Brazil's Bolsonaro defends sacking health minister amid pandemic
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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Friday defended his decision to restart economic activity in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, after sacking his health minister over differences in how to tackle the disease.
Luiz Henrique Mandetta, the dismissed health minister, had been advocating social distancing in line with World Health Organization recommendations, with the virus outbreak claiming more than 1,900 lives so far in Brazil.
But the far-right Bolsonaro has argued that the measures would wreck the economy and create greater long-term risks to public health.
"This struggle to start opening up for business is a risk that I will take," Bolsonaro said Friday as he installed his new health minister, Nelson Teich.
If the epidemic "gets worse, that will be on me. But I think -- and lots of people are coming to realize this -- that we have to open up."
The governors of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro were moving in the opposite direction on Friday, however, extending partial quarantines in their states which only allow key economic activities to go on.
Bolsonaro sacked Mandetta after weeks of public clashes over how to contain the deadly outbreak.
"Mandetta's vision was that of health, of life. Mine is more than life, it includes the economy and jobs," Bolsonaro said.
Teich, a renowned 62-year-old oncologist, did not propose any concrete measures in his brief inaugural speech, but insisted he would strive to balance both outlooks.
"We can talk about health, the economy, it doesn't matter: at the end of the day we are talking about people. That is what we are here to do, to bring a better life to Brazilian society and people," the new minister said.
Nevertheless, Bolsonaro himself admitted he lacks the power to force his vision on states' governors, who have the authority to impose their own measures against the virus.
As of Thursday, 1,924 people had died of coronavirus in Brazil, a country of more than 210 million.
Health officials have confirmed 30,342 cases, although experts say the real number could be five times that, owing to a lack of testing and the frequency of infected people not showing symptoms.
Sao Paulo, the most populous state in the country, has suffered the highest tolls with 850 deaths and 11,500 confirmed cases.
Authorities there announced they would extend until May 10 restrictions on all but essential services, a measure first introduced in late March.
Rio de Janeiro said it will prolong its own similar measures until the end of April.
Many Brazilians were disturbed by Mandetta's dismissal, fearing a renewed outbreak of the coronavirus if social distancing measures are relaxed too soon.
"It was a bad idea" to sack Mandetta, said Rio police officer Marcelo Ferreira. "He was doing a good job, helping keep people safe, asking them to stay home."
© 2020 AFP