Bolsonaro rival hails Covid vaccinations as 'triumph of science against denialists'

Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro
·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Adriano Machado/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Adriano Machado/Reuters

Brazil’s first Covid-19 vaccine has been administered after more than 209,000 deaths, sparking an outpouring of emotion and a ferocious political skirmish that saw one of President Jair Bolsonaro’s key rivals accuse him of revelling in the “stench of death”.

The China-made CoronaVac was injected into the arm of a frontline nurse in São Paulo at 3.30pm local time, after Brazil’s health regulator approved the emergency use of vaccines produced by China’s Sinovac and Oxford/AstraZeneca.

It was São Paulo’s conservative governor, João Doria, not Bolsonaro, who oversaw the emotionally charged ceremony, because his state, rather than the federal government, spearheaded the partnership with Sinovac. To the frustration of Bolsonaro, who had reportedly hoped to kick off vaccination in the presidential palace next week, Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines are yet to arrive in Brazil, scuppering those plans.

Related: Bolsonaro branded 'homicidally negligent' over Brazil's vaccine planning

Doria, a former Apprentice host who is widely expected to challenge Bolsonaro at the 2022 presidential election, seized the moment to savage his one-time ally, whose anti-scientific handling of the epidemic has been globally condemned.

In an indirect but unmistakable reference to Bolsonaro, who has dismissed Covid-19 as “a little flu”, Doria said the first vaccination represented “the triumph of science and life against the denialists, and those who prefer the stench of death to the value and joy of life”.

“Let this be a lesson to the denialists, to those who lack compassion, who have no love in their hearts, to those who show contempt for life and distance themselves from the reality of a country that suffers – and suffers with death,” Doria said.

“Jair Bolsonaro and the incompetence of his government” had dealt Brazil a “fatal blow” during the epidemic, he claimed.

Brazilian nurse Monica Calazans receives the vaccine against Covid-19 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Sunday.
Brazilian nurse Monica Calazans receives the vaccine against Covid-19 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Sunday. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

Bolsonaro’s health minister, an army general called Eduardo Pazuello, hit back during a tetchy press conference, attacking what he called Doria’s “marketing ploy”.

“Our only objective right now must be saving more lives and not promoting ourselves,” Pazuello said, claiming the federal government would start vaccinating Brazilians with CoronaVac shots on Wednesday morning.

Despite boasting a world-renowned immunisation program, Brazil lags behind regional neighbours in the race to vaccinate its 212 million citizens. Argentina, Chile and Mexico have all recently begun vaccination while Bolsonaro’s government has come under fire for dragging its feet, undermining containment efforts, and promoting unproven remedies such as chloroquine.

Bolsonaro has repeatedly questioned the Sinovac injection and said he will refuse to be vaccinated, although the presidency recently said his vaccination record would remain secret for 100 years.

Leaders from across the political spectrum commemorated Sunday’s vaccinations.

“This is a victory for Brazilian science … and a defeat for Bolsonaro and his policy of death,” tweeted Guilherme Boulos, a prominent leftist.

Luiz Henrique Mandetta, Bolsonaro’s estranged former health minister, tweeted: “Congratulations São Paulo. Be gone dark ages. Be gone denialism. Be gone charlatans.”

Mônica Calazans, the first Brazilian to be vaccinated, urged citizens to listen to science and embrace the vaccine. “I’m talking now as a Brazilian woman – a black Brazilian woman – who believes in the vaccine,” she said. “Just think of how many lives we’ve lost, how many families.

“Don’t be afraid,” Calazans added. “Brazilians, this is our big chance.”