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Brazilians defy COVID to protest president

Thousands of Brazilians have taken to the streets to repudiate the government of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro in the country’s first massive protests since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a nod to the pandemic, now in its third wave in Brazil, most participants on Saturday wore masks while holding up placards highlighting the damage the coronavirus has done in Latin America’s largest nation.

With more than 465,000 fatalities, Brazil is second to the United States in coronavirus deaths, while its 16.3 million confirmed cases have been exceeded only by India, a country with more than six times as many people.

People turned out in more than 200 cities, including all 27 state capitals, for events organised by labour unions, leftist political parties and grassroots groups.

The only report of violence came from Recife, capital of Pernambuco state, where police used pepper spray and rubber bullets against thousands of protesters who went forward with the mobilisation despite a recommendation from the state Attorney General’s Office that it be called off because of the pandemic.

Slogans such as “Bolsonaro Out” and “Vaccines for All, Now” featured in all of the protests.

Activists also expressed demands for more generous pandemic relief payments and an end to the privatisation of state-owned enterprises.

Marches took place early on Saturday in Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro, Belem and Recife, among other urban centres, while the largest demonstration got under way late in the day in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most-populous city.

Around 4pm people of all ages began gathering at the Sao Paulo Museum of Art, a traditional staging area for protests, before a peaceful procession with musical accompaniment that lasted for more than three hours.

One aim of the nationwide mobilisation was to add impetus to a Senate committee’s ongoing investigation into how the Bolsonaro administration has dealt with the public health crisis.

Even though the odds are against a successful impeachment given the current composition of the lower house, opposition senators hope the panel will uncover evidence of malfeasance that is too egregious to be ignored.

The committee has already heard from witnesses who said that the national government fumbled the response to an acute shortage of oxygen for COVID-19 patients in Amazonas state and that Bolsonaro’s team passed up offers which would have secured millions of doses of vaccine by last December.

Bolsonaro, who dismissed COVID-19 as a “measly flu” soon after the virus was first detected in Brazil in February 2020, has remained an outspoken denialist regarding the pandemic, even after undergoing his own bout with the diseases.

Contemptuous of masks and vaccines, the president has fought with mayor and governors over measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, insisting that “the economy cannot stop”.

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