BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro fired his health minister on Thursday after butting heads over how to confront the new coronavirus, and a person familiar with the matter said the president would appoint oncologist Nelson Teich in his place.
Luiz Henrique Mandetta said on Twitter that Bolsonaro had told him of his dismissal.
The two have clashed for weeks over the need for widespread social isolation in the country to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The populist leader argues the measures are unnecessary and economically harmful, insisting the outbreak is being blown out of proportion.
Bolsonaro met with Teich, a candidate for the ministerial role in 2018, Thursday morning in a meeting kept off the official presidential agenda, two sources with knowledge of the meeting told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Teich, now a medical consultant according to his LinkedIn profile, has posted on social media defending many of the same positions Mandetta holds, including “horizontal” isolation of the whole population, which Bolsonaro opposes.
Bolsonaro has downplayed the threat of the coronavirus as a “little flu,” arguing that Brazil’s economy must continue to run normally and defending the use of unproven drugs like hydroxychloroquine.
Mandetta said in a live webcast with health industry officials on Thursday that he expected to be fired by Friday, although he tried to minimize fears that his departure would disrupt efforts to battle the coronavirus pandemic.
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% of Brazilians surveyed by pollster Datafolha this month. Just 33% of those surveyed gave Bolsonaro the same ratings.
Brazil’s death toll from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, climbed to 1,924 on Thursday, as confirmed cases rose to 30,425, Health Ministry data showed.
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