Brazil health official quits, Bolsonaro expected to fire minister

Brazil's health surveillance secretary Wanderson Kleber de Oliveira speaks during a news conference in Brasilia, Brazil, April 8, 2020.

A senior Brazilian health official resigned on Wednesday as expectations mounted that President Jair Bolsonaro would soon fire his health minister over disagreements on how to handle the coronavirus outbreak spreading across the country.

The Health Ministry confirmed the resignation of Wanderson de Oliveira, secretary of health vigilance, who had been leading the fight against the epidemic. In a note to his team seen by Reuters, Oliveira said his boss, Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta would likely be fired “in coming hours or days.”

Mandetta told his aides on Tuesday evening that Bolsonaro is likely to fire him this week, according to two people familiar with the matter. The minister told his team he planned to remain in the job until Bolsonaro had chosen his replacement, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Bolsonaro and Mandetta have been at odds over the handling of the coronavirus epidemic for weeks, as the president played down the gravity of the outbreak, touted unproven drugs and attacked governors over lockdown orders.

Mandetta emerged from relative obscurity with technocratic daily briefings presenting the latest science, stressing the need for social distancing measures and earning praise from across the political spectrum.

The health ministry’s response to the epidemic was rated “good” or “great” by 76% of Brazilians surveyed by pollster Datafolha this month. Bolsonaro got the same answers from just 33% of those surveyed.

More than 1,500 people have died of COVID-19 in Brazil, out of more than 25,000 confirmed cases of the respiratory disease.

After dodging what many expected would be a firing last week, Mandetta added to tensions in a Sunday TV interview. He urged the government to speak with a unified voice, effectively calling out Bolsonaro for downplaying the threat ahead of what may be the two toughest months for the outbreak.

Vice President Hamilton Mourao said on Tuesday that Mandetta had “crossed the line”, but suggested he should not be removed immediately from office.

After days without commenting on Mandetta, Bolsonaro told supporters on his arrival to the presidential palace that he expected to “sort out the health situation,” without making a direct reference to his minister.

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