By Will Tullis, ITV News
A perfect storm has been brewing in Brazil: a Covid-sceptic president who publicly refuses to take the vaccine, a healthcare system pushed to the brink by the pandemic, and a country of inequality where almost a quarter of the population live in poverty.
But there’s another section of society compounding the Covid situation in Brazil: preachers.
Evangelist leader Valdemiro Santiago has been taking to the virtual pulpit with sermons full of debunked conspiracies and falsehoods. Santiago - head of the Universal Church of God’s Power - told followers to buy his "miracle beans" he claims can cure even serious cases of coronavirus.
In a series of YouTube sermons that look more telemarketing than televangelism, the preacher - who Forbes say has an estimated fortune of $220m - urged followers to buy his homegrown beans, priced from 100 to 1000 Reals (about $18 to $180).
Brazil’s Ministry of Health denounced Santiago’s magic beans as a hoax and YouTube has since taken down the videos.
Santiago told a room of believers last year that the media were “making up” news of Covid deaths and that empty coffins were being buried in graveyards.
A video of the sermon was shared to the church’s YouTube channel, which has 141,000 subscribers. Pentecostal preacher Silas Malafaia is another televangelist with a considerable social media following. The self-described “public enemy No 1 of the gay movement in Brazil”, has 2.4m Facebook followers and is considered the “spiritual teacher” of Covid-sceptic president Bolsonaro.
Malafaia has been spreading Covid falsehoods since the start of the pandemic. He cast doubt on the severity of the virus, falsely claiming swine flu had killed more people.
An outspoken critic of lockdown, Malafaia’s church last week hosted a sermon attended by hundreds of people in Paraná in southern Brazil.
In a video viewed over 1.2m times on Facebook, Malafaia falsely claimed that a drug used to treat parasite infestations could prevent Covid. Facebook has put a false information fact-check note on the video, in which the preacher also scorned Brazil’s use of the Chinese-made vaccines. Another preacher falsely claimed that one vaccine causes cancer and contains HIV. Televangelist Davi Goés, who has over 100,000 followers on social media, posted a video across his social media channels alleging that the Chinese made CoronaVac vaccine mutated DNA to cause cancer.
Goés, leader of the Ministério Canaã church, also falsely asserted that the vaccine “even contains HIV”, according to a French scientist who he failed to name. Brazil is an intensely religious country. Over 85% of the population are Christian and preachers have a powerful influence. In a country where access to healthcare and education is limited for millions, preachers are often more influential in some communities than doctors, scientists and experts, according to theologian and pastor Ronilso Pacheco.
Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is a vocal Covid sceptic. Bolsonaro dismisses Covid as “a little flu”. He has used homophobic slurs to describe people worried about the virus. Recently, he announced he won’t be getting vaccinated. Over 250,000 people have died of Covid in Brazil. Only the US has more Covid victims with over 530,000 deaths.
How does Brazil’s Covid death toll compare to other countries?
South America • Brazil: 259,402 deaths (Population: 214m) • Colombia: 60,082 deaths (Population: 51m) • Argentina: 52,453 deaths (Population: 45m) • Chile: 20,704 deaths (Population: 19m) Rest of the world • USA: 531,652 deaths (Population: 332m) • UK: 123,783 deaths (Population: 68m)