Brazil wonders about whereabouts of vaccine mascot

FILE - In this Dec. 16, 2020 file photo, BrazilIan President Jair Bolsonaro poses for photos with the mascot of the nation's vaccination campaign, named "Ze Gotinha," or Joseph Droplet, during a ceremony to present Brazil's National Vaccination Plan Against COVID-19, at Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil. The Brazilian internet spent the last few days wondering about his apparent disappearance after Brazil's former President Lula joked that he may have been shoved aside due to political motivations. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 16, 2020 file photo, BrazilIan President Jair Bolsonaro poses for photos with the mascot of the nation's vaccination campaign, named "Ze Gotinha," or Joseph Droplet, during a ceremony to present Brazil's National Vaccination Plan Against COVID-19, at Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil. The Brazilian internet spent the last few days wondering about his apparent disappearance after Brazil's former President Lula joked that he may have been shoved aside due to political motivations. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

RIO DE JANEIRO – Rumors and conspiracy theories swirled this past week regarding the whereabouts of Zé Gotinha, the mascot for Brazil's national vaccination program.

The clamor surrounding the costumed Zé Gotinha began Wednesday, after former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva drew attention to his recent absence.

“Where is our beloved Zé Gotinha?” da Silva said in a speech criticizing President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic.

Zé Gotinha, whose name translates roughly as “Joe Droplet” and who resembles an overgrown Casper the Friendly Ghost, was created in the 1980s to help the health ministry promote vaccination against the polio virus and put children at ease.

“The advertisements about vaccines had been very heavy. They were associated with something terrible, tragic, life-threatening,” Carla Domingues, former coordinator of the national vaccination program between 2011 and 2019, told The Associated Press.

Gotinha changed that and, due to his success, he has since made regular appearances to warn about the importance of preventing measles, tuberculosis, whooping cough, diphtheria and, most recently, COVID-19.

But the last time Gotinha was seen publicly in a ceremony was Dec. 16 in the capital of Brasilia, launching the country's vaccination program. The character, much beloved by children, declined Bolsonaro’s attempted handshake in the name of social distancing.

Da Silva, a leftist who is Bolsonaro’s rival, presented his own theory about what happened to Gotinha: “Bolsonaro fired him, because he thought he was from the Workers’ Party.”