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Brazil’s Bolsonaro names 4th health minister during pandemic

March 17, 2021 GMT
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro walks past his Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello, left, and President of the Sanitary Agency Antonio Barra Torres before a ceremony to sign a law that expands the federal government's ability to acquire COVID-19 vaccines, at Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, March 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro walks past his Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello, left, and President of the Sanitary Agency Antonio Barra Torres before a ceremony to sign a law that expands the federal government's ability to acquire COVID-19 vaccines, at Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, March 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro walks past his Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello, left, and President of the Sanitary Agency Antonio Barra Torres before a ceremony to sign a law that expands the federal government's ability to acquire COVID-19 vaccines, at Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, March 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

SAO PAULO (AP) — With COVID-19 still raging in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro picked his fourth health minister since the pandemic began, this time the head of the country’s cardiology society who in the past has spoken favorably of the country’s conservative leader.

Marcelo Queiroga will replace Eduardo Pazuello, an active-duty army general with expertise in logistics who landed the position last May despite having no prior health experience.

Queiroga said in a press conference in capital Brasilia on Tuesday that the COVID-19 policy he will implement “is of the Bolsonaro administration, not of the health minister.”

“I came to work for Brazil and other ministers of the Bolsonaro administration. The president is very worried about the situation,” said Queiroga, who insisted he is against any lockdown measures. Some Brazilian cities are implementing restrictive shutdowns to halt the spread.

Pazuello had presided over the health ministry for the longest period of the three pandemic ministers before Queiroga. The revolving door reflects the challenges for the government of Latin America’s largest nation to implement effective measures to control the virus’ spread -- or even agree which measures are necessary.

Queiroga has already called Bolsonaro “a great Brazilian.” His social media channels have not made any criticism of the president’s handling of the pandemic and pushed for a quick vaccine rollout.

João Gabbardo, a former secretary-executive of the health ministry, said on Twitter that Queiroga will face the worst figures of the pandemic in Brazil when he takes over.

“The record number of deaths today will be in a high scale. A suggestion; do not speak against a national lockdown,” said Gabbardo, who now works for the Sao Paulo state government.

Tuesday night Brazil reported record 2,841 confirmed deaths by COVID-19 in the last 24 hours, which is 558 more than the previous all-time high established on Wednesday.

On Monday, Pazuello acknowledged in a press conference that Bolsonaro aimed to replace him. The first candidate for the job, cardiologist Ludhmila Hajjar, rejected it.

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.

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Bolsonaro told supporters at the entrance of the presidential residence in Brasilia on Monday that there will be a transition period of up to two weeks with the outgoing and the incoming minister.

“Pazuello’s work was well done in the management part. Now we are in a phase that is more aggressive in the fight against the virus,” Brazil’s president said.

Brazil has recorded almost 280,000 deaths from the virus, nearly all of which were on Pazuello’s 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. That probe will now be sent to a low court judge.

In a particularly embarrassing episode, his ministry accidentally dispatched a shipment of vaccines intended for Amazonas state to neighboring Amapa state, and vice versa, after confusing the abbreviations for each state.

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.

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.

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AP journalist David Biller contributed to this report from Rio de Janeiro.