Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, whose dismissive stance toward the COVID-19 pandemic has angered health experts, fired his popular health minister following a series of disagreements over the proper response to contain its spread in South America’s most populous country.
Luiz Henrique Mandetta, an orthopedist, garnered support for his handling of the pandemic that included promotion of broad isolation measures enacted by state governors.
His dismissal comes as experts say the peak of the new coronavirus outbreak in Brazil is expected in the coming weeks.
“You should have absolute certainty that we fought a good fight until here,” Mandetta told fellow ministry workers in a televised press conference on Thursday after announcing his departure. “But we’re at the start of the battle.“
“Life is priceless, but the economy and employment need to return to normality,” Bolsonaro said at a press conference on Thursday.
He also said he would neither condemn nor criticise Mandetta. “It was a consensual divorce because more important than me and more important than him as a minister is the health of the Brazilian people.“
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He said he had appointed oncologist Nelson Teich as the country’s new health minister.
Speaking alongside Bolsonaro, Teich said he didn’t want to announce any changes abruptly, as little is known about the virus. He added he and the president are “completely aligned“.
“Health and the economy are complementary,” Teich said.
Following Mandetta’s firing announcemen, people in apartment buildings in the capital Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro could be heard yelling insults at Bolsonaro from their windows.
Bolsonaro and Mandetta have clashed for weeks over the need for widespread social isolation. The far-right leader argued the measures were unnecessary and economically harmful, insisting the outbreak is being blown out of proportion.
Bolsonaro has downplayed the threat of the coronavirus as a “little flu,” arguing Brazil’s economy must continue to run normally and defending the use of unproven drugs such as hydroxychloroquine.
Mandetta said he would assist his replacement during the transition in the ministry.
“We have a prospect of change here in the ministry, it must be today or, at the latest, tomorrow, but this will finally happen,” Mandetta said. “Our focus is on the virus, and we will be very careful to support whoever comes here, we will not make any sudden movements.”
The health ministry’s response to the epidemic was rated “good” or “great” by 76 percent of Brazilians surveyed by pollster Datafolha this month. Just 33 percent of those surveyed gave Bolsonaro the same ratings.
Teich had been considered as a candidate for health minister in 2018 when Bolsonaro won election, although Mandetta ultimately got the job. Teich currently works as a medical consultant.
Teich on social media defended many of the same positions Mandetta holds, including “horizontal” isolation of the whole population, which Bolsonaro opposes.
While rising quickly, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Brazil is still relatively low in relation to the country’s massive population of 211 million, though it does have the most cases in Latin America. There have been almost 2,000 deaths. Its peak is expected in May.
“I leave the health ministry with a lot of gratitude to the president for having nominated me and allowing me to nominate each of you,” Mandetta said. “I know I am leaving the best team. Work for the next minister like you worked for me. Don’t spare any effort.“
Al Jazeera and news agencies