From left to right, former Health ministers Luiz Henrique Mandetta (Brazil), Catalina Andramuño (Ecuador), Jaime Mañalich (Chile) and Rosario Turner (Panama).
SAO PAULO – The spread of the coronavirus in Latin America has placed mounting pressure on the region’s governments and also taken its toll on numerous health ministers, seven of whom have left office since the onset of the emergency several months ago.
Inappropriate remarks, disagreements over the anti-malarial drug chloroquine and raging internal struggles as cases spiked have been some of the motives that led to the abrupt exits of officials in five countries: Brazil, Panama, Chile, Peru and Ecuador.
But the number of ousted health ministers could rise further as countries ease their coronavirus restrictions and new outbreaks appear throughout the region, which has registered more than 3.9 million confirmed cases and 166,805 deaths attributed to COVID-19.
In Brazil, which has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths behind only the United States, two health ministers left office in a span of less than a month due to their disagreements with President Jair Bolsonaro, who has consistently downplayed the seriousness of the disease.
Luiz Henrique Mandetta was fired by the rightist president in mid-April after he provoked Bolsonaro’s ire by urging people to stay at home and opposing the widespread use of chloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19.
His successor, Nelson Teich, later resigned following disagreements with Bolsonaro, particularly over the latter’s promotion of chloroquine.
Bolsonaro has touted that anti-malarial drug during the pandemic and is now taking it after testing positive for the coronavirus, although its effectiveness in treating COVID-19 has not been scientifically proven.
Teich was replaced on an interim basis two months ago by Gen. Eduardo Pazuello, a respected military man but someone without relevant experience in the health area.
The individual provisionally in charge of the Health Ministry in Bolivia, Defense Minister Fernando Lopez Julio, has a track record similar to that of Pazuello and will be in charge of that portfolio pending the return of Heidy Roca, who tested positive for the coronavirus.
Brazil has not been the only country to see the exit of two health ministers during the pandemic. In Peru, surgeon Elizabeth Hinostroza and Victor Zamora, a physician and health policy expert, both have been replaced during the crisis.
Hinostroza, who was dismissed on March 20, just four days after the federal government issued a nationwide lockdown order, left office amid criticism that Peru’s health system was caught off guard by the pandemic.
But the final straw was the case of a man who died of the coronavirus in his home after having waited for several days for his test result, which came back positive.
After Zamora took over, he promoted a strict lockdown that lasted more than 100 days and took a heavy toll on the economy, although that measure is credited with easing the burden on hospitals.
He was replaced on July 15, after four months in office, by ex-Health Minister Pilar Mazzetti, head of a special team assembled to combat the pandemic.
In Chile, President Sebastian Piñera in mid-June asked for the resignation of nephrologist Jaime Mañalich, who had come under fire for some controversial remarks.
He was questioned in particular for responding to a question in March about Chile’s relatively lenient stay-at-home measures by saying, “what if this virus mutates into a more benign form? What happens if it mutates and becomes a better person?”
After Mañalich was removed, Piñera immediately replaced him with surgeon Enrique Paris, who thus far has shown a willingness to engage in dialogue and listen to recommendations.
In Panama, Rosario Turner left office on June 25 – and was replaced by her deputy, Luis Francisco Sucre – after the number of coronavirus cases had risen more quickly than expected in that Central American country.
Her tenure was marked by the imposition of one of the strictest lockdowns in the world (even including a prohibition on the sale and consumption of alcohol) but also a rapid spike in cases after the country started reopening its economy.
In Ecuador, Catalina Andramuño, a surgeon and expert in the administration of health care systems, submitted her resignation on March 21 and in her letter echoed the complaints of front-line health workers who said they lacked adequate protection measures in intensive-care units.
After being replaced by cardiologist and epidemiologist Juan Carlos Zevallos, she also decried a lack of budgetary funds to attend to the health emergency.
Following her departure, Ecuador experienced a sharp uptick in confirmed cases and deaths attributed to COVID-19, particularly in Guayaquil.