RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his health minister are in open conflict over the country’s coronavirus response, leading many to worry that the far-right leader could soon fire the official who has played a major role in containing the outbreak.
The public battle between a president notorious for his polarizing remarks and the more measured doctor has reminded many of a similar tug of war taking place in the United States, between President Donald Trump and his chief virus expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci. It has also raised concerns that efforts to prevent the spread of the virus in Latin America's largest country could veer off track.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly called COVID-19 a “little flu,” fought for confining only “high-risk” Brazilians because more severe restrictions would cause too much economic damage, and touted the yet-unproven efficacy of an anti-malarial drug. For the second straight weekend, he hit the streets in defiance of federal recommendations for Brazilians to self-quarantine. During one outing, the president was filmed wiping his nose along the inside of his wrist, then turning to shake hands with an elderly woman and others.
Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, meanwhile, is the matter-of-fact promoter of the quarantine measures and has urged Brazilians to abide by the restrictions put in place by state governors, most of whom have taken a tougher line than Bolsonaro. The orthopedist who started his career working at an Army hospital has garnered popular support for his pandemic response — but still risks losing his job.
In a televised interview earlier this month, Bolsonaro said Mandetta had failed to show “humility” and that anyone can be fired. A few days later, Bolsonaro told a group of supporters that he would use his pen against officials in his government who “are full of themselves.”
Those comments were widely understood as signaling an end to Mandetta's tenure, so much so that the minister said his subordinates cleaned out his desk.
In an interview aired Sunday by broadcaster Globo, Mandetta worried that the mixed messages mean Brazilians “don’t know whether to listen to the health minister or the president.”
But asked about the possibility of resigning recently, Mandetta said he learned from his teachers that a doctor never abandons his patient.
“The doctor doesn’t abandon the patient,” Bolsonaro later quipped in a video address on social media, “but the patient can change doctors.”
This weekend — with the split between Bolsonaro and the minister on display again — provided further evidence that Mandetta’s time is running out, according to Christopher Garman, managing director for the Americas at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
That moment hasn’t come, yet.
As is frequently the case with Bolsonaro, Brazilians see close parallels with his ally Trump, whose claims are often countered by governors and Fauci. On Sunday, Trump retweeted a call for Fauci’s firing, after the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said in an interview that appeals to implement broad shutdown measures had been resisted. The comments were interpreted by some as criticism of Trump.
Still, Trump has often shown an unusual amount of deference to Fauci in public, and the White House said any suggestion the doctor would be fired was “ridiculous."
While rising quickly, the number of cases in Brazil is still relatively low in relation to the country’s massive population — more than 23,000 cases and 1,300 deaths for a country of 211 million. That means Bolsonaro hasn’t yet been forced to pivot in the same way as Trump to give Fauci more leeway, said Paulo Calmon, political science professor at the University of Brasilia.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and lead to death.
Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, was a fringe lawmaker during his seven congressional terms, but became widely known because of a stream of offensive statements. In the 2018 election, popular support coalesced around his call for aggressive policing to combat high crime rates, plans to impose conservative cultural values, and promises to rejuvenate the economy.
Mandetta, a member of the center-right DEM party, found common cause with Bolsonaro when they were both lawmakers and opposed the welcoming of Cuban doctors by the government.
Mandetta has support from 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 the University of Brasilia's Calmon.
While Trump’s skepticism has softened in recent weeks, Bolsonaro has doubled down, working to portray himself as a leader willing to adopt unpopular measures for the ultimate benefit of Brazilians and the economy.
It's not clear it's working.
He’s been met with regular evening protests by people leaning from their apartments to bang pots and pans, particularly when he’s taken to the airwaves for national addresses.
The Health Ministry’s handling of the coronavirus, meanwhile, received approval from 76% of Brazilians polled by Datafolha, and the same percentage supported quarantining people even if those measures would hurt the economy and increase unemployment. Bolsonaro’s performance was rated as good or excellent by just one-third of respondents. The poll, conducted in early April, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
David Fleischer, professor emeritus at the University of Brasilia, says he would be surprised if Bolsonaro fires Mandetta, but he expects the president will continue to undermine him.
Bolsonaro has also been publicly feuding with the governors of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, who have imposed relatively strict measures in their own hard-hit states, and been rewarded with approval.
Bolsonaro’s supporters staged small protests in recent days that call for restrictions on transit and business to be lifted. In Rio, a group beat an effigy of the governor.
There are concerns that conflicting examples from Bolsonaro and Mandetta are undermining the response: Cell phone data tracked by São Paulo state show fewer people practicing social distancing versus the start of the month.
For now, Mandetta retains his chair. That could change, particularly if the man Bolsonaro openly admires dismisses his own expert.
“If Trump fires Fauci, Mandetta will fall,” Calmon predicted.
___ Associated Press writer Marcelo de Sousa contributed to this report.