Brazil’s Bolsonaro sabotaged anti-COVID-19 efforts, says Human Rights Watch

January 14, 2021 - 10:02 AM
Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro looks on as he adjusts his protective face mask during a ceremony launching a program to expand access to credit at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, August 19, 2020. (Reuters/Adriano Machado//File Photo)

BRASILIA — Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has tried to sabotage efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 in his country and pursued policies that undermine the rights of Brazilians, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday.

The Supreme Court, Congress and other institutions, have stepped up to protect Brazilians and blocked some of Bolsonaro‘s most damaging policies, the rights group said in the Brazil chapter of its annual world report.

The group’s executive director predicted that Washington will join the European Union in pressuring Bolsonaro‘s government to protect the Amazon from deforestation under the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden.

Bolsonaro wanted to remove the authority of states to restrict people’s movements, as they sought to contain the world’s second-deadliest coronavirus outbreak after the United States, but the Supreme Court ruled against him.

The top court also intervened to stop his government withholding COVID-19 data from the public. It also overturned a presidential veto of legislation requiring the use of masks in prison. In July, it ordered the administration to draft a plan to protect Brazil’s vulnerable indigenous peoples from the pandemic, while Congress passed a bill forcing it to provide emergency health care to indigenous communities.

Bolsonaro has consistently downplayed the gravity of COVID-19, calling it “a little flu” and criticizing lockdowns and social distancing measures. HRW said he has disseminated misleading information about the virus.

The president’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment. Bolsonaro has argued that lockdowns damage Brazil’s economy and leave many out of work.

HRW said Bolsonaro has also undermined women’s rights, lashed out at reporters and civil society groups, and stigmatized and bullied independent Brazilian media.

“The Supreme Court and other institutions have helped to protect Brazilians and to block many, although not all, of Bolsonaro‘s anti-rights policies. They need to remain vigilant,” said Anna Livia Arida, HRW’s Brazil Associate Director.

Weakened environmental law enforcement has also allowed the illegal use of fires to clear land to soar again in the Amazon region. Deforestation hit a 12-year high in 2020, when an area of forest seven times the size of London was cleared, according to the government’s space research institute (INPE).

Bolsonaro is one of those friendly autocrats that (President Donald) Trump cozied up to,” said HRW executive director Kenneth Roth.

“Until deforestation is reversed, we’re going to see intensifying pressure on Bolsonaro with no friend in the White House anymore,” he said.—Reporting by Anthony Boadle, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and David Gregorio