Since our first special, we have read the pandemic through the lenses of biopolitics, as to analyze how its management has activated and even updated state mechanisms of surveillance and the large- scale management of the population. In the June 2020 issue, we devoted special attention to the debate provoked by the controversial article by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben on the state’s use of the pandemic to justify states of exception. At the time, we also noted that his conceptual reading framework, although necessary, should not obscure the inherent biopolitical logic and effects of herd immunity strategies that, at that moment, were being adopted in Brazil, the US, the UK, Sweden, and Mexico to “save the economies” or else, for political motivations, by the autocracies ruling Nicaragua, Belarus, and Turkmenistan.
Such an understanding was inescapable for those who looked at the initial scenario of the pandemic from within Brazil, a country where, as physician Arnaldo Litchenstein, director of the Hospital das Clínicas at USP, said at that time, the federal government’s response to the crisis was to be read as eugenics. Some voices reacted to his statement saying that it was excessive. Since then, the other countries on the aforementioned list either changed their policies or dropped out of the news, but the actions of the Bolsonaro government continued to be guided, although not always explicitly, by the neo-Darwinian logic of survival of the fittest or deliberate negligence.
In April 2021, when the human cost of the pandemic had already reached 400,000 dead, the COVID-19 Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry (CPI) was convened in the Senate to investigate instances of corruption in the purchase of the COVAXIN vaccine. However, as one would expect in Brazil, the Commission’s work brought to light a wealth of incontrovertible evidence that the federal government and numerous private actors in the medical field had responded to the pandemic through a “letting die” rationale. Although in several countries problems of corruption and ineffectiveness in the conduct of policies in response to COVID-19 have been denounced and investigated, Brazil seems to constitute a unique case in which political institutions have systematically eviscerated the meanings and harmful effects of a peculiar biopolitical method of managing the pandemic.
By October, when the Commission finished its work, more than 600,000 lives had been lost, most of them of people whose vulnerability to the pandemic was aggravated by age, comorbidities, class, race, ethnicity, or place of residence. The evidence that the CPI brought to light, particularly in the case of the actions taken by Prevent Senior, tells us that the statement made by Dr. Litchenstein was not unreasonable, but rather prescient. In the final drafting stage of the CPI report, however, the use of the term “genocide” to designate the disparate impact of COVID-19 on indigenous peoples was the subject of heated debate among senators and in society itself. The final text did not use the term but adopted the related language of “crime against humanity” (in the case of indigenous people) and “epidemic followed by death” (in the case of the population as a whole). These sections of the report will be taken to the International Criminal Court, joining six other cases indicting the Bolsonaro government already filed with that court. The report also accuses the president and several other state officials of 22 other crimes that should be investigated by the Brazilian justice system.
Because of the dubious and uncertain games that dominate national politics, many voices have raised legitimate questions about the scope of and punishment for these human rights violations and other crimes. However, the exemplariness of the results of the Senate’s investigations, including beyond Brazilian borders, should not be minimized. It is not, in our view, trivial that the Washington Post headline of October 22 was, “If Bolsonaro can be charged with crimes, does the same apply to Trump?”