Brazil lost its second health minister in a month on Friday after President Jair Bolsonaro demanded wider use of unproven anti-malarial drugs to fight the coronavirus outbreak, adding to turmoil in one of the pandemic’s worst global hotspots.
Brazilians banged pots from windows and health experts reacted with outrage at the resignation of Nelson Teich, the second doctor to leave the top Health Ministry job as the outbreak explodes.
Brazil’s confirmed cases climbed past Germany and France this week, growing at a daily pace second only to the United States.
Bolsonaro had demanded on Thursday that Teich issue federal guidelines for the early use of hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus patients, despite studies that cast doubt on the effectiveness of the malaria drug for COVID-19 and raised concerns it may cause heart problems.
“I was elected to make decisions. And the decision about chloroquine goes through me,” Bolsonaro told business leaders in a video conference on Thursday, adding that his call to end state orders on social distancing should also be the last word.
“Just like a commander in battle: He has to decide. Are people going to die? Unfortunately, people are going to die,” he said.
Teich, an oncologist and healthcare entrepreneur, gave no reason for quitting in brief comments to journalists on Friday. He had also become out of step with Bolsonaro’s push to reopen the economy, expressing surprise at a news conference on Monday when he learned of a presidential decree allowing gyms, beauty parlors and hairdressers to open.
Military members of the Brazilian cabinet are pushing for interim health minister Eduardo Pazuello, an active-duty army general, to take over full-time, a government official told Reuters, requesting anonymity to discuss confidential talks.
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The presidential press office did not respond to a request for comment.
Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, Walter Braga Netto, told journalists that Teich had left for “personal reasons” after a friendly conversation with Bolsonaro on Friday. The president “had a different vision about which protocol to follow,” Braga Netto said, without elaborating.
Late on Friday, the Health Ministry said it was finalizing new guidelines for early treatment of coronavirus patients, including proposed medications. Asked about the statement, a ministry representative told Reuters that hydroxychloroquine would be one of the medications cited.