Brazil is to replace its health minister for the third time since the start of the coronavirus crisis as Latin America’s biggest nation struggles to contain a deepening second wave of Covid-19.
The government will remove Eduardo Pazuello, an army general, from the role following a week in which deaths hit record levels, while vaccine supply problems slowed down an immunisation drive.
President Jair Bolsonaro confirmed on Monday night that he had invited Marcelo Queiroga, a cardiologist, to take up the position at what specialists have described as Brazil’s worst moment during the pandemic.
“[Queiroga] has everything to do a good job, continuing what Pazuello has been doing until today,” said Bolsonaro, adding that a transition would take one to two weeks.
“Marcelo is a doctor and also a manager, more knowledgeable on the health issues, [and] will do other programmes that reduce the higher number of deaths.”
the daily number of Brazilians dying from Covid-19
The decision to appoint a new health chief suggest political pressure is building on the rightwing populist’s administration.
Almost 280,000 people in Brazil have died from Covid-19, the highest absolute death toll after the US, or 20th in the world when adjusted for population size.
After daily fatalities breached the 2,000 mark, Bolsonaro came under intense pressure in Congress to remove Pazuello, who had headed the ministry since May.
The decision to replace Pazuello was announced just hours after a hastily arranged press conference on Monday afternoon, in which Pazuello insisted more vaccines were on the way and defended his department’s actions.
A sharp increase of cases in the South American nation, linked to a more contagious strain of coronavirus called P. 1, has resulted in intensive care wards in many states close to full capacity and sparked warnings about the risk of spillover into other countries.
Last week Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, described the situation in Brazil as “deeply concerning” and urged that “serious” action be taken.
Pazuello’s stint in office was marked by a delayed start to vaccinations and desperate scenes in the Amazonian city of Manaus, where the hospital system was overwhelmed and oxygen supplies ran out.
On the military logistics expert’s watch the government continued to promote medicines such as the antimalarial chloroquine as an “early treatment” against coronavirus, despite a lack of proof over its effectiveness.
The two health ministers preceding Pazuello, both of whom had medical backgrounds, left within the space of a month after clashing with Bolsonaro over his approach to the crisis.
Bolsanaro has repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the virus, spoken against social distancing and only recently publicly backed vaccines.
As several municipalities impose strict measures to curb the spread of infections, protests against lockdowns took place in cities including Brasília, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro over the weekend.
Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice