Confusion as Brazil faces Covid surge with two health ministers

Brasília, March 23 (AFP/APP): Just as Brazil struggles to deal with a surge in Covid-19, President Jair Bolsonaro’s government is facing confusion over who the country’s health minister is — the one he sacked last week or his still-unofficial replacement.

Bolsonaro announced last Monday he was firing army general Eduardo Pazuello and replacing him with cardiologist Marcelo Queiroga. However, a week later, neither the widely criticized outgoing minister’s departure nor the incomer’s appointment has been made official in the government gazette. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic… and we have two health ministers. Which in reality means we don’t have any,” said Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria, one of Bolsonaro’s fiercest critics.

“The incoming one isn’t authorized to act as minister, and the outgoing one doesn’t have any actual power. He’s an ex-minister who’s still on the job.”

Brazilian media reports say Bolsonaro is scrambling to find a way to keep Pazuello’s ministerial immunity, to protect him from being prosecuted for the ministry’s shortcomings during his 10-month tenure.

Pazuello notably faces investigation for failing to ensure oxygen supplies to the northern city of Manaus, where there were horrific scenes in January of Covid-19 patients suffocating to death when hospitals ran out.

Pazuello and Queiroga attended several meetings and public events together last week, taking turns speaking. It is still unclear how different the new minister’s approach will be to Covid-19, which is again pushing many Brazilian hospitals to the breaking point.

The country’s average daily death toll has more than tripled since the start of the year, to 2,259, currently the highest worldwide. Experts say the surge is being fueled by a local variant of the virus that is suspected to be more contagious. Queiroga will be Bolsonaro’s fourth health minister of the pandemic.

The first two, both doctors, fell out with the far-right president over his defiance of expert advice on containing the virus. Further complicating Bolsonaro’s plans, Queiroga must formally remove his name from the ownership of two private health clinics he manages in his home state of Paraiba, in northeastern Brazil, before starting the new job.

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