Brazil has stopped reporting the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases and overall death toll just as it has become the global hotspot for the epidemic.
This weekend, the government of Jair Bolsonaro took down most of the data on the epidemic, revealing only the number of new daily cases and fatalities. The far-right president has long been accused of downplaying the seriousness of the outbreak, leading to the sacking of one health minister and the resignation of another, and the appointment of a general with no public health experience to replace them.
Mr Bolsonaro said that the cumulative data did not show that the “largest proportion” of those who had been infected had recovered, and did “not reflect the moment the country is in”. He added that “actions are under way to improve the reporting of cases”.
The move has sparked fears that the administration, which critics say is becoming increasingly authoritarian, may try to doctor the numbers at a time when the country has surpassed 35,000 deaths, behind only the US and the UK, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
The former army captain has repeatedly shrugged off the outbreak, opposing quarantines, lockdowns and social distancing, and encouraging Brazilians to get back to work.
“The manipulation of statistics is a manoeuvre of totalitarian regimes,” said Supreme Court justice Gilmar Mendes. “Attempts are made to hide the numbers in Covid-19 to reduce or control health policies. The trick will not remove responsibility for the eventual genocide.”
Brazilian scientists said that with more than 672,000 infections in the country, the world’s second-largest number of cases after the US, Mr Bolsonaro was attempting to deflect public attention from his botched response to the outbreak.
“The authoritarian, insensitive, inhumane and unethical attempt to make the Covid-19 deaths invisible will not prosper,” the council of state health secretaries said in a statement, adding it would fight the reporting changes. “We are not merchants of death”.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the release of the daily tally from the health ministry showing daily, weekly, monthly and total figures on infections and fatalities was delayed until after the primetime news show Jornal Nacional, which attracts roughly a quarter of Brazil’s 211m people. “There goes the story for Jornal Nacional,” Mr Bolsonaro told reporters on Friday, adding that the newscast “likes to say Brazil has the record for deaths”.
On Friday, the health ministry took down a website that had shown the daily, weekly and monthly figures on infections and deaths. On Saturday, the site came back online without total numbers of infections and fatalities.
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Carlos Wizard, an ally of Mr Bolsonaro who is expected to take on a top job at the health ministry, told newspaper O Globo that the ministry would review the number because the total number of deaths was “manipulated”.
But former health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who was fired by Mr Bolsonaro, said during a webcast that “not informing means the state is being more harmful than the disease, being more harmful than the virus”, adding “it seems to me that what they are trying to do is major surgery on the numbers”.