Brazil health minister resigns amid coronavirus crisis

Brasília (AFP) –


Brazilian Health Minister Nelson Teich resigned Friday after less than a month on the job over what an official said was "incompatibility" with President Jair Bolsonaro's approach to fighting the country's spiraling coronavirus crisis.

The far-right president, who has compared the new coronavirus to a "little flu" and condemned the "hysteria" surrounding it, has now gone through two health ministers since mid-April.

Brazil's death toll in the pandemic has meanwhile surged to become the sixth-highest in the world, with nearly 14,000 dead.

Teich, a 62-year-old oncologist, became health minister on April 17, a day after Bolsonaro fired his predecessor, Luiz Henrique Mandetta.

Mandetta, who was widely popular, had also clashed with Bolsonaro, a vocal critic of the stay-at-home measures the then-minister recommended to contain the virus.

Teich took the job promising "total alignment" with the president.

But rifts soon emerged.

Teich and Bolsonaro "were incompatible on certain courses of action," a ministry source told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Teich, who kept a lower profile than Mandetta, did not go into the reasons for his departure in a brief final press conference.

He thanked Bolsonaro and said that "it isn't easy to lead a ministry like this at such a difficult time."

Teich was taken by surprise last week when Bolsonaro issued a decree without consulting him that declared beauty salons and gyms "essential services" exempt from business closures.

The final straw for Teich was reportedly a disagreement with Bolsonaro over using chloroquine to treat the virus.

Like US President Donald Trump, to whom he is often compared, Bolsonaro touts the malaria drug as a promising treatment.

He wants it cleared for widespread use in coronavirus patients, despite studies casting doubt on its effectiveness and raising concerns about its safety.

News of Teich's resignation drew anti-Bolsonaro protests in various cities. Residents banged pots and pans out their windows, shouting "Get out, Bolsonaro!"

- Rising death toll -

Brazil has more than 200,000 confirmed cases of the virus and a sharply rising death toll.

Experts say under-testing means the real figures may be 15 times higher or more, and warn the worst is yet to come.

"Teich's resignation certainly bodes poorly for Brazil's response to the COVID-19 pandemic on the eve of the most acute phase of the public health crisis," the Eurasia Group consultancy said in a note.

"His exit after less than a month in office is a clear and visible manifestation of how the health ministry was already dysfunctional. Whoever replaces Teich will likely have to endorse more strongly the president's penchant for the use of chloroquine."

Teich's interim replacement will be health ministry executive secretary Eduardo Pazuello, an active duty army general.

- Bolsonaro embattled -

Bolsonaro has found himself increasingly isolated over his response to the pandemic, clashing with state and local authorities over their social distancing measures.

He regularly flouts such measures himself, hitting the streets for rallies by his supporters, hosting barbecues, going to the shooting range and last weekend taking a spin on a jet ski.

The president insists business closures and stay-at-home orders are unnecessarily damaging the economy, which is on track to shrink 5.3 percent this year, according to the IMF.

"Are people dying? Yes they are. I regret that. But many, many, many more will die if these measures keep destroying the economy," Bolsonaro said Thursday.

"This is war," he added in a video conference with business leaders, urging them to "play rough" against stay-at-home measures imposed by Governor Joao Doria of Sao Paulo, the country's industrial hub.

Bolsonaro, who took office in January 2019, is also embattled on another front after popular justice minister Sergio Moro resigned last month, alleging the president had sought improper "political influence" over the federal police.

That has led to a probe into whether the president obstructed justice in a bid to protect himself or his family from ongoing investigations.

With talk of impeachment mounting in Brasilia, the inquiry could prove explosive.