically vulnerable as Brazil's death toll has surged to nearly 400,000 -- second only to that of the United States -- and the government has struggled to source enough vaccines for the country's 212 million people.

The parliamentary investigative commission will analyze whether federal or state officials committed criminal negligence or corruption, including in horrific scenes such as oxygen shortages that left Covid-19 patients to suffocate earlier this year in the hard-hit city of Manaus, in the Amazon rainforest.

"I think this (investigation) is going to create a lot of problems for the president," said political analyst Andre Rehbein Sathler, of news site Congresso em Foco's research unit.

"They don't even really need an investigation. The government's actions on the pandemic are there for all to see," he told AFP.

"Not just omissions, but actions. The administration went to the Supreme Court to try to block states' social distancing measures, it refused to purchase vaccines, it minimized the pandemic."

The question is just how big the damages could be from the probe, which was ordered by the Supreme Court.

Such commissions have sometimes proved devastating, setting up the impeachment of president Fernando Collor in the 1990s, for example.

But depending how the political winds blow, they can also fizzle.

Bolsonaro struck an alliance earlier this year with a powerful coalition of center-right parties known as the "Centrao" -- likely hoping, among other things, to protect himself from just this kind of fallout.

But the alliance shows signs of fraying.

And with his disapproval rating rising to well above 50 percent, Bolsonaro looks vulnerable heading for the October 2022 elections.

Recent polls place him well behind leftist ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, likely his top opponent in the race.

- 'Surgical' damage -

Speculation is swirling on whether the administration will try to lay the blame for its shortcomings on former health minister Eduardo Pazuello, an army general whose handling of the pandemic was widely criticized until Bolsonaro fired him in March.

But he could prove a risky fall guy: it is unclear the general would be willing to face potential jail time without taking others down with him.

The commission has a 90-day renewable mandate.

Its first item of business was to pick a president, vice-president and the powerful post of rapporteur.

The commission's 11 full members elected the government's pick to preside, centrist Senator Omar Aziz.

But Senate opposition leader Randolfe Rodrigues was elected vice president.

And in a setback for the president, Aziz promptly named Bolsonaro critic Renan Calheiros as rapporteur.

Calheiros, a veteran centrist, has reportedly told allies he wants to write a "surgical" final report documenting the government's errors, and is seen as a threat to Bolsonaro.

All three senators had been widely expected to claim the top posts.

But in a possible sign of drama to come, things got off to a chaotic start when a court ruling late Monday night blocked Calheiros from becoming rapporteur because he faces outstanding corruption and money-laundering investigations.

The last-minute decision was overturned on appeal shortly after the commission's opening session started.

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