Bolsonaro exacerbated pandemic in Brazil: ex-minister

Brazilian senators Omar Aziz (left) and Renan Calheiros participate in the inquiry into the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic on May 4, 2021
Brazilian senators Omar Aziz (left) and Renan Calheiros participate in the inquiry into the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic on May 4, 2021 EDILSON RODRIGUES AGENCIA SENADO/AFP
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Brasília (AFP)

Brazil's ex-health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta told a Senate inquiry Tuesday that President Jair Bolsonaro repeatedly ignored warnings that his response to the coronavirus pandemic risked causing the health system to collapse.

Mandetta, who resigned in April 2020 after clashing with Bolsonaro over Covid-19, bluntly criticized his ex-boss in testimony to a commission investigating whether the far-right leader's administration has mismanaged the crisis by snubbing expert advice on containing the coronavirus and failing to ensure enough vaccines and medical supplies.

It was the first testimony in the politically explosive probe, which opened last week and could damage the far-right president as he prepares to seek re-election next year in a country devastated by the loss of more than 400,000 lives to Covid-19 -- a death toll second only to that of the United States.

"We expressly recommended the president change his stance. We told him it could cause the health system to collapse," said Mandetta, a 56-year-old physician.

"I warned him systematically."

Bolsonaro faces backlash for downplaying Covid-19 as a "little flu," flouting expert advice on face masks and stay-at-home measures, resisting vaccines, and touting medications such as hydroxychloroquine that studies have found are ineffective against the virus.

He is now on his fourth health minister of the pandemic.

Mandetta, the first, spearheaded Brazil's crisis response at the start of the pandemic, but openly clashed with the president when the latter defied his and other experts' advice.

Bolsonaro has argued since the outset of the pandemic that the economic impact of national lockdown measures would do more damage than the virus itself.

Mandetta said he and his staff had developed three scenarios when the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in Brazil in February 2020.

They ranged from a best-case-scenario in which the virus would cause 30,000 to 40,000 deaths in Brazil by the end of the year to a worst-case-scenario of 180,000 deaths, he said.

In the event, Brazil had registered more than 194,000 deaths by December 31.

"Brazil could have done more," he said.

All four health ministers who have served under Bolsonaro are due to testify before the Senate panel, which has a 90-day renewable mandate.