The sudden removal of the cumulative data touched off an avalanche of criticism as people in cities returned to their balconies to bang pots and detractors suggested the federal government was trying to obscure the gravity of a public health crisis it has done little to address. President Jair Bolsonaro, who continues to dismiss the disease even as it maims his country, has repeatedly questioned the accuracy of the data and grown increasingly assertive in his efforts to restrict access to it.
His administration rescheduled the daily release of data last week so that it would come out after newspaper deadlines and nightly news programs. Bolsonaro said Friday that the delay “stopped the stories in the ‘National Journal,’ ” a popular nightly news show.
One of Brazil’s top health officials, appointed earlier this month, also sought to undermine the country’s coronavirus numbers on Friday. Carlos Wizard, the health ministry’s new secretary of science and technology, said a new count should be available within a month.
“I believe there will be more trustworthy data because the number that we have today is fantastical or manipulated,” he said.
Without offering evidence, he said that data had been inflated by local health officials who, “purely in the interest of getting bigger city and state budgets, are saying everyone had covid.”
State secretaries of health said the allegation betrayed a “profound ignorance.”
“His disgusting comment, disproved by any ethical sense, humanity and or respect, warrants our contempt, repudiation and disgust,” the National Council of Health Secretaries said in a statement. “We are not merchants of death.”
The growing lack of transparency underscores how completely Bolsonaro has taken control of the country’s federal response to the pandemic. He fired former health secretary Luiz Henrique Mandetta after they publicly clashed over the need to maintain social distancing and temporarily close nonessential businesses. He pushed out Mandetta’s replacement, Nelson Teich, after Teich resisted his pressure to advocate the use of the anti-malarial drug chloroquine in coronavirus cases, despite potentially fatal side effects.
Bolsonaro has tapped a military official with no medical training as the interim health minister.
Brazil has long struggled to maintain accurate coronavirus data. Until now, however, the concern was that it was underestimating the severity of the crisis — not the other way around. Unable to buy or produce enough tests, Brazil was at one time testing 32 times fewer people than the United States and 12 times fewer than Iran — but still posting one of the world’s largest outbreaks. The scant testing has led researchers to estimate that Brazil’s outbreak is anywhere between five and 15 times worse than the official register.
The disagreement over the data fits into a broader pattern for Bolsonaro. The right-wing populist, a fierce advocate for commercial development in the Amazon rainforest, claimed last year that government deforestation monitors “sometimes lie” and that their data is “exaggerated.” He then fired the country’s top deforestation watchdog.
When the number of forest fires in the Amazon started to sharply rise — a phenomenon linked to deforestation — he claimed without evidence that the fires had been lit by nongovernmental organizations linked to U.S. actor Leonardo DiCaprio to make Bolsonaro look bad.
Scientists say they fear the Bolsonaro administration is moving to hide more data he doesn’t like, politicizing what should be an objective tally, with human lives in the balance.
“In any country, if you do a recount, you will find an increase in the number of deaths,” said Mauro Sanchez, an adjunct professor of public health at the University of Brasília. “But if they do a recount and come up with a smaller number of deaths than what they are reporting now, we will have to take this number with a grain of salt. … Where is this going?”
Domingos Alves, a data scientist at the University of São Paulo, said the country is increasingly resembling North Korea.
“It is a government that, for ideological reasons, is isolating itself from the world and withholding information like North Korea.”
Heloísa Traiano contributed to this report.