Brazil stops releasing key coronavirus numbers amid growing death toll

Brazil decided to stop releasing the cumulative numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths in its daily report, only supplying stats for the last 24 hours instead. The move was harshly questioned by health experts and state governors, describing it as an attempt to hide the magnitude of the health crisis.

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Brazil’s last official figures suggest that the nation has the world’s second-highest number of cases, at 672,846, according to the Johns Hopkins University site. Johns Hopkins removed Brazil from its global count on Saturday but later reinstated it.

On Friday, the country’s Health Ministry took down a website that used to show daily, weekly and monthly statistics on positive cases and deaths in Brazilian states. On Saturday, the website was back online but the cumulative numbers were no longer there. The site now shows only numbers from the last 24 hours.

Explaining the move, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted that disease totals are “not representative” of the country’s current situation. A close ally to Bolsonaro told O Globo local newspaper that some states were sending false data to the Health Ministry, which he said was exaggerating the toll.

“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,” Carlos Wizard, a businessman who is taking over as secretary of science, technology and strategic supplies at the health ministry, said.

Health experts have been warming over the past few months that Brazil’s statistics are deficient, and in some cases manipulated, claiming it will be borderline impossible to understand the actual extent of the pandemic across the country due to these structural problems.

Last month, academics going through death certificates compiled by the Civil Registration Office, which compiles data from all the states, discovered a drastic fluctuation in monthly deaths in recent years that couldn’t be explained as well as discrepancies between states.

Widespread criticism

The response to the government’s controversial decision came fast. Doctors, state governors, and medical associations questioned what they described as an attempt by the Bolsonaro administration to control information regarding the pandemic.

Public prosecutors said they will carry out an investigation and asked for an explanation from the government, while a council of state health secretaries said it would fight the changes made by Bolsonaro’s administration –- who is notorious for downplaying the pandemic since it started and avoided imposing national measures such as social distancing and quarantines.

“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.

Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes said on Twitter that “manipulating statistics is a maneuver of totalitarian regimes.” Meanwhile, João Gabbardo, the Health Ministry’s former No. 2, told television channel GloboNews that reviewing the death toll “shows the management inexperience in the Health Ministry.”

The lack of information will likely affect the management of the pandemic, Brazilian doctors warned, as outbreaks are moving from large cities to the interior of the country. “How is a manager going to reallocate resources and organize vacancies and transporting the sick if they don’t have data?” Guilherme Pivoto, an infectious diseases specialist in Manaus, told The Guardian.

Health experts fear the coronavirus outbreak could wreak havoc on Brazil’s most deprived and vulnerable communities. This is especially worrying for indigenous communities living in the Amazon region. Nevertheless, Bolsonaro has always downplayed the pandemic, rejecting what he considers to be a “hysteria”.

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