Brazil health minister resigns after a month on the job as COVID-19 deaths surge


Brazil’s health minister Nelson Teich handed in his resignation on Friday after less than a month on the job, adding to turmoil in the government’s handling of the novel coronavirus as the country becomes a global hot spot for the pandemic.

Teich, who disagreed with right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, has submitted his resignation and will hold a news conference later Friday, his office said. Bolsonaro has been pushing in recent days for wider use of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19, which Teich resisted.

They have also disagreed on the pace of reopening the economy. Last week, the minister said he was not consulted before Bolsonaro issued a decree allowing gyms, beauty parlours and hairdressers to open for business.

Teich is the second health minister to resign amid the coronavirus pandemic in Brazil. In mid-April he replaced Nelson Mandetta, who also resisted broader use of hydroxychloroquine and disagreed with Bolsonaro’s argument to do away with quarantines and other coronavirus restrictions.

Bolsonaro’s handling of the coronavirus has been widely criticized globally as he has minimized the severity of the disease and told Brazilians to ignore quarantine restrictions.

‘Unfortunately, people will die’: Bolsonaro

Brazil has now surpassed Germany and France in the number of coronavirus cases, with more than 200,000 people infected with the virus as of Thursday, when the health ministry reported 844 new deaths, bringing the death toll to 13,933.

Bolsonaro has railed against the economic damage caused by state and local government social distancing measures, taking his campaign to reopen the economy to Brazil’s business community on Thursday.

Men carry boxes to be installed for the coffins at the São Pedro municipal cemetery in São Paolo, which has been particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 outbreak. (Amanda Perobelli/Reuters)

In a video conference, he told a gathering of business leaders to “play tough” with São Paulo Governor João Doria, who has issued social distancing orders and said he will not comply with Bolsonaro’s latest decree to reopen gyms and beauty salons.

“One man is deciding the future of São Paulo,” Bolsonaro said, referring to Doria. “He is deciding the future of Brazil’s economy. With all due respect, you have to call the governor and play tough — play tough — because it’s a serious issue, it is war. Brazil is at stake.”

São Paulo, Brazil’s most populous state and home to a third of its economic output, has seen hospitals pushed to the limit as it records the worst outbreak in the country.

Doria has urged residents to stay indoors and ordered all non-essential services closed through May 31. But Bolsonaro has sought to weaken those orders by declaring more services as “essential” and free to open, including gyms and hair salons.

Bolsonaro said it is still possible to reverse course and avoid what he called economic chaos in months to come.

“Will people die? Unfortunately, people will die. Unfortunately, no matter what, with a lockdown or not, we will continue to lose lives,” Bolsonaro said.

“Now the number of lives that will be lost from the economic chaos, because of the lockdowns, will be much much greater.”

Doria is one of at least 10 governors who said they would not comply with Bolsonaro’s decree.

Mandetta, in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday, predicted the country will likely see over 1,000 deaths per day sometime next week.

“History will tell who was right and who was wrong,” Mandetta said of his difference of opinion with Bolsonaro. “I think the numbers [speak] for themselves.

Opposition and allied politicians criticized Bolsonaro’s intransigence after the latest development. Lawmaker Marcelo Ramos of the centrist Liberal Party said the president would only accept a minister without regard for science-based public health policy.

Alessandro Molon of the Brazilian Socialist Party warned that Brazil was heading toward a public health catastrophe and said the president should be impeached.

“Bolsonaro does not want a technical minister, he wants someone who agrees with his ideological insanity, like ending social distancing and using chloroquine,” Molon said in a statement.

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