Brazil is losing the ‘war against Covid’ under the command of Captain Jair Bolsonaro – What is the role of the army in this ‘conflict’? And what lies ahead to Brazilians?

July 21, 2021


The Covid pandemic has often been described by the government in Brazil as a war both literally and metaphorically. While President Bolsonaro himself, a former captain of the army, often argues that it is a biological war launched by China, high-ranking members of the executive and legislative usually use it as a metaphor.

Let us assume, then, that it is indeed a war. Until now, over 540,000 Brazilians were killed in the war against Covid. More Brazilian deaths than in all the wars Brazil fought combined. If we restrict to deaths in the Brazilian military, more men were killed by this enemy than during the participation of the country in the Second World War.

Assuming the Covid pandemic is a war, Brazil is losing it, and this is mainly due to the soldier leading the country and its generals, as previously exposed here in The Conversation. As exposed here, in April 2020, Bolsonaro’s ‘strategy of chaos’ had all the ingredients to create a calamity in Brazil. That was, in fact, what is currently happening, as also reported in a piece published here in April 2021.

There were, however, two central aspects that these articles did not cover: the role of the army in the tragedy and what lies ahead in the future for Brazilians.

The role of the army

The army was central in electing Bolsonaro. He was certainly the candidate chosen by the institution. Bolsonaro was allowed to make political campaigns in the Preparatory Academy of Army Officers (AMAN) since 2014 – something that would be impossible without the approval of the High Command. His vice-president is a retired general (who is now being excluded from ministerial meetings). Before the resignation of the Minister of Health, General Eduardo Pazuello, there were eleven active and retired members of the armed forces heading ministries (of a total of 26 ministries). Finally, Bolsonaro directly expressed his gratitude to the work of the former Commander of the Army for being ‘one of the responsible’ for his election.

As it is possible to state that the army was central in electing Bolsonaro, it is also possible to argue that they play a significant role in the currently underway crisis in Brazil. Almost 7,000 active and retired members of the armed forces work in civilian positions in the federal executive. As exposed, most ministers have a military background. The longest-serving Minister of Health during the Covid pandemic, Eduardo Pazuello, is still an active general of the army.

Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR (Brasília – DF, 03/31/2021). Meeting with the new commanders of the Armed Forces Fleet Admiral Almir Garnier Santos, Army General Paulo Sergio Nogueira, and Air Lieutenant Brigadier Carlos de Almeida Baptista Junior.

During the tenure of Pazuello, Brazil received over 100 emails with offers of vaccines from Pfizer. None of these emails were answered. Also, during his tenure, there was a major sanitary crisis in the state of Amazonas. There is evidence that the Ministry omitted while they could intervene. At the peak of the pandemic, Pazuello left the Ministry, under investigation by the Federal Police.

Also, during the tenure of the military minister, the laboratories of the army produced a surplus of chloroquine to treat Covid (after the inefficacy of the medicine had been proven), the army denied hospital beds to civilians and spent Covid-budget with the maintenance of its aircraft and in secret missions.

After leaving office in the Ministry, general Pazuello participated in a political rally with the president, directly violating the Brazilian Military Criminal Code. After pressure from Bolsonaro, Pazuello was not punished by the High Command of the army. He is now under investigation by both the Federal Police and a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI) on the actions of the Federal Government regarding Covid.

The CPI is also investigating the current Minister of Health and other 12, among which are other armed forces members. Among the investigated by the Commission are a colonel of the army (the number two of Pazuello in the Ministry) and a medical lieutenant of the navy who worked in the Ministry and aimed to prescribe chloroquine for Covid as a countrywide public policy.

A couple of weeks ago, after the High Command decided not to punish Pazuello, the chief judge of the Superior Military Court, General Mattos, stated, in an interview, that the CPI disrespected General Pazuello during his inquiring. That was hardly the case, as Pazuello was treated as a witness and had the guarantee of his right to remain silent. The judge-general also stated that the High Command had reasons not to punish Pazuello, which also does not seem to be the case, as Pazuello violated the Military Code. The reasons of the High Command not to punish Pazuello, however, will not be known so soon, as the army decreed 100 years of secrecy over its internal proceedings.

Most recently, the president of the CPI highlighted the action of ‘corrupt members of the military’ during the Covid pandemic.  On that same day, the Brazilian Minister of Defence and the three military commanders – army, navy, airforce – openly criticised the statement of the president of the Commission in an official public letter. Senators interpreted the letter as a means of intimidation of the work of the Commission and its president. As many have noticed online, this prompt answer might suggest that the military is not only aware of its role in the current crisis but also intends to cover things up.

In his interview, General Mattos praised the work of the army during the pandemic. The letter of the Minister of Defence and the military commanders also praised the role of the institution. Either way, assuming the fight against Covid is a war or not, there does not seem to be anything to be praised.

The road ahead

Last week, an employee of the Ministry of Health reported suspicious transactions in the purchase of vaccines. Instead of inquiring into the suspicious acts, the Secretary-General of the Presidency, Onyx Lorenzoni, called a press conference and threatened to investigate the whistleblowing federal employee.

Investigating and removing federal employees for political reasons and retaliating against individuals for following the law and whistleblowing is not uncommon in the current administration. Recently, three chiefs of the Federal Police were removed for investigating the former Minister of the Environment. This minister has already resigned, under two criminal investigations in the Supreme Court.

Along with the corruption reports and reprisals from the government, the lack of coordinated federal action against Covid is evident. It does not seem that Brazil will overcome the pandemic in the foreseeable future. On the contrary, scientists project that Brazil will surpass the US in Covid deaths in the following months.

In parallel, President Bolsonaro has threatened the elections of 2022 on various occasions and openly criticised Supreme Court Justices and members of the parliament.

Despite all those acts and omissions of the president, it is improbable that Bolsonaro is impeached under current circumstances. When asked about the possibility of an impeachment, the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Arthur Lira, who currently holds more than 125 requests of impeachment, said that there are currently no ‘political circumstances’ for one.

A couple of weeks ago, a broad and heterogeneous group of associations and legislators filed a new impeachment request, which combined the reasoning of all 120 previous requests and was dubbed by them and the media ‘super-impeachment’. Lira, however, held his ground.

When asked about the CPI that investigates the actions of the Federal Government, Lira used the war metaphor to criticise the Commission: ‘We are in the middle of the war. How are you going to investigate war crimes in the middle of a war?’

There is a new saying in Brazil these days: ‘the major act of resistance to this government is staying alive.’ This saying indeed seems to be true – war metaphor or not. It could be added to this saying ‘… until the election of 2022’. Probably, the most important election of the life of many Brazilians. Hopefully, not their last.

By Felipe Guimarães Assis Tirado [1].

For more information:

[1] PhD candidate in Law and Visiting Lecturer at King’s College London. Researcher associated with CJT – UFMG. Coordinator of the Amazon Observatory.