JAIR BOLSONARO ran for president on a promise to end corruption in Brazil. Now he finds himself in the spotlight because of murky procurement negotiations for two covid-19 vaccines. On July 3rd thousands of Brazilians took to the streets in dozens of cities with signs bearing the names of family members they lost to the disease “for a dollar”, a reference to the sweetener-per-dose allegedly sought by one government official to purchase the AstraZeneca vaccine. A day earlier, following testimonies at a Senate commission investigating the handling of the pandemic, the Supreme Court had authorised an investigation into the president for prevarication, or failing to comply with public duty, because he allegedly overlooked irregularities during negotiations to purchase another vaccine, Covaxin. He denies the allegations. What is Brazil’s vaccine scandal and what does it mean for Mr Bolsonaro?
Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech, an Indian company, has yet to be approved for emergency use by the Brazilian health agency. That is not unusual in itself. Plenty of governments have ordered supplies of covid vaccines before they were authorised. But the agreement for 20m doses was signed by the health ministry in February under suspicious circumstances: for a price 50% higher than was offered three months earlier by the Indian laboratory, before a third-party company in Brazil supposedly mediated the deal with Bharat Biotech. Both companies deny any wrongdoing. A federal deputy, Luís Miranda, who was once an ally of the president, said he expressed concerns about the deal to Mr Bolsonaro in March. After the accusations about Covaxin emerged, a whistleblower alleged that a health-ministry official asked for a bribe of $1 per dose in talks with another Brazilian company to purchase the AstraZeneca vaccine. AstraZeneca denies working with any third parties.
Mr Bolsonaro has said that he has “no way of knowing what happens in the ministries” and that the Covaxin vaccine has not yet been paid for. The contract for it has since been suspended, and the Senate inquiry is still looking into both it and the AstraZeneca-related case. The attorney-general overseeing the investigation into the president was nominated by Mr Bolsonaro. Impeachment does not seem likely in the near future. The speaker of the lower house of congress, Arthur Lira, who was elected with the support of Mr Bolsonaro, is the only one who can open an impeachment process. He already has 119 petitions to do so, but has so far ignored them.
But the pressure on the president is growing. More people are trying to change Mr Lira’s mind. Right-wing groups who want to distance themselves from the administration’s disastrous approach to the pandemic recently joined opposition parties to sign a super-petition, bringing together more than 20 allegations against the president. Parties previously aligned with Mr Bolsonaro are now calling for his impeachment. His approval rating has fallen to less than 30%; the protests on July 3rd were the third in little over a month. Nor is the vaccine scandal the only whiff of corruption surrounding the president. This week UOL, a Brazilian news organisation, released recordings of one of Mr Bolsonaro’s ex-employees accusing the president of taking a slice of the salaries of his aides while he was a federal deputy, a scheme known as rachadinha, or cashback. His lawyers have rejected the allegation, saying it is based on “untruthful and non-existent facts”.
Even if Mr Bolsonaro holds on, he may feel the consequences in the election due in 2022. The official count of deaths from covid-19 stands at more than half a million, and the country’s problems are not confined to the impact of the disease on public health. Unemployment is at a record 14.7%, hunger is prowling the country again and Brazil faces its worst drought in almost a century. Polls show that Mr Bolsonaro’s biggest rival, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a left-wing former president, is gaining ground. And next time round, Mr Bolsonaro will not be able to play the anti-corruption card.