“I just heard from President Jair Bolsonaro the notification of my discharge as Health Minister,” the outgoing minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta tweeted Thursday, thanking his colleagues and wishing success for his replacement.
He will be replaced by Nelson Teich, an oncologist who supported Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign.
Mandetta was one of Brazil’s biggest proponents of social distancing, supporting governors’ decisions to shut down schools and businesses. But his approach put him at odds with Bolsonaro, who has previously downplayed Covid-19 as nothing more than a “little flu” and warned that the economic fallout from isolation could be worse than the virus itself.
Mandetta also challenged the president’s insistence that malaria drugs are the solution to the Covid-19 crisis. While Brazil has launched trials involving the drugs, Mandetta has warned there is no evidence that they are effective in treating the symptoms.
During a televised press conference immediately after his meeting with Mandetta, Bolsonaro called the departure a “consensual divorce” and part of a “transition.” He praised the work Mandetta had done but insisted the economy and health at this moment should be treated like two illnesses. “You can’t treat one and ignore the other.”
He said he had already discussed the need to “gradually open up” with incoming minister Teich, who was standing by his side.
National and local governments in Brazil have issued mixed messaging on how to behave during the pandemic. While Bolsonaro has been pushing against strict restrictions, state and local governments in some of the country’s hardest-hit areas have promoted social distancing, with firefighters and police in the streets urging people to stay indoors. Bolsonaro himself has been seen flouting the guidelines issued by his own health experts, wandering into bakeries and greeting supporters with handshakes and hugs.
The newly appointed health minister spoke briefly after Bolsonaro, repeating that there wouldn’t be any “sudden” decisions, and that jobs and health were complementary priorities. “The part about social isolation, there won’t be any sudden definitions,” Teich said. “What is fundamental is that people have more and more information about each action. We will make decisions based on solid information.”
“Everything will be based on science,” Teich added.
The change comes as coronavirus continues to spread through the vast Latin American country: beds in intensive care units are filling up in Brazil’s biggest cities and in the northern Amazon region, authorities warn the health system is already collapsing.
Brazil has reported more than 30,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection. More than 1,900 people have died.
At the same time, fears are growing that the virus could ravage Brazil’s indigenous communities. A 15-year-old Yanomami boy from the village of Rehebe in northern Brazil died on Friday from complications related to Covid-19, according to the Health Ministry. The Association of the Indigenous People of Brazil (APIB) said the boy was the third indigenous person to die of the disease in Brazil.