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Another Health Minister in Brazil Exits Amid Chaotic Coronavirus Response


RIO DE JANEIRO — The Brazilian government’s chaotic response to the coronavirus pandemic worsened Friday as its latest health minister quit barely a month into the job, with daily deaths from infection climbing and a defiant president exhorting people to get back to work.

The departure of the health minister, Nelson Teich, who took over just four weeks ago after the termination of his predecessor, threatened to compound the political upheaval that has called into question the ability of the president, Jair Bolsonaro, to govern Latin America’s largest country.

With upward of 800 people dying each day from Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, Brazil’s death rate is now second only to that of the United States. Lax quarantine measures are leading to rising contagion as Mr. Bolsonaro urges Brazilian workers to effectively defy local lockdown orders from states and municipalities.

Mr. Teich, an oncologist with no political experience, stepped into the job on April 17 after the president fired Luiz Henrique Mandetta, a pediatric orthopedist and politician, following a weekslong standoff.

Mr. Mandetta defended quarantine measures that several governors and mayors had imposed in mid-March to curb the spread of the pandemic. Mr. Bolsonaro railed against them, calling them economically ruinous.

During a news conference Friday afternoon, Mr. Teich did not provide a reason for his resignation.

“Life is made up of choices, and today I chose to leave,” he said. “I didn’t accept the job for the position itself. I accepted it because I thought I could help the country and its people.”

A replacement had not been announced as of Friday afternoon. It was unclear whether Mr. Bolsonaro intended to appoint a new minister with medical expertise. The second-highest ranking official at the ministry, Eduardo Pazuello, is an active-duty Army general who has been in the job a few weeks.

Mr. Teich maintained a lower profile than his predecessor, and refrained from challenging the president publicly. But it became evident this week that the two were not in sync. The minister was caught off guard by an executive order Mr. Bolsonaro signed calling beauty salons and gyms essential businesses that needed to reopen.

As of Friday, Brazil had 218,223 diagnosed cases of the virus and 14,817 deaths.

Andre Wilheim, an internal medicine doctor in Rio de Janeiro who has been treating coronavirus patients, said medical workers are exhausted and overwhelmed.

“I’m disappointed by a president who denies reality,” he said. “We are expecting more cases now that fewer people are following isolation measures and the health care system isn’t prepared for that.”

During his final week in office, Mr. Teich was trying to draft a unified plan to respond to the pandemic, but the effort faltered as the president and key governors sparred.

One of the points of contention between Mr. Bolsonaro and his two health ministers was the president’s enthusiastic endorsement of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug with serious side effects that has been prescribed to some coronavirus patients.

The refusal by Mr. Teich and Mr. Mandetta to endorse widespread use of the drug frustrated Mr. Bolsonaro, who has no medical expertise. He confounded medical experts by ordering the armed forces pharmaceutical laboratory to mass produce the drug.

Brazil’s health care system has also been hampered by limited testing capability and a shortage of ventilators, which are used to treat critically ill patients. The federal government has made little headway to address those shortcomings, leaving governors scrambling to ramp up capabilities.

Mr. Moro accused the president of trying to replace key figures within the federal police force in order to shield relatives and friends from criminal investigations. The accusation turned the president himself into the target of an obstruction of justice inquiry that is before the Supreme Court.

Prominent politicians lamented the new upheaval at the Health Ministry.

“President Bolsonaro, no one will be able to do a serious job with your meddling in ministries and the federal police,” the Rio de Janeiro governor, Wilson Witzel, a former supporter of the president, wrote in a message on Twitter. “That is why governors and mayors need to manage this pandemic crisis and not the president.”

Mr. Mandetta called for prayers for Brazil’s public health system, which is overwhelmed by a crush of critical care patients in several states. “Science. Patience. Faith!” he wrote in a message on Twitter that included the hashtag #StayHome.

Economists have warned that Brazil’s health and political crises could plunge its economy into the deepest recession in the country’s history. The value of the real, Brazil’s currency, has dropped 30 percent this year against the dollar. Some states have said they cannot pay public servants in coming months without a federal bailout.

Political risk consultancies to foreign investors and businesses have warned their clients to steer clear of Brazil as Mr. Bolsonaro faces growing calls for impeachment and his popularity drops.

“My investment advice would be not to run into a burning building,” Armando Castelar, an economist at the Gavekal Research consultancy wrote in a paper outlining Brazil’s challenges. “Right now, Brazil is best left to the specialists, crazies, long-term opportunists and those without other options.”

Manuela Andreoni and Letícia Casado contributed reporting.



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