BRASILIA – Brazil’s death toll from the coronavirus crept toward 51,000 on Monday as the government of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro continued to prioritize short-term political considerations over fighting the pandemic.
Fatalities stand at 50,737 and the number of confirmed infections is approaching 1.1 million, according to a tally kept by a consortium of media outlets based on data from the 27 state governments.
Only the United States, with 2.37 million cases and more than 122,000 deaths, has been hit harder by COVID-19.
The Bolsonaro administration, preoccupied with the burgeoning political crisis linked to a corruption investigation targeting one of the president’s sons, looks inclined to delegate the handling of the health crisis to mayors and governors while continuing to criticize those officials for seeking to enforce social distancing.
Many state governors, including some who were seen as at least nominal allies of the president, have been prepared to risk Bolsonaro’s wrath by limiting movement and activity and shutting down non-essential businesses.
Rio de Janeiro state was among those that implemented aggressive measures to contain the coronavirus, but Monday’s resignation of state Health Secretary Fernando Ferry is casting doubt on the regional government’s efforts against the disease.
He quit barely a month after replacing Edmar Santos, who was fired on suspicion of embezzling funds meant to pay for medical supplies and mount field hospitals for COVID-19 patients.
In a video posted online, Ferry apologized for stepping down, but said that he could no longer endure the “pressure” from unnamed individuals to award contracts to particular bidders.
“I want to say that I tried,” he said as he left a state government trying to decide whether to continue the gradual re-opening of the economy or reinstate quarantines in the face of vocal opposition from the business community.
In Brasilia, meanwhile, the president sought to contain the fallout from the scandal surrounding son Flavio Bolsonaro, who holds a seat in the Senate.
Fabricio Queiroz, who served as Flavio’s chief of staff during the younger Bolsonaro’s tenure in the Rio state legislature, was arrested last week a year after he disappeared in an apparent attempt to avoid being subpoenaed to talk about his former boss.
Police found Queiroz at a country home owned by high-profile attorney Frederick Wassef, who has represented both Flavio and Jair Bolsonaro.
On Sunday, Sen. Bolsonaro announced that he changed lawyers, dropping Wassef in favor of Rodrigo Roca, whose firm defended retired officers accused of torturing political prisoners during the 1964-1985 military regime.
Roca’s first task will be trying to get the case against Flavio moved from the state courts in Rio de Janeiro to the federal judiciary.
The legal team will argue that though the probe concerns Flavio’s actions while a state lawmaker, his current status as a federal senator means that the case must be heard in the federal courts.
Normally, the prosecution of a sitting president or federal legislator requires preliminary approval from the Supreme Court.
President Bolsonaro also has legal troubles of his own. He is under investigation for allegedly intervening to stop the Federal Police from looking into the activities of his family and other associates.
And a half-dozen prominent Bolsonaro supporters were detained last week for organizing pro-government protests to demand “military intervention” in the political process and the closure of both Congress and the Supreme Court.