Brazil’s New Health Chief Signals Little Change to Covid Policy

The cardiologist who’s taking the helm of Brazil’s health ministry said it’s President Jair Bolsonaro who’ll continue to dictate policies to fight a pandemic that is claiming about 2,000 lives a day.

Marcelo Queiroga, who is taking over from General Eduardo Pazuello, shunned lockdowns as a government tool, telling local media it should only be used in extreme situations, and said doctors are free to prescribe medications that are unproven to combat the virus. In previous interviews before accepting the job, he had said he’s personally against the use of chloroquine in Covid-19 patients, a medication repeatedly touted by Bolsonaro.

“It’s President Bolsonaro’s policy, not the health minister’s,” he told reporters on Tuesday as he arrived at the health ministry in Brasilia. “I was called to give continuity to Pazuello’s work.”

Brazil’s New Health Chief Signals Little Change to Covid Policy

Yet he defended an ample vaccination campaign in an interview with CNN Brasil, saying the government needs to increase talks with governors and mayors who are often attacked by Bolsonaro for implementing restrictive measures.

Queiroga is Brazil’s fourth health minister since the coronavirus arrived in the country a little over a year ago. Luiz Henrique Mandetta and Nelson Teich, who both had medical backgrounds, left after disagreements with Bolsonaro over social distancing and unproven treatments against Covid-19. Pazuello had been in the post since May.

Pressure to replace Pazuello, a logistics expert in the Army, grew in the past few weeks as Brazil succumbs to a new wave of the virus. The country has consistently reported more than 75,000 cases and 2,000 deaths a day, overtaking India -- which has a population over six times larger -- in total infections.

Brink of Collapse

Several hospitals across the country have no room for more patients as the nation’s health system finds itself on the brink of collapse. The surge in cases has been made worse by lax social distancing orders and a new, more contagious variant that originated in the Amazonian capital of Manaus.

Earlier this year, patients died in Manaus as oxygen ran out at overwhelmed hospitals, a crisis that sparked a Supreme Court investigation into Pazuello’s actions and dented his reputation. The General had already faced harsh criticism over a data blackout when he first took over the job, as well as for promotion of chloroquine and other unproven medication against Covid also touted by Bolsonaro.

“It is as simple as that: one commands and the other obeys,” Pazuello said in October, when Bolsonaro disapproved of his plan to buy Sinovac Biotech Ltd’s vaccine because of its Chinese origin.

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A lack of vaccines -- which Pazuello is largely blamed for -- has added to concerns about the recovery of Latin America’s largest economy. Conversations with pharmaceutical companies including Pfizer Inc have dragged on for months, leaving the country with few shots at hand. The health ministry has repeatedly reduced the amount of doses it expects to have at hand in March, pushing congress to ask for a formal response and leaving states and cities trying to buy their own.

Brazil has recorded 11.52 million cases of Covid-19 and almost 280,000 deaths, trailing only the U.S. in both counts. It has given out about 13.5 million vaccine doses, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

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