June 13, 2020 / 6:00 PM / 20 days ago

Chile president replaces health minister amid COVID-19 deaths controversy

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile President Sebastian Pinera on Saturday replaced Health Minister Jaime Manalich amid controversy over the country’s figures for deaths from the coronavirus outbreak.

Pinera said Manalich had spared “no effort” in carrying out his “difficult and noble duty” to protect Chileans` health. He replaced him with Oscar Enrique Paris, an academic and medical doctor.

The sudden reshuffle comes as Chile faces its toughest month in the pandemic so far, with spiraling active cases and deaths rates.

The country now has the highest number of confirmed cases per million people in Latin America, reporting 167,355 cases on Saturday and 3,101 deaths.

Manalich, a tough-talking kidney specialist who once ran one of Chile´s top hospitals, has won praise for an aggressive campaign to keep hospitals supplied with ventilators and protective equipment and leading detailed daily press conferences.

But there have been frequent reports of spats among health ministry officials, and Manalich has been criticised by opposition politicians, mayors, medical experts and social groups for refusing to release more detailed contagion data or apply lockdowns sooner and for successive changes in criteria for recording deaths and cases.

On Saturday, a Chilean investigative website, Ciper, reported that the health ministry had told the World Health Organisation that as many as 5,000 deaths in the country were linked to coronavirus.

The health ministry’s statistics department reported figures to the global body of people who had died after testing positive for coronavirus test but also deaths suspected to be linked to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The new minister, Enrique Paris, is a former head of the Chilean College of Doctors (Colmed) and a university deacon.

José Miguel Bernucci, Colmed’s national secretary, welcomed the appointment, saying he was looking forward to a more consensual approach and a “change in strategy to jointly confront the pandemic.”

Reporting by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Diane Craft

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