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Brazil Senate Examines Government's Handling Of Pandemic

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Turn now to Brazil, where the pandemic is far from over. COVID cases there dipped recently but are edging up again. Many people blame President Jair Bolsonaro for ignoring science and giving the wrong people the wrong jobs. NPR's Philip Reeves reports that Brazilians are now taking a closer look at what has gone wrong.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: An army general is being interrogated live on TV.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: He's facing a group of Brazilian senators. Brazil has the world's second highest number of COVID deaths after the U.S. These senators want to know to what extent this catastrophe is the government's fault.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: The general, Eduardo Pazuello, spent nearly a year as President Jair Bolsonaro's health minister before being replaced two months ago.

(CROSSTALK)

REEVES: Emotions spill over. When the pandemic's second wave hit Brazil, many hospitals were overwhelmed. COVID patients in the city of Manaus died through lack of oxygen.

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HUMBERTO COSTA: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: Apologize to the Brazilian people, opposition Senator Humberto Costa tells Pazuello. We're watching a parliamentary commission of inquiry into Brazil's COVID crisis. It was set up to investigate mistakes and misconduct by Brazilian officials across the board. Yet much of the focus is on Bolsonaro and especially his government's failure to secure nearly enough vaccines. So far, only one in eight Brazilians is fully vaccinated.

JULIANA DAL PIVA: Everybody's talking about this. And many people want to know why we are so behind in this process.

REEVES: Juliana Dal Piva is a columnist for the Brazilian news portal UOL.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: These hearings are attracting huge interest among Brazilians. Dal Piva thinks the commission is playing politics. But it's also tackling crucial issues.

DAL PIVA: Many of the questions they ask are the questions I have myself. And even as a journalist, I could never ask because we have a strict rule with the public information here. So it's good to hear the answers.

REEVES: Dal Piva has a personal interest in those answers.

DAL PIVA: My grandfather died in the first week of March in the beginning of the second wave of the COVID.

REEVES: She says those vaccine supply shortages meant her grandfather's first shot was delayed. By the time he got it, it was too late.

ERICKSON GONTIJO: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: Erickson Gontijo is a front-line doctor in the city of Belo Horizonte. A recent surge in COVID cases there nearly caused health systems to collapse. Gontijo is glad the commission's happening.

GONTIJO: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "But it won't change the feeling that we failed to meet our patients' needs," he says. The inquiry began three weeks ago. It's slated to last at least three months. With his popularity slipping, Bolsonaro has responded by reiterating his opposition to COVID restrictions.

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PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: Saying Brazilians still isolated at home are idiots and hurling abuse at the senator leading the investigation.

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BOLSONARO: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: That's all just politics. This inquiry matters because it's about creating a historical record, says journalist Juliana Dal Piva.

DAL PIVA: That is going to be there for many generations to see.

REEVES: She hopes this means the mistakes that took her grandfather's life will never happen again.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "HEAVEN FOR THE SINNER [INSTRUMENTAL]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.