Weekly Report - 09 December 2021 (WR-21-49)

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BRAZIL: Vaccine passports produce new source of friction

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been widely condemned for his science-denying approach to the coronavirus (Covid-19) since the start of the pandemic in early 2020. The damaging consequences of his denialist discourse and attitude were extensively documented by a senate-led commission of parliamentary inquiry (CPI), which presented its findings in October [WR-21-42]. After the president’s rejection of lockdowns, his promotion of unproven remedies, and his scepticism regarding the vaccine, a new Covid-19 battlefront has opened between Bolsonaro and public health authorities, this time on the issue of vaccine passports.

Currently, anyone travelling to Brazil need only present a negative Covid-19 test taken within 72 hours of boarding their flight to enter the country (land borders remain largely closed). Anvisa, the federal healthcare regulator, has been pushing for the federal government to adopt stricter entry rules, particularly as international travel has started easing. On 25 November, Anvisa recommended that proof of vaccination against Covid-19 be required to enter Brazil by air or land, and that any unvaccinated travellers be required to quarantine.

The agency expressed concern that Brazil might become a favoured destination for unvaccinated tourists. “This is undesirable considering the risk that this group represents for the Brazilian population and for the SUS [national healthcare system],” Anvisa said. Domestically, vaccination rates are high and vaccine hesitancy very low. Almost 65% of the total population is fully vaccinated in Brazil, and official figures show the pandemic continuing on a positive downwards trend at a national level [WR-21-46]. The rolling seven-day average of daily deaths has fallen below 200 to the lowest point since April 2020.

The discovery of the omicron variant – which was named a variant of concern by the World Health Organization (WHO) just one day after Anvisa issued its recommendation on vaccine requirements – has added a sense of urgency to the debate. Brazil has several confirmed cases of the new variant, about which little is known, although preliminary research suggests it is more transmissible than other strains of Covid-19. Concerns over the new variant have led a number of state capitals to cancel official New Year’s Eve events and to tighten sanitary measures, for example maintaining the requirement to wear facemasks in outside spaces in São Paulo.  

Yet President Bolsonaro remains unmovable in his opposition to vaccine mandates, calling vaccine passports a “collar” that some are trying to impose on the Brazilian people. A day earlier, the federal government cancelled a meeting scheduled with Anvisa representatives that same day to discuss the possibility of requiring incoming travellers to present proof of Covid-19 vaccination. The cancellation of the meeting came shortly after a supreme court (STF) justice, Luís Roberto Barroso, gave the government 48 hours to explain its opposition to vaccine requirements.

Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga ended up announcing on 7 December that Brazil will require unvaccinated travellers to quarantine for five days upon arrival and then take a PCR test. But he stressed that the government rejects any kind of vaccine passport. “As the president has just said: sometimes it is better to lose your life than to lose your freedom,” said Queiroga, who is a cardiologist, paraphrasing Bolsonaro.

The issue is also turning into yet another source of friction with local governments, whom the STF ruled last year have the same power as the federal executive to implement Covid-related measures. In the last few months, over 200 Brazilian cities – of which at least 19 are state capitals – have implemented varying rules on vaccine requirements to access certain public spaces. On 5 December, Bolsonaro spoke of changing a 2020 law via executive decree to make the decision on vaccine passports the exclusive prerogative of the federal government. Such a move would likely prompt judicial challenges. São Paulo state governor João Doria said on 8 December that if the federal government fails to require proof of vaccination from international travellers, his state will enforce it from 15 December.    

Another investigation

President Bolsonaro’s denialist attitude to Covid-19 has made him the target of another investigation in the supreme court (STF). On 3 December, STF justice Alexandre de Moraes announced the launch of an investigation into the president’s spreading of misinformation on the coronavirus, responding to a recommendation made by the CPI in its concluding document. Moraes notably cited a comment made by Bolsonaro in a Facebook Live address in late October, in which he associated the Covid-19 vaccine with higher risk of Aids. The video was taken down by social media platforms, and the CPI recommended that Bolsonaro be banned from social media [WR-21-43] – a recommendation Moraes has now asked the attorney general to comment on.

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