Chile President Sebastian Pinera has replaced Health Minister Jaime Manalich amid controversy over the country’s figures for deaths from the coronavirus outbreak.
Pinera said on Saturday Manalich had spared “no effort” in carrying out his “difficult and noble duty” to protect Chileans’ health. He replaced him with Oscar Enrique Paris, an academic and medical doctor.
The sudden reshuffle comes as Chile faces its toughest month in the pandemic so far, with spiralling active cases and death rates.
The country now has the highest number of confirmed cases per million people in Latin America, reporting 167,355 cases on Saturday and 3,101 deaths.
Manalich, a tough-talking kidney specialist who once ran one of Chile’s top hospitals, has won praise for an aggressive campaign to keep hospitals supplied with ventilators and protective equipment and leading detailed daily news conferences.
But there have been frequent reports of spats among health ministry officials, and Manalich has been criticised by opposition politicians, mayors, medical experts and social groups for refusing to release more detailed contagion data or apply lockdowns sooner and for successive changes in criteria for recording deaths and cases.
On Saturday, a Chilean investigative website, Ciper, reported that the health ministry had told the World Health Organization that as many as 5,000 deaths in the country were linked to coronavirus.
The health ministry’s statistics department reported figures to the global body of people who had died after testing positive for coronavirus, as well as deaths suspected to be linked to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
The new minister, Enrique Paris, is a former head of the Chilean College of Doctors (Colmed) and a university deacon.
Jose Miguel Bernucci, Colmed’s national secretary, welcomed the appointment, saying he was looking forward to a more consensual approach and a “change in strategy to jointly confront the pandemic”.