Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro fired Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta on Thursday on the grounds that Mandetta did not appreciate the need to end coronavirus lockdowns and restart Brazil’s economy as soon as possible.
“We need to return to normal, not as fast as possible, but we need to start having some flexibility,” Bolsonaro said.
Reuters anticipated Bolsonaro would lose the political argument he has engaged in, describing “pot-banging protests” against his firing of Mandetta and recalling fierce criticism of the Brazilian president for underestimating what he described as “a little flu.” Reuters reported polls that showed the Health Ministry enjoying 76 percent approval from the public under Mandetta, while Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic drew only 33 percent support.
“Do not think we are past a peak in growth of the virus. The health system is still not prepared for an acceleration,” Mandetta warned in his parting remarks.
Bolsonaro named oncologist Nelson Luiz Sperle Teich, a consultant to Bolsonaro’s 2018 presidential campaign and a consultant to the Health Ministry during the pandemic, as the new health minister. Teich said at his inaugural news conference that while there would be no “sudden changes” in coronavirus policy, he agrees with President Bolsonaro on what should be done next.
“There is complete alignment between me and the president, and the entire ministry group, that what we are really doing here is working to get society back to normal life faster,” Teich said.
Bolsonaro described Mandetta’s departure as a “consensual divorce” and thanked the outgoing health minister for helping to arrange a smooth transition.
“I do not condemn, I do not recriminate, and I do not criticize Minister Mandetta,” the president said while introducing Teich. “He did what, as a doctor, he thought he should do over that time. Separation, increasingly, became a reality.”
Bolsonaro said he has spoken with Teich about the need to “gradually open up jobs in Brazil” because “this large mass of humble people cannot stay inside” for much longer. He compared the tension between Brazil’s health and economic needs to “a patient who has two diseases,” saying it was not possible to “abandon one and treat another exclusively.”
Brazilian Sen. Major Olimpio, a former Bolsonaro ally who has become a bitter critic of the president’s approach to the pandemic, predicted Teich’s tenure as health minister will be short if he does not begin relaxing the social distancing policies championed by his predecessor.
“Teich has defended social distancing. If he persists in this, he will have serious problems with President Bolsonaro and won’t last 30 days in office, or he will have to tear up his degree and contradict the entire global scientific community,” Olimpio predicted in a video statement.
Other critics of Bolsonaro claim his real problem with Mandetta was the former health minister’s popularity and political skill, which they say Bolsonaro found threatening. On Thursday, Bolsonaro accused Brazilian House speaker Rodrigo Maia of using the coronavirus as an opportunity to “attack” his government and plotting to damage the national economy so Bolsonaro would be weakened politically. Bolsonaro’s parliamentary opponents shot back that the president was picking political fights to deflect public anger from his firing of Mandetta.
Brazil’s official coronavirus count stood at 30,891 cases and 1,952 deaths as of Friday. The BBC reported on an “undocumented explosion” of cases in rural areas, based on reports from local officials and morticians. One biologist said the backlog at Brazilian testing facilities makes the official numbers from the Health Ministry “a photograph of the past.”