Confusion as Brazil faces COVID-19 surge with two health ministers

BRASÍLIA (AFP) – As Brazil struggles with surging COVID-19 cases, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s government can’t figure out who the health minister is: the one sacked last week or the still-unofficial replacement.

The country has recorded the second-most coronavirus deaths, after the United States (US), and the situation is worsening. Brazil’s average daily death toll – currently the highest worldwide – has more than tripled since the start of the year, to 2,259.

In the middle of this desperate situation, Bolsonaro announced last Monday he was firing health minister and army general Eduardo Pazuello and replacing him with cardiologist Marcelo Queiroga.

But a week later, neither the widely criticised 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 authorised to act as minister, and the outgoing one doesn’t have any actual power.”

Brazilian media reports 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 as 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.