SAO PAULO — A Brazilian Supreme Court justice ordered the Senate on Thursday to investigate the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and the full court ruled that churches can be barred from reopening during the pandemic, threatening to further strain tensions between President Jair Bolsonaro and the judiciary.
The order by Justice Luis Roberto Barroso for a Senate probe came only minutes after the whole court upheld the power of local authorities to prevent churches and other houses of worship from opening.
Bolsonaro has downplayed the threat of the coronavirus while arguing that the economic and emotional impacts of shutdowns would harm more Brazilians than the pandemic. He has at times bristled at the checks and balances from other branches of government, and has repeatedly criticized the Supreme Court for upholding the power of governors and mayors to establish restrictions on economic and personal activity during the pandemic. Last year, he attended protests against the court.
The conservative president, a proud Christian who has the support of some of the country’s main evangelical leaders, has opposed locally imposed lockdowns and other restrictions that health experts have said were sorely needed to halt the virus’ spread. In recent weeks, Brazil has become the epicenter of the pandemic crisis, accounting for more than one-quarter of the world’s deaths from COVID-19.
“The inquiry will call scientists from all over Brazil to testify and show how irresponsible the president’s statements were. It will get tougher for him. Public opinion will be heard at the Senate,” said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo. “It was unavoidable. The time came for the political system to react.”
With the country’s death toll rising — among the 345,000 dead are three senators — more than the required 27 senators had already signed a request for a congressional investigation into the administration’s handling of the pandemic, but moving forward required approval by the chamber’s president, Sen. Rodrigo Pacheco. Pacheco, who won his leadership post in January with Bolsonaro’s support, had refrained from triggering the probe.
“It wasn’t the moment. That’s what I think,” Pacheco told reporters in Brasilia after the judge’s order. “This inquiry at this moment will be out of bounds. It might crown the national failure in this pandemic.”
Pacheco said a probe will inevitably drag forward the 2022 presidential race in which Bolsonaro is expected to seek reelection, giving opposition senators a platform for attacking the leader and potentially accusing him of committing crimes.
The Senate is to look at how the government dealt with the COVID-19 crisis, and could level new criticism at Bolsonaro. If senators decided there was anything criminal in the response, the Senate would have to ask the federal attorney general to open its own investigation.
The ruling on houses of worship doesn’t prevent local authorities from allowing churches to reopen, and some have already done so.
But the court acted after Justice Kassio Marques, the court’s only member appointed by Bolsonaro, allowed churches across Brazil to reopen Saturday provided they followed health protocols. Many churches opened on Easter Sunday, some without observing social distancing.
Marques was overruled by his colleagues in a 9-2 vote that culminated Thursday.
Justice Gilmar Mendes said during his vote that Brazil has become “an international pariah in matters of health care.”
“Brazil, which was once a role model in public health, in immunization campaigns, is today in this highly embarrassing situation,” he said.