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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, wearing a mask to stop the spread of COVID-19, hands over a pen to the Minister of Health, General Eduardo Pazuelo, at the Planalto Presidential Palace, in Brasilia, on Wednesday, September 16, 2020. (AP Photo / Eraldo Peres)

SAO PAULO (AP) – General Eduardo Pazuello became Brazil’s third Minister of Health during the current pandemic on Wednesday, after almost four months of serving on an interim basis and after nearly 120,000 deaths from COVID-19 in that period. lapse.

Pazuello, a logistics expert with no experience in health issues before taking office as deputy minister of health in April, takes office after his two predecessors resigned over disagreements with President Jair Bolsonaro on appropriate measures to combat the new coronavirus. .

« I neither arrive nor leave, » Pazuello joked during a ceremony at the presidential palace in Brasilia. « This is an unprecedented situation. »

Bolsonaro, who has downplayed the risks of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, attended the ceremony and again promoted an anti-malaria drug as the cure for the disease, in addition to blaming mayors and governors for limiting activities. Those two positions were the ones that caused the departure of his two previous Health Ministers.

The South American country had just over 15,000 deaths confirmed by COVID-19 when General Pazuello assumed the post of interim Health Minister last May. In the three months that followed, Brazil averaged 1,000 deaths a day. The trend has slowed in recent weeks. The total number of deaths in the country exceeds 134,000, the second highest number in the world, only behind the United States.

« We managed to achieve a well-defined situation of stability, » said the new minister. « We had to change the tires on the car on the fly. »

There are several reasons why the number of infections and deaths in Brazil remained at such a high plateau for so long. First, Brazil has a large population, about 210 million people, and a vast territory. The virus first hit the northern and southeastern regions and after declining in those areas, it began to strike the central-western and southern regions.

What also contributed to the high number of infections is the fact that the country never implemented a surveillance system or any measure similar to effective contact tracing to help authorities control the contagion, according to Pedro Hallal, an epidemiologist who coordinates the Epicovid19-BR diagnostic testing program at the Federal University of Pelotas, by far the most comprehensive in the country.