The Brazilian government has been accused of totalitarianism and censorship after it stopped releasing its total numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths and wiped an official site clean of swaths of data.
Health ministry insiders told local media the move was ordered by far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, himself – and was met with widespread outrage in Brazil, one of the world’s worst-hit Covid-19 hotspots, with more deaths than Italy and more cases than Russia and the UK.
“The authoritarian, insensitive, inhuman and unethical attempt to make those killed by Covid-19 invisible will not succeed. We and Brazilian society will not forget them, nor the tragedy that befalls the nation,” said Alberto Beltrame, president of Brazil’s national council of state health secretaries, in a statement.
Brazil currently has the world’s second-highest number of cases, at 672,846, according to the Johns Hopkins university site, and has overtaken Italy, with 35,930 deaths. Johns Hopkins removed Brazil from its global count on Saturday but later reinstated it.
On Friday night, Brazil’s government stopped releasing the cumulative numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases and obits in its daily bulletin and only supplied daily numbers. A health ministry site was taken offline and returned on Saturday without the total number of deaths and confirmed cases, as well as numbers of cases under investigation and those that recovered. The death counts were reported as 904 on Saturday, 1,005 on Friday and 1,473 on Thursday.
The move was widely criticised across Brazilian society, with doctors, medical associations and state governors attacking what they called an attempt to control information. Federal prosecutors announced an investigation on Saturday and gave the interim health minister 72 hours to explain the move, using the Brazilian constitution and freedom of information law as justification.
“The manipulation of statistics is a manoeuvre of totalitarian regimes,” tweeted Gilmar Mendes, a supreme court judge. “The trick will not exempt responsibility for the eventual genocide.” Rodrigo Maia, speaker of the lower house of Congress, called for the data to be replaced for “transparency”.
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“You can’t face a pandemic without science, transparency and action,” Paulo Câmara, governor of the north-eastern state of Pernambuco, posted on Instagram. “Manipulation, omission and disrespect are the striking marks of authoritarian administrations. But this won’t destroy the effort of the whole nation. We will continue producing, systematising and releasing the data.”
Moves to control Covid-19 numbers began earlier in the week. On Wednesday, the ministry pushed back the release of its daily bulletin from 7pm to 10pm, after the nightly television news. “That’s the end of Jornal Nacional reports,” Bolsonaro said on Friday, referring to Brazil’s biggest TV news programme.
The data was “adapted” because it did not “portray the moment the country is in”, tweeted the president, who has flouted isolation measures, dismissing the disease as a “little flu” and shrugging off Brazil’s rising death toll because, he said, death was “everybody’s destiny”.
Health ministry technicians told Brasília’s Correio Braziliense that “Bolsonaro freaked out” and blamed the president for the decision to “misrepresent” the numbers.
The country currently has no health minister, having lost two since the pandemic began. The acting health minister, Eduardo Pazuello, is an army general with no health experience who has stuffed the ministry with military officers.
On Friday, Carlos Wizard, a billionaire Mormon businessman with no health experience who is taking over as secretary of science, technology and strategic supplies at the health ministry, called the current data “fanciful or manipulated”.
“There are many people dying for other causes and public managers, purely interested in having bigger budgets for their towns, their states, were putting everybody as Covid. We are revising these obits,” he told the O Globo newspaper. In fact, health specialists have argued that there is widespread under-reporting of cases and deaths in Brazil, in part due to a lack of testing.
“Only someone who does not know the public health system could make this statement,” André Longo, health secretary of Pernambuco state, told the Guardian. “It stains the history of Brazilian public health.”
Doctors across Brazil said the lack of information would hinder management of the pandemic as cases moved from big cities into its vast interior. “How is a manager going to reallocate resources and organise vacancies and transporting the sick if they don’t have data?” said Guilherme Pivoto, an infectious diseases specialist in Manaus, one of Brazil’s worst-hit cities.
Pressure on hospitals in big cities like Manaus, Fortaleza and Rio de Janeiro has eased and states like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have begun slowly allowing shops and businesses to reopen.
But managing that transition requires accurate and clear information, said Alberto Chebabo, an infectious diseases specialist at Rio de Janeiro’s Federal University hospital and vice-president of the Brazilian Society of Infectious Diseases.
“We have room in intensive care … but the hospital still has many patients,” he said. “Many decisions are taken on basis of these numbers not just in Brazil, but in whole world … It is an inadmissible lack of transparency.”