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Bolsonaro Fires Brazil’s Health Minister as Infections Grow
Brazil's populist president ousted his respected health minister while continuing to downplay the coronavirus pandemic.
Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro fires his popular health minister after clashes over the coronavirus response, the White House announces plan to ease lockdown, and Japan extends its state of emergency to cover the whole country.
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Brazilian Health Minister Ousted as Bolsonaro Continues to Downplay Pandemic
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has fired Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta after repeated clashes over how to handle the country’s coronavirus epidemic. Bolsonaro tried to downplay the departure of the minister, who strongly advocated social distancing, as a “consensual divorce.” Mandetta’s exit came after he gave a TV interview urging the government to speak with one voice—an implicit criticism of his boss. The decision was met with outrage across Brazil as locked down citizens took to apartment balconies to bang pots and pans and shouts of “Bolsonaro Murder” were heard across central Rio de Janeiro.
How bad is the pandemic in Brazil? The coronavirus has not yet reached its peak in Brazil. Confirmed cases have soared to more than 30,000 and nearly 2,000 Brazilians have died—including members of indigenous tribes in remote Amazon rainforests. But the true toll could be much higher given the lack of widespread testing.
Models from Imperial College London predicted that Brazil could face a staggering 1.1 million deaths if it takes no action to control the pandemic and more than 500,000 if only the elderly were forced to isolate. The death toll would drop to 44,000 with extreme lockdown measures and widespread testing.
Will the new minister abandon distancing? “Don’t think that we are going to escape a sharp rise in cases of this illness,” Mandetta said in his final briefing on Thursday. “The health system still isn’t ready.” Mandetta encouraged his former staff to challenge denialism and mount an “unyielding defense of life and science” in what many observers saw as a not-so-veiled jab at the president. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Science is light … and it is through science that we will find a way out of this.”
Mandetta’s successor, Nelson Teich, is an oncologist. Teich sounded a cautious note after taking the helm, arguing that Brazil needs a comprehensive testing system while assuring citizens that there would not be an “abrupt decision” on social distancing. But at the same time he echoed Bolsonaro’s message of getting back to work “as quickly as possible,” suggesting that he could seek to satisfy his boss rather than use the health ministry’s authority to encourage strict lockdowns.
Will this dent the president’s popularity? Bolsonaro has taken an increasingly skeptical view of the severity of the coronavirus crisis calling it a “little flu” and arguing that people were being “tricked by these governors and by the large part of the media when it comes to coronavirus.” The Brazilian columnist Leandro Colon predicted before Mandetta’s dismissal that such a rash move by Bolsonaro might help speed the populist president’s downfall. Writing in the daily Folha de São Paulo, Colon argued that sacking Mandetta could potentially isolate Bolsonaro and ignite “a political reaction of major proportions.”
What We’re Following Today
Trump seeks to ease lockdown. The White House on Thursday announced plans to ease lockdown protocols and begin returning Americans to normal life just 31 days after it declared social distancing measures. The plan involves a three-phase approach based on benchmarks: Those benchmarks include a downward trajectory of flu-like illnesses over 14 days, a downward trajectory of all confirmed coronavirus cases over 14 days, and having a “robust” testing program in place for health care workers. Despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s strong words on his ultimate authority to enforce a return to normal life, the new White House blueprint involves plenty of deference to state governors. The plan is “implementable at governors’ discretion,” the document says.
The plan is low on specifics, however, and doesn’t mention any plans to scale up testing or contact tracing—measures that have allowed other countries to begin to return to normal. In South Korea, for example, all new arrivals from overseas are subject to mandatory testing and must download a government app that tracks a user’s location and allows them to report symptoms. South Korea is also planning to use tracking bracelets to make sure those with symptoms are observing quarantine measures. Such strict measures have not yet been considered in the United States, although the White House is reportedly exploring ways to increase U.S. testing capacity.
Japan extends state of emergency and plans cash payouts. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe extended the country’s state of emergency beyond Tokyo and six other prefectures to include the entire country. Japan has so far avoided a full lockdown, but the new measures will allow authorities to encourage residents to stay at home ahead of Golden Week holidays at the end of the month. Abe also announced plans to give each Japanese citizen 100,000 yen (almost $1,000) to soften any financial hardships experienced due to the pandemic. Japan has recorded almost 9,000 coronavirus cases in its population of 126 million, with 178 deaths reported.
Yemen envoy expecting cease-fire. Martin Griffiths, the United Nations Special Envoy to Yemen, said he expects the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and the Houthis to formally agree to a cease-fire “in the immediate future.” In a statement to the U.N. Security Council, Griffiths said the cease-fire would be part of a package of measures that include economic and humanitarian relief as well as a resumption of political dialogue. The Saudi-led coalition began a unilateral cease-fire last week, however the Houthis have continued to launch missile and artillery attacks.
Keep an Eye On
UN issues warning on children. The United Nations has warned that hundreds of thousands of children could die and that millions are at risk of extreme poverty due to the impending economic downturn. “What started as a public health emergency has snowballed into a formidable test for the global promise to leave no one behind,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. The U.N. estimated that 369 million children will miss out on regular meals as a result of school closures and that distance learning had only been implemented in 30 percent of schools in low-income countries.
Antiviral drug shows promising results. Early results from clinical trials on the antiviral drug remdesivir have shown positive signs in treating severe coronavirus patients. Of the 125 patients entered into a trial at a hospital in Chicago, almost all were discharged within a week of treatment. The results do not mean a cure has been found and the trial was conducted without a placebo since it was conducted on severely ill patients. “The best news is that most of our patients have already been discharged, which is great. We’ve only had two patients perish,” Kathleen Mullane, an infectious disease specialist overseeing the study, said during a video discussion of the trial results.
Odds and Ends
A 99-year-old World War II veteran, Tom Moore, has raised almost $16 million for charities supporting the U.K. National Health Service by completing a challenge of walking 100 lengths of his back garden. Moore received over 648,000 individual donations toward his goal after his daughter suggested the challenge following his recent hip replacement surgery. “He has served his country in the past and he’s serving his country now,” U.K. Health Secretary Hancock told the BBC. “We all need a bit of cheering up sometimes.” Moore will turn 100 this month.
That’s it for today.