SAO PAULO — Brazil’s health minister Eduardo Pazuello said on Monday that President Jair Bolsonaro is planning to replace him amid the worst throes of COVID-19 in the country yet and after a series of errors decried by public health experts. One of the candidates to replace him, a renowned cardiologist, has already rejected the job.
Pazuello, an active-duty army general, landed the position last May despite having no prior health experience, but instead due to reports of his expertise in logistics.
“Yes, the president is thinking about substitution, he is looking at names,” Pazuello said in a press conference in the capital Brasilia. “The president is in negotiations to reorganize the ministry. We will make a full transition.”
Pazuello’s departure would mean ushering in Brazil’s fourth health minister during the pandemic, although he has presided over the ministry for the longest period of the three to date. The revolving door signals the challenges for the government of Latin America’s largest nation to implement effective measures to control the virus’ spread — or even agreeing which measures are necessary.
Pazuello’s two predecessors left the position amid disagreements with Bolsonaro, who criticized broad social distancing and supported the use of an unproven anti-malarial drug to treat the disease. He continues to hold those positions, despite health experts’ admonishments and studies showing the drug has no effect on COVID-19.
Pazuello proved more compliant. Immediately after taking the job his ministry backed use and distribution of the malaria pill. On several occasions, he said that his boss tells him what to do, and he obeys.
Brazil has recorded almost 280,000 deaths from the virus, almost all of which were on his watch. The toll has been worsening lately, with the nation currently averaging more than 1,800 deaths each day. Health care systems of major cities are at the brink of collapse, and lawmakers allied with Bolsonaro have proposed suitable replacements for Pazuello, while threatening to step up pressure for an investigation into his handling of the crisis.
The country’s top court is also investigating Pazuello for alleged neglect that contributed to the collapse of the health care system in Amazonas state earlier this year. Weeks later, in a particularly embarrassing episode, his ministry accidentally dispatched a shipment of vaccines intended for Amazonas state to neighbouring Amapa state, and vice versa, after confusing the abbreviations for each state.
Finally, Pazuello has faced intense criticism for Brazil’s slow vaccine rollout. According to Our World in Data, an online research site that compares official government statistics, only 5.4% of Brazilians have been vaccinated. Almost all were shots from Chinese biopharmaceutical firm Sinovac, which Bolsonaro repeatedly cast doubt upon.
Pazuello’s health ministry also delayed its decision to purchase the vaccine from Sao Paulo state’s government until it was left with no other option to start immunization in January.
The only vaccine deal Pazuello had signed at the time, for 100 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab, has brought few shots to the arms of Brazilians so far. His ministry has since scrambled to cobble together agreements with other suppliers, recently concluding deals to acquire the Pfizer and Sputnik V shots.
Pazuello said in the Monday press conference that he will not resign, and insisted there will be continuity with whomever assumes his position.
Earlier on Monday, cardiologist Ludhmila Hajjar said Bolsonaro interviewed her to replace Pazuello. She told television channel Globo News that science has already ruled against treatments Bolsonaro and his legions of supporters continue to champion, like drugs to fight malaria and parasites, and that the country needs to adopt more restrictive measures on activity. She said she declined the position.
“He needs to choose someone he trusts, who is aligned with him, his ideas, his vision, and with the government’s desire. And I’m certainly not that person,” she said.
Hajjar forecast between 500,000 and 600,000 total deaths, not to mention long-term consequences, unless Brazil changes course.
AP journalist David Biller contributed to this report from Rio de Janeiro.
Mauricio Savarese, The Associated Press