Furious backlash in Brazil after health ministry decides to withhold crucial coronavirus statistics

Rio de Janeiro: As the coronavirus tore through Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro came under blistering criticism for sabotaging the isolation measures imposed by states, encouraging mass rallies by his supporters and lashing out on the soaring death toll, asking “What do you want me to do?”

Now that the outbreak in Brazil has gotten even worse — with more infections than any country but the United States — Bolsonaro’s government has come up with a unique response to the growing alarm: It decided to stop reporting the cumulative toll of the virus altogether.

On Friday, Brazil’s health ministry took down the website where it had been reporting coronavirus statistics. And then, when it came back online Saturday, the site omitted the historical data — leaving out how many people had already been infected or killed because of the virus.

Lawmakers and health experts quickly attacked Bolsonaro in unusually blistering terms. Not only did they condemn the government’s decision to withhold comprehensive statistics as deaths and contagion continue to soar, but they roundly criticised the Bolsonaro administration’s repeated practice of downplaying the danger of the virus, regardless of what scientists and his own health ministers may say.

Gilmar Mendes, a Supreme Court justice, called the government’s “manipulation of statistics a tactic of totalitarian regimes,” adding that the “trick will not absolve the government from an eventual genocide.”

The pandemic — and, specifically, the government responses to them — have been highly contentious around the world. But in few places have the issues been quite as polarising as in Brazil, a country already separated by a political chasm between Bolsonaro’s furious detractors and equally fervent devotees.

Bolsonaro, who initially described the virus as a “measly flu,” says the challenge of the virus is dwarfed by the economic fallout of stay-at-home measures, and that the real danger is the rising unemployment that will leave people hungry.

But he has also come under withering criticism for joining large pro-government protests that risk spreading the virus, for ordering the armed forces to mass produce an unproven medication for the virus, hydroxychloroquine, and for fighting with his own health officials as the crisis intensified.

Now Brazil is suffering the highest daily number of deaths in the world — often more than 1,000 a day — and the government has stopped reporting the cumulative toll of the outbreak.

“By altering the numbers, the health ministry is trying to cover the sun with a sieve,” Rodrigo Maia, the speaker of the lower House of Congress, said in a message on Twitter posted shortly after midnight Monday. “It is urgent to restore the credibility of statistics. A ministry that distorts numbers creates a parallel universe to avoid facing the reality of facts.”

Carlos Wizard Martins, a businessman who was recently tapped to help lead the government’s response, told the newspaper O Globo last week that the country’s coronavirus statistics were being audited because federal officials believed that states were reporting inflated figures in an effort to secure more funding.

That explanation, which was not supported by evidence, was broadly seen as the government’s latest misstep in its response to the outbreak.

The health ministry has been rocked by personnel turnover in recent weeks as the virus took hold in Brazil. Bolsonaro fired one health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, in mid-April after the two clashed over the president’s disdain for social distancing measures that the ministry and state governors were promoting.

Then the health minister’s successor, Nelson Teich, quit after less than a month on the job, leaving the ministry in the command of an active duty general with no health care experience.

The government on Sunday issued two different figures on the latest daily death toll, initially reporting 1,382 fatalities, only to revise that number to 525. The ministry said the early figure included erroneously reported deaths.

The health ministry on Sunday also said in a statement that its new record-keeping method would provide “a more realistic snapshot of what is happening at the national level.”

The government did not explain its new methodology for tracking cases.

Over the weekend, the National Council of Health Secretaries, which represents local health officials, launched a website compiling comprehensive data. According to that tally, as of Sunday Brazil had more than 680,400 confirmed coronavirus cases and at least 36,151 deaths.

The council responded with indignation to the accusation that state officials were providing fictitious numbers for monetary gain, referring to the allegation leveled by Wizard.

Over the weekend, outraged Brazilians called for a boycott of Wizard’s businesses. On Sunday night, Wizard announced he would step down from his role in government.

“I apologise for any statement I have made that could have been interpreted as disrespectful toward the relatives of victims of COVID-19 or health professionals who have embraced the noble mission of saving lives,” he said in a statement.

Brazil, which has a robust public healthcare system, has historically excelled at epidemiological surveillance. If anything, experts said that a rigorous audit of COVID-19 cases would reveal that the disease has killed more people than the official data has captured because testing has been severely limited.

An analysis by The New York Times found that in Manaus, a metropolis deep in the Amazon, the number of deaths in April was three times its historical average for the month.

“The tampering of pandemic data by the Ministry of Health is, to say the least, distressful,” said Denise Garrett, a Brazilian American epidemiologist who worked at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention for more than two decades. “The data should be communicated in a transparent, accurate and timely manner. This is crucial for decision-making and also of utmost importance to avoid public confusion.”

Ernesto Londoño c.2020 The New York Times Company

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