Brazilian Health Minister Nelson Teich abruptly resigned on Friday after refusing to endorse right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro’s efforts to expand the use of the controversial and unproven drug hydroxychloroquine to treat the novel coronavirus.
The sudden and unexpected departure of a health minister who had been on the job for less than a month sparked even more upheaval inside Bolsonaro’s government, just as Brazil emerges as one of the biggest hot spots in the global coronavirus outbreak.
The country now has more than 200,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 14,000 confirmed deaths, according to the Ministry of Health. Researchers suspect that the numbers of cases and deaths may be far higher than the official count due to a lack of testing.
Teich, an oncologist, is the second health minister to leave the government since mid-April, when Bolsonaro fired former Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta for backing social distancing measures and an aggressive response to the virus.
Bolsonaro has dismissed the virus as a “tiny flu” and blamed the media for stoking panic about it. He also began pushing chloroquine as a potential treatment for COVID-19 shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump, a model for Bolsonaro’s own presidency, suggested the drug as a possible coronavirus solution in the United States.
There is no evidence that hydroxychloroquine is a useful treatment for COVID-19, and preliminary studies have shown it to be ineffective against the virus, but Trump warmed to the idea after it spread from conspiratorial right-wing social media circles to Fox News.
On Thursday, Bolsonaro pushed to change protocol surrounding the use of chloroquine to allow for its expanded use against the virus ― a move Teich refused to endorse, HuffPost Brazil reported.
It added to the friction between the president and the health minister, who was caught off-guard during a press conference last week when he had to learn from a reporter of Bolsonaro’s plans to re-open gyms, salons and barbershops. “Did that come out today?” Teich asked, a response that sparked memes about how Bolsonaro had apparently cut his health minister out of the loop.
After Mandetta and Bolsonaro publicly clashed over how Brazil should respond in the early stages of the outbreak, Teich planned to keep a lower profile while still promoting a scientific approach, said Oliver Stuenkel, a political scientist at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo.
That strategy didn’t work after “Bolsonaro asked him to publicly defend pseudo-science,” Stuenkel said.
Teich’s departure is only the latest crisis Bolsonaro has inflicted on his country, which has moved to the brink of dueling political and public health calamities.
Eight days after Mandetta’s firing in April, Justice Minister Sérgio Moro also quit the Bolsonaro government and accused the right-wing president of political interference in the Federal Police, Brazil’s version of the FBI. Moro has also accused Bolsonaro of interference in the police forces in Rio de Janeiro, where 19 members of the Bolsonaro family are facing various investigations.
Brazil’s Supreme Court is now investigating Moro’s claims, raising questions about whether the president could face criminal charges or impeachment inquiries in Congress.
Both remain unlikely for now, as Bolsonaro maintains a committed band of supporters even as his overall popularity is near the lowest levels of his presidency.
But the drama has overshadowed Brazil’s efforts to combat the virus. Some state health systems are overcrowded and on the brink of collapse. Indigenous groups have warned of genocide as COVID-19 ― along with a rising number of illegal incursions onto their lands ― threaten to annihilate populations Bolsonaro has already targeted. There are also widespread fears about the virus’ threat to Brazil’s rising homeless populations and urban poor, who live in communities that lack many basic sanitation services thanks to decades of government neglect.
Teich’s decision to quit suggests it may be impossible for anyone to develop a sensible and science-based response to the outbreak from within Bolsonaro’s government, given the president’s opposition to basic science and narcissistic governing approach that leaves no room for internal questioning or dispute.
“Let us pray,” Mandetta tweeted Friday. He added a hashtag telling Brazilians to stay at home.