Brazil’s Bolsonaro Fires Health Minister After Virus Dispute

Apr 16, 2020
5:21 PM

in this March 18, 2020 file photo, Brazil’s Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, right, gives anti-bacterial gel to President Jair Bolsonaro as they give a press conference on the new coronavirus at Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil. Mandetta criticized Bolsonaro’s dismissive handling of the COVID-19 pandemic on national television Sunday night, April 12, and the president’s repeated threats to fire him are worrying health experts who say that amid governmental chaos, the health minister’s advice to limit contact and take the virus seriously has played a major role in preventing Brazil’s epidemic from being even worse. (AP Photo/Andre Borges, File )


RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro fired his health minister on Thursday after a series of disagreements over government efforts to contain the new coronavirus. “I just heard from the President Jair Bolsonaro the news of my dismissal from the health ministry,” Luiz Henrique Mandetta posted on his verified Twitter profile, adding that he wished success to his replacement, who is yet to be named officially. He confirmed the announcement in a press conference later.

Mandetta, a doctor, garnered popular support for his pandemic response that included promotion of broad isolation measures enacted by state governors. 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.

Mandetta has drawn comparisons to Dr. Anthony Fauci, U.S. President Donald Trump’s top virus expert. Fauci and Mandetta have often made public statements about the virus that differed with those of their bosses. Afterward, Bolsonaro and Trump’s bases each took to Twitter to call for removal of their country’s top health official. The White House has said this week that Fauci’s job is secure.

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 have since 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.

On Wednesday, with Mandetta’s dismissal looking near certain, his health surveillance secretary Wanderson de Oliveira tendered his resignation. An epidemiologist who worked at the health ministry for more than a decade, de Oliveira presided over many of the press conferences when Mandetta was unable, and was also a booster of quarantine measures to prevent the virus’ spread.

To many people’s surprise, de Oliveira appeared alongside Mandetta at their conference on the same day, saying he had refused his secretary’s resignation.

“We are going to work together until the moment we leave together,” Mandetta said.

Following the announcement of his firing the following day, people in apartment buildings in Sao Paulo could be heard yelling insults at Bolsonaro from their windows.

At a press conference soon thereafter, Mandetta was received with applause by health ministry workers and offered his thanks to individuals with whom he had worked. He even thanked 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.”

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. There have been almost 2,000 deaths.