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Brazil: Ex-health minister testifies on handling of pandemic

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil’s former health minister denied receiving any direct orders from President Jair Bolsonaro during his 10 months in the post, providing Senate testimony Wednesday that analysts saw as an attempt to shield the country’s leader from blame regarding the government’s pandemic response.

Eduardo Pazuello’s testimony Wednesday to the Senate committee investigating the Bolsonaro administration’s handling of COVID-19 had been among the most widely anticipated. He was Brazil’s top health official from May 2020 to March 2021.

“The actions were all mine,” said Pazuello, adding that the president never “issued an order to do anything other than what I was doing.”

His comments appeared to contradict comments Pazuello made during a Oct. 22 live Facebook broadcast when, sitting beside Bolsonaro, the then-health minister said their relationship was simple.

“One orders,” he said, pointing to Bolsonaro. “The other obeys,” he said, pointing to himself.

Pazuello’s time as health minister was the longest of the four who have served during the coronavirus pandemic. The active-duty army general landed the position despite having no prior public health experience, instead possessing a background in logistics. He left the post amid a surge in deaths and following a series of moves criticized by health experts.

Pazuello proved more compliant as minister than his two predecessors who left amid disagreements with Bolsonaro, particularly over prescription of chloroquine to combat COVID-19. Pazuello’s ministry backed the use and distribution of the unproven malaria pill.

Marco Antonio Teixeira, a professor of political science at Brazil’s Getulio Vargas Foundation, said his testimony was inconsistent with that given by other witnesses before the Senate committee.

“Pazuello is trying to limit the responsibility to the ministry and prevent it from reaching the presidential palace,” Teixeira told The Associated Press. “It will be difficult for him to succeed. Other testimony in the probe and Bolsonaro’s own comments have shown the opposite.”

Last week, Bolsonaro’s former communications director, Fábio Wajngarten, said a letter sent by Pfizer in September offering a contract for 70 million vaccine doses went unanswered for two months.

Sen. Renan Calheiros, who is in charge of summoning the investigation’s witnesses, asked Pazuello several times to explain why the government delayed in responding to the offer from the pharmaceutical giant.

Pazuello said his ministry had spent the time analyzing the proposal. “We were busy with discussions about the clauses of the vaccine contract in September and October,” said the former minister.

Brazil has recorded almost 440,000 deaths from the virus, with a peak of more than 3,000 daily deaths in mid-April, several weeks after Pazuello’s departure. The number of deaths has since retreated, but remains near 2,000 each day and is the world’s second-highest tally.

Last week, a Supreme Court judge granted Pazuello authorization to remain silent if asked questions that could incriminate him. The ruling was in response to a request from the attorney general. On Wednesday, Pazuello said would answer all questions without exception.

During one tense exchange with lawmakers on the Senate commission, Pazuello denied that Brazil’s president ordered him to scrap plans to purchase vaccines made by Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac and bottled by São Paulo state’s Butantan Institute.

Bolsonaro said Oct. 21 on Twitter that he decided to cancel the purchase, but Pazuello said a formal order never materialized.

“The president never asked me to undo any contract with Butantan,” he told the lawmakers.

Frustrated lawmakers asked him again if there was an order from Bolsonaro. “A post on the internet is not an order,” Pazuello responded.

Marcelo Silva De Sousa, The Associated Press