Last June, as Covid-19 cases were surging across Brazil, Camila Basto waited at a São Paulo hospital to find out what was wrong with her 9-year-old daughter, Manuela.
Manuela had a fever that reached 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), spots all over her skin and a lump growing out of her neck. Her kidneys didn’t function for nearly two days. “Her heart almost stopped,” Basto said.
After three days, Manuela was diagnosed with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a rare condition that affects children who have been infected by Covid-19.
Manuela recovered from Covid, but its side effects have left a lasting impression on her heart: She now has arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat.
“It is so horrible. She was a healthy child, with no underlying conditions,” Basto said.
Manuela survived Covid. But hundreds of other children in Brazil haven’t.
Between March 2020 and November 2021, 308 children aged between 5 and 11 have died from Covid-19, according to data from the Ministry of Health.
Pediatrician and infectious disease specialist Marcelo Otsuka told CNN that Covid has killed more children than meningitis and measles in the same period, only trailing behind deaths from road accidents.
Now, as a nationwide Covid-19 vaccination campaign for children aged 5-11 is underway, it’s providing relief to many Brazilian parents like Basto, who says that it will give her a “peace of mind.”
The rollout began on Monday, and with schools back in session from February, many parents feel the same way.
A nationwide survey from the Datafolha Institute released on Monday revealed that 79% of respondents support vaccinating children in that age group. (The survey was conducted by phone on January 12 and 13 among 2,023 people aged 16 and older.)
But the vaccine couldn’t come fast enough for some parents, who have been waiting nearly a month to take their kids to get the shot.
The reason? Mainly Brazil’s own President Jair Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro, who says he is unvaccinated, has been widely criticized at home and abroad for playing down the severity of the virus, including discouraging others to get vaccinated, despite Brazil battling one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world.
The president’s opposition to child vaccination is the latest instalment in this crusade.
On December 16, Brazil’s regulatory agency Anvisa green lit the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for children. That same day, Bolsonaro called the decision “unbelievable,” and threatened to release the names of Anvisa staff involved in the decision.
Congresswoman Bia Kicis, a loyal Bolsonaro supporter who also has discredited child vaccinations on social media, later revealed those names to a WhatsApp group of Bolsonaro supporters. Kicis justified her actions, saying she thought the documents were public in a hearing on the issue earlier this month.
And just days before the rollout got underway, Bolsonaro falsely claimed in an interview to TV Nova Nordeste that no children have died of Covid, before later saying in the same interview that “some children must have died, but they must have some comorbidity.”
Perhaps those words come as no surprise: Last June, while speaking at an event, an unmasked Bolsonaro asked a child to remove her mask, and also took off another child’s mask.
His actions are a slap in the face for the hundreds of parents still grieving the loss of their children – and to Manuela’s mother, Basto, who was fearing the worst.
Bolsonaro has also said that he will not vaccinate his 11-year-old daughter, saying that “children have not been dying in a way that justifies a vaccine.”
However, “these vaccines offer really good protection, with even greater protection to children than to adults, and with excellent safety,” pediatrician and infectious disease expert Dr. Marcelo Otsuka told CNN.
“All studies suggest that vaccines are safe and have very good efficiency for the 5-11 age group,” he said.
Otsuka cited data from the US, saying: “When you analyze data from the 7 million doses given in the US to this age group there were no adverse effects reported that should make us concerned.”
But Bolsonaro and his administration are largely undeterred by scientific evidence, with their rhetoric instead delaying the rollout.
Esther Solano, professor of international relations at Sao Paulo University, told CNN that Bolsonaro’s messaging around vaccines for children is part of his long-term political strategy.
When the rollout was approved, Solano said that it presented a “paradox” for the Brazilian leader, who has been denying the effectiveness of vaccines.
“He has to follow his strategy, as he cannot change the speech and adopt a favorable one for the children,” Solano said.
Bolsonaro’s anti-vaccine rhetoric is not necessarily aimed to stop Brazilian kids from getting the shot, Solano added, but rather part of his long standing campaign to recruit and play up to his far-right base ahead of the October 2022 elections.
“Bolsonaro is mobilizing his radical supporters in thinking about the next elections,” Solano said.
Bolsonaro and Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga also proposed a period of public consultation before rolling out the shots and that parents present a medical prescription to get their children vaccinated.
While those proposals didn’t pass – it did stall the rollout.
Brazil is now starting the process much later than many other Latin American countries – including Cuba, Chile and Argentina, whose child vaccine campaigns have been running for months.
And Queiroga hasn’t stopped his attempts to undermine their efficacy. This week, he falsely claimed that thousands of people had died from adverse reactions caused by the vaccines, directly contradicting his government’s own data. He later said that those comments were taken out of context by the media.
It’s hard to know what Bolsonaro and his allies will benefit from railing against child vaccination, given public support largely backs them – especially in an election year where the cards could be stacking against him.
Political scientist Camila Rocha told CNN that Bolsonaro’s “aim is to unify and mobilize his core supporters (around 20% of voters) around a new controversy – as well as diverting attention from other subjects that can be uncomfortable.”
For Bolsonaro’s supporters, the child vaccination issue won’t affect their support, Rocha said.
“It could have negative consequences among people who voted for Bolsonaro and are disappointed with his governments and his attitudes during the pandemic – especially women and young people,” she added.
For Basto, Bolsonaro lost her trust a long time ago. She has seen what Covid has done to the country and to her child.
“He is a crazy denialist, what can you say? It is unbelievable that a president would have such attitudes,” she said.