Halfway round the world from India, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency looks shaky, all thanks to a controversial deal with Bharat Biotech’s COVID vaccine, Covaxin.
The indigenous vaccine is embroiled in a corruption scandal that threatens to lead Bolsonaro straight into impeachment. Even if he escapes it, the suspected fraud in the purchase of Covaxin is widely expected to result in the defeat of the right-wing Bolsonaro in next year’s presidential elections.
Though Bharat Biotech has denied any wrongdoing and has stressed it is yet to sign the contract or receive any advance payment, Brazilian media is full of Covaxin stories that link its import via intermediary companies from India in a tainted deal that goes all the way up to the president’s office.
For Bolsonaro, the allegations are a comeuppance of sorts as he was voted to the presidency in the absence of his left-wing predecessor and challenger Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva who was legally prevented from contesting the 2018 elections on the ground of his conviction on charges of accepting bribes.
The elections in 2018 was preceded by another scandal that saw Congress impeaching President Dilma Rousseff on charges of diverting sanctioned budgets from one ministry to another, technically a crime under Brazilian laws. Interestingly, no other government in the past had ever been charged on this score.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro, who was a marginal figure in Brazilian politics, was shot at during the presidential campaign that seemed to have resulted in a sympathy wave propelling him to power. From a leftwing government, Brazil swung to an ultra-rightwing dispensation under Bolsonaro.
The Covaxin trouble for Bolsonaro comes at a time when his popularity has taken a severe dip owing to the poor management of the COVID-19 pandemic by his government. A Congressional Senate committee is already investigating the shortcomings of the government that has led to a large number of fatalities. More than half a million in Brazil have died so far in the pandemic.
Bolsonaro has himself ridiculed the fears surrounding the pandemic that encouraged his supporters to flout COVID protocol causing excessive fatalities. Among his controversial statements include one describing it as ‘little flu.’ On another occasion, he said, “In my understanding, the destructive power of this virus is overestimated. Maybe it’s even being promoted for economic reasons.” And many more nonchalant statements, not expected from a president, that have angered Brazilians.
While Bolsonaro’s government was fighting the bad publicity came the news in March that a Supreme Court judge had annulled his rival Lula’s conviction. This has enabled Lula to return to presidential contention with full force. He is widely expected to win hands down in elections next year.
The Covaxin deal was signed a month earlier, on February 25, as per which Brazil was to receive 20 million doses of the vaccine worth $324 million. The vaccine was being bought by the Brazilian government at $15 per dose, several times more than the original cost of $1.34. Not only did this make Covaxin the costliest vaccine on Earth, it also raised suspicions within Brazil.
Under the deal, eight million doses were to arrive in Brazil in March and April and four million doses in May. It is another matter that until now no dose has as yet reached Brazil.
Bolsonaro got implicated in the suspected scam as he was reportedly warned in March by Brazilian Congressman Luiz Miranda that there were irregularities in the deal. It was Miranda’s brother, Luis Ricardo Miranda, a former health ministry official, who was in charge of signing deals with vaccine-makers who tipped off the Congressman. Reports, quoting the ex-health ministry official, said he came under intense pressure from within the government to clear the agreement despite ‘inconsistencies’ in the deal.
Miranda, the Congressman, who was expecting Bolsonaro to act on his information about a scam, found to his surprise that the deal was going through as though nothing had happened, according to reports in Brazilian media. Bolsonaro’s inaction landed him in trouble, as questions were raised as to why he did not act even after being told about a possible irregularity in the deal.
Conversations between the Congressman and a president’s aide on the issue were made public, triggering widespread suspicion about the scandal going to the very top.
Attempting to douse the wave of accusations against him, Bolsanaro and his team have denied wrongdoing stating when no Covaxin has come into the country and no money has exchanged hands how can there be any corruption. Following up on the denial, the Brazilian government has cancelled the Covaxin deal. They have also threatened to act against the Miranda brothers on charges of false accusation.
If the rough and tumble of Brazilian politics is anything to go by, Bolsanaro’s defence may be a little too late. Already the opposition, which has had him on the mat for his government’s poor handling of the pandemic, is calling for a deeper investigation which will include poring over the financial statements of all parties, including the intermediary companies, involved in the deal.
It may be pertinent to note that in an earlier case when former president Lula was charged in Operation Car Wash on the grounds of receiving an apartment as bribe, he was convicted even without the requisite proof of his guilt. Similarly, Bolsonaro’s predecessor Rousseff was impeached even as she fervently argued that her government’s juggling with the budget was an administrative action that all previous governments had routinely done. But both their pleas had no impact.
In this context, it may be a rough ride for Bolsonaro as the boot is on the other foot this time. The opposition is already gathering all the information to press for his impeachment. Whether vials of Covaxin eventually reach Brasilia or not, India’s indigenous vaccine is something that no Brazilian will forget in a hurry.