Brazil’s government has stopped publishing a running total of coronavirus deaths and infections in an extraordinary move that critics call an attempt to hide the true toll of the disease.
The move came after months of criticism from experts saying Brazil’s statistics are woefully deficient and in some cases manipulated, meaning it may never be possible to gain a real understanding of the depth of the pandemic in the country.
As the global tally of confirmed cases approached 6.9 million, with nearly 400,000 deaths, Brazil’s last official numbers showed it had recorded more than 34,000 deaths related to the coronavirus, the third-highest number in the world, just ahead of Italy. It reported nearly 615,000 infections, putting it at the second-highest, behind the US. Brazil, with about 210 million people, is the world’s seventh most populous nation.
On Friday the federal health ministry took down a website that had showed daily, weekly and monthly figures on infections and deaths in Brazilian states. On Saturday the site returned but the total numbers of infections for states and the entire country were no longer there. The site was showing only the numbers for the previous 24 hours.
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A council of state health secretaries said it would fight the changes by Bolsonaro, who has dismissed the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic and tried to thwart attempts to impose quarantines, curfews and social distancing, arguing those steps are causing more damage to the economy than the pandemic.
“The authoritarian, insensitive, inhumane and unethical attempt to make the Covid-19 deaths invisible will not prosper,” the health secretaries council said Saturday.
President Jair Bolsonaro claimed on Saturday that disease totals were “not representative” of the country’s current situation. A Bolsonaro ally contended to the newspaper O Globo that at least some states providing figures to the health ministry had sent falsified data, implying that they were exaggerating the toll.
Carlos Wizard, a businessman expected to assume a high-level post in the health ministry, said the federal government would be conducting a review intended to determine a “more accurate” toll. “The number we have today is fanciful or manipulated,” Wizard said.
While precise counts of cases and deaths are difficult for governments worldwide, health researchers have been saying for weeks that a series of serious irregularities with Brazilian government statistics was making it impossible to get a handle on an exploding situation.
Featured image: Gravediggers wearing protective suits bury a coronavirus victim in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photograph: Amanda Perobelli/Reuters