The accusation against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for “crimes against humanity” on public health grounds is unusual both at the national and international level. Because many of the crimes for which he is accused regarding the COVID-19 pandemic mimic the actions and policies of Donald Trump, they could be the basis for similar actions against the former U.S. president.
“Crimes against humanity” is a well-established entity under international law that includes acts that are purposefully committed as part of a widespread or systematic policy directed against civilians. These crimes can be actions carried out in times of war or peace. The charges of mass homicide and genocide against Bolsonaro are based on his policies leading to the decimation of indigenous groups in the Amazon due to of his refusal to adequately protect them.
The Brazilian Congressional panel, leading the accusation, asserts that Bolsonaro intentionally let the coronavirus pandemic rip through the country, resulting in over 600,000 Brazilians deaths. This is second only to over 700,000 deaths in the U.S. In Brazil, the congressional panel recommended charges against 77 other people, including three of president Bolsonaro’s sons and several current and former Brazilian government officials.
According to public health experts, both in Brazil and in the U.S. most of those deaths were preventable. Despite considerable evidence that the virus was already propagating at great speed in several countries, Mr. Bolsonaro and Mr. Trump went to great lengths to minimize the threat of the virus from the beginning.
Both Bolsonaro and Trump dismissed the importance of the use of masks and promoted mass gatherings for political purposes, dismissing the danger that those acts could become super spreader events. The Trump administration conducted rallies and social events in total disregard of its own scientists and the CDC’s recommendations. On September 13, 2020, Trump’s rally in Henderson, Nevada, contravened state health rules which limit public gatherings to 50 people and require proper social distancing. Predictably, Trump later boasted that state authorities failed to stop him and he repeated that behavior on several other occasions.
In addition, in total disregard for medical experts’ opinion, both Bolsonaro and Trump promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine to prevent or treat COVID-19. While Bolsonaro kept the medication in hand should his 93-year-old mother need it, Trump prided himself on taking the drug to prevent the infection. That he developed COVID-19 and only survived thanks to the extraordinary efforts of his doctors, who used medicines not easily available at the time to the rest of the population, should have been a lesson for him. It was not.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Trump has inflicted considerable damage to science and its institutions, with serious repercussions for people’s lives. His appointees were made political tools of the administration, ordering health agencies to provide inaccurate information and to issue wrong health guidance, thus undermining their scientific integrity.
In an unprecedented move, the Trump administration barred infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci from testifying about the U.S. response to the pandemic in front of the Democrat-led House of Representatives’ appropriations committee. In addition, against his own experts’ advice, he demonized international health agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO,) weakening that agency’s ability to respond to global health crises.
It is a primordial duty of presidents to respond adequately to a crisis that affects the lives of their people. Trump and Bolsonaro’s actions in response to the pandemic are nothing less than dereliction of duty, one that likely cost several thousands of lives.
The Brazilian congressional report states that Bolsonaro’s “macabre” approach to the pandemic constitutes a “crime against public health,” a charge that could also be leveled against Mr. Trump.
Presently, there are no laws in the U.S. that would allow prosecutors to conduct a major criminal case against those responsible for the inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is up to U.S. lawmakers to create legislation to hold government leaders to account for their public health responses to a crisis. It would be the best homage to the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives needlessly during this terrible pandemic. The Brazilian people are now showing the way.