Brazil health minister has big job, difficult boss

Brasília (AFP) –


As if leading his country's fight against coronavirus wasn't hard enough, Brazil's health minister has to deal with a boss, President Jair Bolsonaro, who criticizes, undermines and ignores him.

But Luiz Henrique Mandetta takes the far-right leader's snubs in his stride: "I'm working here," he says.

Tension has been brewing for weeks between the president known as the "Trump of the Tropics," who downplays COVID-19 as a "little flu," and the pediatric orthopedist tasked with making sure Brazil's health system doesn't collapse because of it.

The strain burst into the open this week, when Bolsonaro lashed out publicly at Mandetta, a professorial veteran of the public health system who has reacted to the pandemic with urgency and science.

Those are two things notably lacking in the response from the president, who has criticized coronavirus "hysteria" and said Brazilians' immune systems are so strong they can swim in raw sewage and "don't catch a thing."

Mandetta, who is far more popular than his boss for his handling of the crisis, according to a recent poll, "needs to listen a bit more to the president of the republic," Bolsonaro said in an interview Thursday.

"He wants to do things on his own. Maybe he's right. Maybe. But he needs a bit more humility," he said.

"I'm not going to fire him in the middle of the war.... But none of my ministers are unfireable."

Asked for his reaction, Mandetta said he had not seen the interview and never commented on the president's statements.

"Let's get to work. Work, work, work," he said.

- 'Stick to science' -

Mandetta, 55, took the lead on the new coronavirus two months ago, when it was still a faraway disease just starting to make news in Brazil.

Sporting a blue vest that makes him look like a health technician just back from the field, he has given methodic, in-depth news conferences to inform and prepare Brazil as the country has become the epicenter of the outbreak in Latin America, with 300 deaths so far.

He has hewed to the recommendations of the World Health Organization on adopting social distancing measures to "flatten the curve."

Bolsonaro has meanwhile warned such measures -- now adopted by half the planet, including most states in Brazil -- will wreck the economy and repeatedly flouted them himself.

Mandetta initially tried not to contradict his boss. But finally he spoke his mind, announcing recently that he backs "maximum social distancing."

"I stick to science," he said.

"Other people work with political criteria. That's important too. They don't offend me. But I work with focus, discipline and science."

- 'Foot soldier' gone rogue -

A native of the central city of Campo Grande, Mandetta started his career as a doctor at an army hospital.

He rose through the ranks of the public health service, becoming municipal health minister for his hometown.

He then got into politics, serving in the lower house of Congress from 2010 to 2018 for the center-right party DEM.

When Bolsonaro launched what first seemed an improbable presidential campaign in 2018, Mandetta became an early backer.

"He was a loyal foot-soldier for Bolsonaro, one of the few who believed he could win," said political scientist Thiago Vidal.

"The problem is that now his technician's worldview conflicts with Bolsonaro's political one.... And Bolsonaro doesn't like competition."