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Brazil's Bolsonaro Fires Popular Health Minister, Still Rejects More Social Distancing

Andre Borges
Fired Brazilian Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta (right) behind his successor Nelson Teich at the Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia during Teich's swearing-in.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has called COVID-19 a media “hoax.” His health minister challenged the president’s denial of the pandemic. And that health minister is now out of a job.

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As of Friday afternoon, Brazil had reported 34,000 COVID-19 cases – and a study this week estimates the country may have 12 times that number. But President Jair Bolsonaro repeatedly insists the pandemic is nothing more than “a little flu” outbreak. And he refuses to accept social-distancing or lockdown measures that compromise Brazil's economy.

In fact, last weekend Bolsonaro hit the streets without a protective mask and made a point of walking up to people to shake their hands. So his exasperated health minister, Dr. Luiz Henrique Mandetta, went on national TV and scolded the President for sending Brazilians the wrong COVID-prevention signal.

Polls show that candor has made Mandetta, an orthopedist, far more popular than Bolsonaro.

An infuriated Bolsonaro fired Mandetta late Thursday night. His new health minister is Dr. Nelson Teich, an oncologist and longtime Bolsonaro adviser. Standing beside his new boss at the Planalto presidential palace in Brasília, Teich was quick to declare that he supports Bolsonaro’s quest to get Brazil’s economy back up and running again quickly – but while still encouraging enough social distancing to curtail the country's mushrooming coronavirus cases.

For his part, Bolsonaro said, "This fight to start reopening for business [in Brazil] is a risk that I run." He insisted that if he's wrong – if the pandemic becomes as bad in Brazil as public health experts fear – "it lands on my lap."

Brazil has reported more than 2,000 coronavirus deaths, the most of any country in Latin America. Most state governors and local mayors have defied his position and ordered quarantine. One, São Paulo Gov. João Doria, quipped this week that Brazil was fighting both coronavirus and "Bolsonaro-virus."

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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