Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro fired the country’s top public health official on Thursday, putting an end to a month-long internal dispute over the far-right leader’s efforts to downplay the coronavirus pandemic as a hysterical hoax.
The decision to oust Luiz Henrique Mandetta, the health minister who emerged as one of the more sober and serious voices inside Bolsonaro’s government as the pandemic spread, could spark an exodus of public health officials from the ministry at a time when South America’s largest country may be approaching the worst stages of an outbreak that is already the biggest in Latin America.
It will also help cement Bolsonaro’s position atop the group of leaders whose refusal to take the virus seriously has only worsened the crisis in their countries and beyond.
Few world leaders have done more to downplay the COVID-19 pandemic than Bolsonaro. The right-wing authoritarian has dismissed it as a “tiny flu,” labeled it a media conspiracy meant to weaken his presidency, and taken few precautions to protect himself or Brazilians from the spread, even after two dozen members of his government tested positive for the virus after a visit to Florida to meet U.S. President Donald Trump. (Bolsonaro said he tested negative but has refused to release the results.)
Mandetta, by contrast, is a physician who had become a leader of the more reasoned group of Brazilian officials and politicians advocating for drastic actions to limit the spread of the virus.
A former center-right member of Brazilian Congress, Mandetta’s appointment to Bolsonaro’s government was one of the few seen as relatively sensible and credible. Unlike many of Bolsonaro’s louder and more prominent picks, he possessed relevant experience and didn’t seem to regard himself as an enemy of science or basic reason.
That turned out to be his fatal flaw. In a government that sees incompetence and empty bravado as virtues, Mandetta’s effort to treat the coronavirus like a public health emergency instead of the latest front in an ongoing culture war was the ultimate sin.
“Brazil is the only country in the world where the Minister of Health will fall for having decided to fight the Coronavirus,” Guilherme Boulos, a leftist politician and activist, tweeted Wednesday.
“Mandetta’s appointment to Bolsonaro’s government was one of the few seen as relatively sensible and credible. He possessed relevant experience and didn’t seem to regard himself as an enemy of science or basic reason. That turned out to be his fatal flaw.”
Before COVID-19, Mandetta had drawn little attention to himself, especially compared to the more controversial, conspiratorial and rabidly conservative members of the Bolsonaro administration. But the threat of the virus forced him into the spotlight, and the tension between the minister and the president became evident as soon as Brazil’s outbreak began.
While Bolsonaro denied the seriousness of the situation, Mandetta bluntly told Brazilians in early March that they faced “20 hard weeks” of dealing with the virus. As Bolsonaro insisted Brazil had nothing to worry about, Mandetta warned state and city officials that their contingency plans were outdated and that public hospital systems could quickly be overrun. Mandetta more recently has advocated for the sort of social distancing measures and business closures Bolsonaro argued against, and he refused to back Bolsonaro’s suggestion that drugs like chloroquine could protect against the virus without evidence to support the claim.
Mandetta’s view that the virus posed a health risk to millions of Brazilians ― rather than a mere political problem for Bolsonaro ― made him a direct threat in the eyes of a president who, much like Trump, craves total control of the narrative and the spotlight, and governs with a narcissistic zeal that prevents him from tolerating alternative views or praise for others.
The positive response to Mandetta’s handling of the crisis has reportedly irked Bolsonaro for nearly a month, as the Brazilian public largely sided with the health minister. Surveys showed that a majority said they would follow social distancing guidelines, and Mandetta’s approval rating soared to 82% in early April, according to the Brazilian polling firm Datafolha, an 18-point rise driven in part by Bolsonaro supporters. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, has faced nightly protests from angry Brazilians, nearly 40% of whom have rated his handling of the crisis either “bad” or “awful” in an April poll.
Bolsonaro was never going to stomach that sort of indignation, and he attempted to rid himself of Mandetta a week ago before he backed off at the last moment.
Mandetta took a thinly veiled victory lap in public comments to reporters and on social media after surviving the attempted ouster. He even appeared to take a swipe at Bolsonaro when he told reporters he’d spent the weekend reading Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” the name of which, in Portuguese, refers to “the myth” ― the nickname Bolsonaro’s supporters gave him during the 2018 campaign.
The rivalry only continued to explode as Bolsonaro’s conspiratorial approach and public forays to shop and greet supporters began to undermine the recommendations of public health officials and efforts from state and local officials to contain outbreaks, especially in large states like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Over the weekend, Mandetta said that Bolsonaro’s “mixed messages” on the virus and social distancing had left Brazilians unsure of “whether to listen to the health minister or to the president” after Bolsonaro had been filmed visiting a bakery.
It was the sort of open revolt that all but ensured Mandetta’s time in the government would come to an early end. Some observers have speculated that Mandetta was trying to get fired before the outbreak worsened and Bolsonaro tried to pin the blame on him. Mandetta, meanwhile, spent a Wednesday afternoon news conference clearly painting Bolsonaro as an opponent of science and more responsible efforts to combat the virus.
A frustrated Mandetta seemed resigned to his fate in an interview with the news outlet Veja on Wednesday night.
“You talk today, the person understands, says he agrees, then changes his mind and says everything differently,” Mandetta said of Bolsonaro. “You go, talk, it looks like everything is settled and then the guy changes the speech again.”
Sixty days of such battles, he said, were “enough.”
Mandetta won’t be the only casualty of the fight: One of his top deputies tried to resign on Wednesday in anticipation of the minister’s ouster, and he and other senior health officials on Brazil’s coronavirus task force will almost certainly follow Mandetta out the door, according to reports from Brazilian newspapers.
It’s an ill-timed brain drain. Brazil has more than 28,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and at least 1,736 confirmed deaths related to COVID-19 as of Wednesday afternoon, and is following in the footsteps of other countries that reacted slowly or not at all, including the United States. A group of researchers who have accurately projected the outbreak to this point predict that the number of confirmed cases in Brazil will top 60,000 by next week. It’s probably already worse: Brazil may have only confirmed 8% of the total infections inside the country, the researchers said this week, meaning there could be more than 200,000 positives. Another study said the actual number of cases was at least seven times higher than the current confirmed total.
In some of Brazil’s states, public health systems are on the brink of capacity, as Mandetta had warned. That cases have begun to emerge among the country’s most vulnerable populations, including the Indigenous and the urban poor, suggests the outbreak could worsen rapidly, all while Bolsonaro tries to reconstruct the health ministry in the wake of his latest petty ministerial squabble.
Bolsonaro’s decision to fire Mandetta may please his most rabid supporters and even provide his own fleeting ego-boost. But his need to lash out at a popular member of his Cabinet who dared buck him is also another sign that his bumbling, weak-minded presidency is crumbling around him.
Brazil had already plagued itself with an incapable and incompetent president. Now it’s even more vulnerable at the worst possible time, with fewer and fewer people in charge who are ready or able to help limit the spread of the virus ― or the damage Bolsonaro continues to cause.