Brazil's Bolsonaro fires health minister after virus dispute

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro fired his health minister on Thursday after a series of disagreements over efforts to contain the new coronavirus, removing his government's popular pointman on pandemic response just weeks before experts expect the virus' peak in the South American country.

“You should have absolute certainty that we fought a good fight until here,” Luiz Henrique Mandetta told fellow ministry workers in a televised press conference after announcing his departure on Twitter. “But we're at the start of the battle.”

Mandetta, an orthopedist, garnered popular support for his pandemic response that included promotion of broad isolation measures enacted by state governors. He had drawn comparisons to Dr. Anthony Fauci, U.S. President Donald Trump’s top virus expert.

Bolsonaro, for his part, repeatedly characterized the virus as a “little flu,” said shutting down the economy would cause more damage than confining only high-risk Brazilians, and touted the yet-unproven efficacy of an anti-malarial drug.

“Life is priceless, but the economy and employment need to return to normality,” Bolsonaro said at a press conference on Thursday, adding that doesn't mean doing so as fast as possible. He also said he would neither condemn nor criticize 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.”

For Mandetta’s replacement, Bolsonaro named Nelson Teich, an oncologist and senior health care consultant at medical services company Teich Health Care. He also has a Master's in Business Administration, according to his LinkedIn page.

While Fauci isn't a politician like Mandetta, both have often made public statements about the virus that differed with those of their bosses. The White House has said this week that Fauci’s job is secure. Still, Republicans close to the White House say Trump has complained about Fauci’s positive media attention and sought to leave him out of task force briefings.

Bolsonaro, likewise, had convened doctors without inviting Mandetta and, in a televised interview earlier this month, said Mandetta had failed to show “humility.” A few days later, on April 5, Bolsonaro told a group of supporters that he would act against officials in his government who “are full of themselves.”

Those comments were widely understood as signaling an end to Mandetta’s tenure, so much so that the minister said the next day his subordinates had cleaned out his desk.

He survived, but questions swirled over whether Bolsonaro had indeed backed away from dismissing the man whose COVID-19 response was welcomed by many Brazilians, or if he were just biding his time while recruiting a replacement.

That uncertainty vanished on Thursday.

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.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

Following Mandetta's announcement of his firing, people in apartment buildings in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro could be heard yelling insults at Bolsonaro from their windows. A survey earlier this month by pollster Datafolha showed three-quarters of Brazilians approved of the health ministry's handling of the crisis, versus just one-third for Bolsonaro.

At his press conference, Mandetta offered thanks to individuals with whom he had worked, and even to Bolsonaro.

“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.”

Speaking alongside Bolsonaro at the separate press conference, incoming health minister Teich said he didn't want to announce any changes abruptly, as little is known about the virus. He added that he and the president are “completely aligned.”

“Health and the economy are complementary,” Teich said.