Brazilian Health Minister Nelson Teich dramatically resigned Friday after less than a month on the job, over what an official described as "incompatibility" with President Jair Bolsonaro's approach to fighting the country's spiralling coronavirus crisis.
Teich, a 62-year-old oncologist, joined the far-right president's Cabinet on April 17, the day after Bolsonaro sacked his popular predecessor, Luiz Henrique Mandetta. The former official had also clashed with the president, a vocal critic of the stay-at-home measures the then-minister recommended to contain the new coronavirus.
Teich took over the post promising "total alignment" with the president, but rifts soon emerged.
Teich and Bolsonaro "were incompatible on certain courses of action," a ministry source told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Teich's number two, General Eduardo Pazuello, who had no health experience until joining the ministry in April, will be the interim minister until Bolsonaro chooses a permanent replacement.
Taken by surprise
Teich’s resignation comes one day after Bolsonaro told business leaders in a video conference he would ease rules for use of an anti-malaria drug to treat people infected with the coronavirus. The oncologist has frequently called the use of chloroquine “an uncertainty” in the fight against the virus, and this week warned of its side effects.
Teich was taken by surprise last week when Bolsonaro issued a decree without consulting him that declared beauty salons and gyms "essential services" exempt from business closures.
The final straw for Teich was reportedly a disagreement with Bolsonaro over using chloroquine to treat the virus.
Like US President Donald Trump, to whom he is often compared, Bolsonaro touts the drug as a promising treatment. He wants it cleared for widespread use in patients, despite studies casting doubt on its effectiveness and raising concerns about its safety.
News of the resignation drew anti-Bolsonaro protests in various cities. Residents banged pots and pans out their windows, shouting "Get out, Bolsonaro!"
Spiralling death toll
Brazil, Argentina’s giant neighbour, has emerged as one of the countries hit hardest in the pandemic, with a sharply rising death toll that has reached nearly 14,000.
The country has more than 200,000 confirmed cases. Experts say under-testing means the real figures may be 15 times higher or more.
Bolsonaro has found himself increasingly isolated over his response to the pandemic. He has compared the virus to a "little flu," condemned the "hysteria" surrounding it and repeatedly clashed with state and local authorities over their social distancing measures.
The president insists business closures and stay-at-home measures are unnecessarily wrecking the economy, which is on track to shrink 5.3 percent this year, according to the IMF.
Governors who have taken a more cautious road than Bolsonaro's during the pandemic praised Teich's efforts.
Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel, a former ally of Bolsonaro, said “no one can do serious work with interference in ministries and in the federal police.”
“That is why governors and mayors need to lead the pandemic crisis, and not you, Mr President,” Witzel said on Twitter.
The governor of Ceara, one of Brazil's most hard-hit states, said Teich's exit “brings enormous insecurity and concern.”