As COVID surges in Brazil, Bolsonaro names new health minister

Cardiologist Marcelo Queiroga will take up the post as Brazil grapples with rise in coronavirus deaths and infections.

Brazil's COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been plagued by delays, as the country grapples with surging coronavirus infections and deaths [Pilar Olivares/Reuters]

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has named a new health minister, as the country continues to grapple with a surge of COVID-19 infections and deaths.

Marcelo Queiroga, a cardiologist, is set to replace General Eduardo Pazuello and become the fourth health minister in Brazil since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Pazuello earlier on Monday confirmed that Bolsonaro was “thinking of a replacement in the ministry and is evaluating names”.

“It’s true the president is thinking about a substitution,” he said during a news conference, promising to ensure “continuity” and “a proper transition” should he be replaced.

Pazuello, Brazil’s third health minister during the pandemic, had been criticised for lacking public health expertise and supporting an earlier push by Bolsonaro, a COVID-19 sceptic who has downplayed its threat, to use unproven drugs to fight the virus.

Bolsonaro told reporters that Queiroga would follow Pazuello’s agenda at the ministry, while accelerating efforts to inoculate Brazilians amid a coronavirus vaccine rollout that has been plagued by delays and inefficiencies.

The far-right president said the transition would take one or two weeks to complete.

Pazuello’s two predecessors resigned last year, in part because they would not fully endorse treating COVID-19 patients with the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine.

Brazil has reported more than 11.4 million cases of COVID-19 to date, second only to the United States, while more than 278,000 people have died in the South American nation.

On Monday, the health ministry said 36,239 cases of COVID-19 and an additional 1,015 coronavirus-related deaths had been reported in the previous 24 hours.

In February, Brazil’s prosecutor general opened a preliminary investigation into Pazuello and Bolsonaro for possible negligence after the healthcare network in the Amazonian city of Manaus was stretched to its limits amid a surge in infections.

Relatives of COVID-19 patients in Manaus were forced to fill oxygen tanks themselves due to a widespread shortage, and in some cases, families treated loved-ones at home because the hospitals were full.

The lack of oxygen prompted Brazil to airlift supplies to Amazonas, which is also where a more transmissible variant of COVID-19 was discovered.

Brazil’s Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello speaks during a news conference in Brasilia on March 15 [Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters]

Bolsonaro has continued to face public criticism and anger about his government’s handling of the pandemic, as infections and coronavirus-related deaths have continued to mount.

Despite the high rates of infections, some Brazilians have protested against recent local and regional COVID-19 lockdown measures that aim to stem the spread of the virus.

During the weekend, authorities broke up two large gatherings in Sao Paulo: a party at a nightclub with 600 people in attendance and a gathering of approximately 200 people at an underground casino.

The governor of Sao Paulo state, home to 46.3 million people, imposed stronger coronavirus restrictions earlier this month, including the closure of non-essential businesses.

Al Jazeera’s Daniel Schweimler reported on Sunday that some people are “quite brazenly breaking the rules”.

“So despite the information out there, people are still going about their business and partying and going to the beach, regardless,” he said.

Meanwhile, Pazuello said on Monday that Brazil had ordered 100 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 38 million from Johnson & Johnson, while it is negotiating for 13 million doses of Moderna Inc’s vaccine.

An official with the Fiocruz biomedical centre also said Brazil could begin full local production of the AstraZeneca vaccine by July if regulators allow it to waive some controls, moving up an earlier target date of September 30.

“This would be important at a time when Brazil is facing vaccine shortages,” Fiocruz Vice President Marco Krieger told the Reuters news agency.

About 4.6 percent of the population has received at least one vaccine dose to date.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies