Amid a devastating second wave of COVID-19, Brazil’s bishops have sharpened their criticism of the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro.

In an April 16 statement released at the end of its 58th general assembly – entirely held on-line due to the pandemic – the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) said that “discourses and attitudes that deny the reality of the pandemic, show disdain for health and safety measures, and threaten the rule of law” are “unacceptable.”

“it’s necessary to pay attention to science, incentivize the use of face masks and social distancing, and secure vaccination for all, as soon as possible,” the document read.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Bolsonaro has downplayed the risks of COVID-19 by promoting public gatherings, repeatedly refused to wear a face mask during events, opposing the imposition of a national lockdown, and criticizing Brazilian state governors who enforced restrictions on economic activities in order to reduce the spread of the disease.

The president has also expressed doubts about the efficacy of the vaccines, especially CoronaVac, produced by the Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac and bought by São Paulo State governor João Dória Jr., who may run for president in 2022.

The bishops’ letter emphasized that all state institutions should be mindful of the country’s constitution, which establishes the right to healthcare.

“That requires competence and lucidity,” the document said.

Bolsonaro’s hesitancy towards the vaccine has delayed the immunization rollout and only 25 million Brazilians – about 12 percent of the country’s population – have so far received at least one shot. More than 365,000 coronavirus deaths have been reported in Brazil and the average number of daily deaths has been higher than 3,000 over the past few weeks.

The Brazilian Supreme Court recently said that the Congress must launch an inquiry on the president’s management of the pandemic, causing a revived radicalism among Bolsonaro and his backers, many of whom openly back a return to military rule in a country that restored democracy only in 1985.

Bolsonaro said on April 14 that the ruling was an “interference in his government” and threatened the court. “My friends of the Supreme Court, soon we’ll have an enormous crisis here. […] There’s a powder keg here. There’s people wearing suits who haven’t seen it yet,” he told a group of supporters in Brasilia.

Last week, São Paulo’s archbishop, Cardinal Odilo Scherer, said he saw the risk of “a political turnaround towards a dictatorship, or a trend towards a certain fascism which is consolidating more and more.”

Those are the concrete risks I see,” he told Roda Viva, a talk show.

On April 13, in a press conference during CNBB’s general assembly, Auxiliary Bishop Joaquim Mol Guimarães of Belo Horizonte said that “unexpectedly people started to show up in Brazil, including Brazilian authorities, supporting a dictatorship,” as quoted in the Jesuit website Instituto Humanitas Unisinos.

“Asking for a dictatorship is a mental insanity, an insanity of the feelings, a total brutalization of the being,” Guimarães said.

The support to a dictatorship in Brazil is “unconceivable”, he added. “A Christian cannot even think on defending a dictatorship. That’s completely out of the possibilities of anyone who wishes to be a disciple of Jesus,” Guimarães said.

The CNBB’s April 16 statement also addressed the need to raise public investment in the healthcare system, calling the repeated “attempts to weaken the structure of social protection” in Brazil “unacceptable.”

The bishops also addressed the destruction of the environment, especially the Amazon, and the loosening of gun control in the country.

“We are worried about the serious problem of the multiple forms of violence disseminated in society, favored by the easy access to guns. Disinformation and hate speech, particularly on social media, generate an unlimited aggressiveness,” the letter read.

The bishops declared that the “common home has been subjected to the voracious dynamics of exploitation and degradation.”

“It’s urgent to understand that a protected biome productively works for the maintenance and generation of life on the planet, if the fair balance of production and preservation is respected,” the document said.

The bishops conclude the letter by calling on Catholics to support the Pact for Life and for Brazil, an initiative launched by the CNBB and other civic organizations in 2020 in order to address the multiples crises currently impacting the lives of the neediest in society.

“Let’s assume, with a renovated commitment, concrete initiatives to promote solidarity and sharing,” the bishops said.