Brazil is getting its fourth health minister since the coronavirus pandemic began.
President Jair Bolsonaro announced Monday night that the crucial role would be given to Dr. Marcelo Queiroga, president of the Brazilian Society of Cardiology. He replaces army general Eduardo Pazuello, who had held the job for less than a year.
“It was decided this afternoon to appoint Marcelo Queiroga,” Bolsonaro told supporters in front of the presidential palace in Brasilia. “I have known him for a few years. He is not a person I have known for a few days. He has everything it takes to do a good job, following up on everything Pazuello has done until today.”
Queiroga takes office amid one of the darkest periods of the pandemic in the country. As of Monday, a total of least 279,286 people had died of the virus. The country’s hospitals are inundated, with intensive care wards in 22 out of Brazil’s 26 states nearing capacity.
The outgoing Pazuello had recently faced sharp criticism for vaccine shortages and was under investigation for oxygen shortages earlier this year in Manaus, capital city of Amazonas state.
Pazuello acknowledged earlier on Monday that a “replacement” was in the works, but emphasized it was not his idea. “I didn’t ask to leave, nor will I. It is not in my character. When the president asks, we will make a correct transition as is tradition,” he added.
Queiroga will choose his working team and a transition will take place “in one or two weeks,” Bolsonaro also said.
“Mr. Marcelo Queiroga is much more knowledgeable on the health issue, he is going to take action to reduce the number of people who die from this disease that´s been affecting the whole world,” Bolsonaro said.
Another cardiologist, Ludhmila Rajjar, told CNN affiliate CNN Brasil that she was approached for the job, but turned it down. She was invited by Bolsonaro to the Presidential Palace on Saturday, and spoke with him for hours on two occasions, she said.
“We had two days of conversation, but unfortunately this is not the time for me to be the minister, mainly for technical reasons. I am a doctor, a scientist (…) This is above any ideology, any expectation that is not guided by science,” Hajjar said.
Bolsonaro, who has long downplayed the seriousness of the virus, has also advocated for the use of unproven drugs such as chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to cure Covid-19, despite multiple studies showing that they are not effective. He has also pressured local officials to avoid lockdowns and restrictive measures, arguing for the health of the economy.
His office did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Brazil’s health ministry has experienced a turbulent sequence of leadership since the start of the pandemic.
The initial health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, a physician who advocated for social distance measures, was fired by Bolsonaro in April 2020 over disagreements concerning the country’s pandemic strategy.
Hajjar was considered for the role at the time, but was passed over for oncologist Nelson Teich, who resigned less than one month in due to differences with Bolsonaro.
In May 2020, Teich was replaced by Pazuello, who had no prior medical experience and at the time was best known for coordinating army troops during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and heading an operation to handle a 2018 influx of Venezuelan migrants.