RIO DE JANEIRO –
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his partner health ministers in open conflict over the country coronavirus Responding to this, many people worry that the right-wing leader will soon sack officials who have played a major role in controlling the plague.
The public battle between a president who is known for his polarized statements and a more measurable doctor has reminded many of the tug of war that took place in the United States, between the President Donald Trump and the chief virus expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci. It also raises concerns that efforts to prevent the spread of the virus in the largest country in Latin America could deviate.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as “a little cold,” struggling to limit only “high-risk” Brazilians because more severe restrictions would cause too much economic damage, and praised the efficacy of anti-malaria drugs that have not been proven. For the second weekend in a row, he took to the streets in defiance of federal recommendations for Brazilians to carry out quarantine on their own. During one walk, the president was filmed wiping his nose on the inside of his wrists, then turning to shake hands with an old woman and others.
Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, meanwhile, is a supporter of the quarantine issue and urges Brazilians to comply with restrictions imposed by the state governor, who for the most part have taken a tougher line than Bolsonaro. Orthopedic experts who began their careers working in Army hospitals have amassed popular support for his pandemic response – but still risk losing their jobs.
In an interview broadcast on television earlier this month, Bolsonaro said Mandetta failed to show “humility” and that anyone could be fired. A few days later, Bolsonaro told a group of supporters that he would use a pen against officials in his government who were “full of themselves.”
The comment was widely understood as a sign of the end of Mandetta’s term of office, in such a way that the minister said his subordinates cleaned his desk.
In an interview broadcast Sunday by the broadcaster Globo, Mandetta worried that the mixed message meant that the Brazilians “did not know whether to listen health minister or president. ”
But asked about the possibility of a recent resignation, Mandetta said she learned from her teacher that a doctor had never left a patient.
“Doctors don’t leave patients,” Bolsonaro then quipped a video address on social media, “but patients can change doctors.”
This weekend – with the split between Bolsonaro and ministers on display again – provides further evidence that Mandetta’s time is running out, according to Christopher Garman, managing director for America at Eurasia Group’s political risk consultation.
That time hasn’t arrived yet.
As is often the case with Bolsonaro, Brazilians see similarities with their ally, Trump, whose claims are often opposed by the governor and Fauci. On Sunday, Trump retweeted a call for Fauci’s dismissal, after the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said in an interview that appeals to implement broad closure measures had been rejected. The comment was interpreted by some as criticism of Trump.
Even so, Trump often shows unusual respect for Fauci in public, and the White House said any suggestion that doctors would be fired was “ridiculous.”
While increasing rapidly, the number of cases in Brazil is still relatively low in relation to the country’s large population – more than 23,000 cases and 1,300 deaths for the country of 211 million. That means Bolsonaro hasn’t been forced to spin in the same way as Trump to give Fauci more free time, said Paulo Calmon, professor of political science at the University of Brasilia.
For most people, new coronaviruses cause mild or moderate symptoms. For some people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, can cause more severe illness and cause death.
Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, was a fringe member of parliament during his seven congressional terms, but became widely known for a series of offensive statements. In the 2018 election, popular support united around his call for aggressive police to combat high crime rates, plans to impose conservative cultural values, and promised to rejuvenate the economy.
Mandetta, a member of the center-right DEM party, found the same reason as Bolsonaro when they were both members of parliament and opposed the government’s welcoming of Cuban doctors.
Mandetta has the support of a coalition of politicians across the spectrum who believe it is the government’s duty to provide health care as well as from the scientific community, the military and, increasingly, investors, said University’s Brasil’s Calmon.
While Trump’s skepticism has softened in recent weeks, Bolsonaro has multiplied, working to portray himself as a leader who is willing to take unpopular steps to benefit the people of Brazil and the economy.
It is not clear that it functions.
He was greeted with regular night protests by people leaning from their apartments to bang on pots and pans, especially when he was taken to the air for a national address.
Meanwhile, the handling of the corona virus by the Ministry of Health, received approval from 76% of Brazilians surveyed by Datafolha, and the same percentage supported quarantine even if it would harm the economy and increase unemployment. Bolsonaro’s performance was rated as good or very good by only a third of respondents. The poll, conducted in early April, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
David Fleischer, emeritus professor at the University of Brasilia, said he would be surprised if Bolsonaro fired Mandetta, but he hoped the president would continue to weaken him.
Bolsonaro also openly disputed with the governors of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, who had imposed relatively stringent measures on their hard-hit countries, and were rewarded with approval.
Bolsonaro supporters have made small protests in recent days calling for transit and business restrictions to be lifted. In Rio, a group defeated the statue of the governor.
There is concern that conflicting examples from Bolsonaro and Mandetta are undermining responses: Cell phone data tracked by the state of São Paulo show fewer people practicing social distance than the beginning of the month.
For now, Mandetta maintains her seat. That can change, especially if the man who is openly admired by Bolsonaro ignores his own experts.
“If Trump fires Fauci, Mandetta will fall,” Calmon estimated.
——— Associated Press writer Marcelo de Sousa contributed to this report.