On May 29, tens of thousands of Brazilians across almost all states in the country took to the streets to protest President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic. They called for his impeachment, acceleration of vaccinations and more emergency aid.
The following day, Bolsonaro posted a video on Twitter about the latest actions by the Ministry of Health related to vaccination.
“96.5 million [doses] delivered. 65.2 million [doses] applied,” the video shows, later stating that an extra “2.3 million [doses] of Pfizer” would arrive at “the beginning of June” in “all municipalities.”
Bolsonaro claimed Brazil had the fourth-highest number of vaccinations in the world, only “behind nations that have API to produce the immunizer.” (API, or active pharmaceutical ingredient, is the biologically active component of a drug product, this case a COVID-19 vaccine.)
The tweet and the video, however, give a misleading view of the government's efforts in fighting the pandemic, which have been tainted by mismanagement, negligence, delayed vaccines and unproven COVID-19 treatments.
The troubled response has triggered a Brazilian Senate investigation into the administration’s actions. What follows is some of the context Bolsonaro overlooked.
Last August, Pfizer offered the Brazilian government 70 million doses, but the health ministry, then led by Eduardo Pazuello, was not interested in the deal, calling it “abusive.” Pfizer said its terms were the same as those offered to other countries, CNN Brasil reported. In December, Bolsonaro told Brazilians that if the Pfizer vaccine turned them into “alligators" it was “their problem.”
In May, Pfizer's chief executive for Latin America, Carlos Murillo, confirmed to lawmakers during the pandemic probe that Pfizer repeatedly offered vaccines to Brazil between August and November 2020. Murillo “said that on Sept. 12 the company's CEO sent a letter to Bolsonaro and others in his cabinet, including then-health minister Eduardo Pazuello, expressing interest in providing Brazil with vaccines,” and that “[t]he letter went unanswered for two months,” Reuters reported.
Sources told Reuters that Pazuello did not take Pfizer’s offer because “he believed Brazil should rely on British and Chinese vaccines produced in the country.”
As Polygraph has reported, Bolsonaro said last October that “he wouldn’t buy vaccines from China, even though the health ministry announced the purchase of 46 million doses of China's CoronaVac, and Sao Paulo's Instituto Butantan, one of the world’s leading scientific centers, had received doses of CoronaVac. Bolsonaro reversed himself a month later, saying Brazil would purchase CoronaVac.”
On May 26, Brazil’s Ministry of Health announced that the Pfizer vaccine could be sent to cities beyond state capitals, where they initially were used, given the special storage and transportation needs.
The ministry noted, however, that each state should designate which municipalities should receive the doses. This meant that not all municipalities would receive the Pfizer vaccine, contradicting Bolsonaro’s video portrayal.
Bolsonaro was correct to say that Brazil had administered the fourth-highest number of vaccine doses – behind China, the United States and India. But this does not mean Brazil is vaccinating more of its population than most countries.
It is important to recall that all four nations are among the most populous, and so administering more vaccines is expected, and not necessarily a measure of success.
Brazil's COVID-19 vaccine rollout, which started only on January 18, has been much slower than in many other countries. Critics blame Bolsonaro and his administration for consistently downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19 and working against locally imposed lockdowns and other containment methods.
When it comes to doses per capita, Brazil is administering 32 doses per 100 people, behind 55 countries, according to The New York Times vaccination tracker, which uses data from Our World in Data. The United Arab Emirates, which is in first place, administers 133 doses per 100 people, followed by Israel, administering 117 doses per 100 people.
Moreover, the total number of doses administered is not equal to the number of people vaccinated – considering that most vaccines require two doses.
In fact, Brazil has given at least one shot of the vaccine to 22 percent of the population, and fully vaccinated only half of that – 11 percent. The United States, in comparison, has given at least one shot to 51 percent of its population and fully vaccinated 41 percent.
Brazil’s coronavirus outbreak has exploded since its first case was confirmed in late February 2020, and Bolsonaro has persistently minimized the dangers of COVID-19.
Last year, he said it was “a little cold” and called alarm over the pandemic “hysterical.” He also undermined and tried to overrule isolation orders imposed by state governors and even personally attended anti-lockdown protests.
Bolsonaro embraced the use of hydroxychloroquine for "early treatment” – going as far as to take it after he contracted COVID-19 in July 2020 – and also boosted ivermectin (an anti-parasite medication).
Since the beginning of the pandemic, two Brazilian health ministers left their posts amid disagreements with the president about isolation measures and the use of hydroxychloroquine, an unproven treatment. His third health minister, an army general who specializes in logistics and has no experience in health care, left his post in March amid investigations into his handling of the health care in Manaus. The health ministry is now being led by a fourth minister, Marcelo Queiroga.
On April 27, the Brazilian Senate started investigating the Bolsonaro government’s actions and omissions throughout the pandemic. The probe is expected to last 90 days but could be extended. Civil or criminal actions might be proposed, which could lead the way for an impeachment if the president of the House (Camara dos Deputados) allows for a vote on the matter.
Polygraph has previously reported on the pandemic situation in Brazil, including the shortage and near collapse of the health care system in the state of Amazonas, and the administration’s misleading statements about vaccination, mask use, transmission, and the government’s actions.