Bolsonaro Accelerates Vaccine Plan as Popularity Takes a Hit

Brazil accelerated plans to vaccinate its population against the coronavirus after an early start by the state of Sao Paulo added pressure on President Jair Bolsonaro to move faster to stem an incipient loss of popularity.

The government began distributing on Monday 6 million doses of a shot produced by China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd in partnership with Sao Paulo’s Butantan Institute to all of its 27 states, giving the green light for immunizations to begin right away, according to an official statement. Less than 24 hours before, Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello had said the nationwide campaign would kick off on Wednesday.

Pressure on the Brazilian president and his health minister dramatically increased when Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria organized on Sunday a ceremony to administer the first dose of the so-called CoronaVac shot -- just minutes after the country’s health regulator approved its emergency use. The picture of a Black nurse being inoculated was broadcast across Brazilian media and became a political win for Doria, one of Bolsonaro’s main political opponents.

Bolsonaro Accelerates Vaccine Plan as Popularity Takes a Hit

“Bolsonaro is losing some backing of his supporters,” said Marcio Coimbra, a political scientist who heads the Interlegis think tank in Brasilia. “Emergency help was the main engine of his popularity, while the pandemic and vaccines have been a drag.”

Bolsonaro’s popularity dropped 6 percentage points to 32% in January, one month after his program of cash handouts to informal workers expired, according to a XP/Ipespe poll that surveyed 1,000 people between Jan. 11 and 14. Half of those interviewed wanted the government to come up with a similar emergency program for a few more months. It’s the first time since May that his popularity takes a hit, the pollster said.

The president, who has repeatedly questioned the safety of the shots against a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Brazilians, has been under growing political stress as national inoculation plans lag those of key regional partners and Covid-19 cases spiral again across the country. To complicate things, shipments of the AstraZeneca Plc booster -- the federal government’s main bet to sustain a mass campaign -- have been delayed amid difficult negotiations with India, where part of the shots is being produced.

Without its main card readily available, the health ministry decided to go ahead with the CoronaVac -- a vaccine that has been sponsored by Doria and repeatedly criticized by Bolsonaro “due to its origin.” The collapse of the health system in the Amazonas state capital, where hospitals ran out of oxygen to treat patients, contributed to a renewed sense of urgency. In response to the crisis, trucks loaded with oxygen donated by the government of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela crossed the Brazilian border on Monday, according to G1 website.

Several state governors, who have been demanding a more forceful response from the health ministry, celebrated the beginning of the inoculation campaign on social media by posting photos and videos of vaccine shipments being boarded onto Brazilian air force jets. In Rio de Janeiro, Mayor Eduardo Paes organized a ceremony at the feet of the statue of Christ the Redeemer to mark the date.

Yet not all states immediately received the shots, with Pazuello attributing some delays to logistical challenges.

With the CoronaVac being distributed nationwide, Doria scores a political win that strengthens his position as a possible contender in the 2022 presidential elections, said Coimbra, cautioning that other names will likely emerge along the way.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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