Critics are accusing President Jair Bolsonaro of manipulating the figures showing the spiralling coronavirus death toll in Brazil, after his government first stopped reporting the total number of fatalities and infections, and then released conflicting data.
Even as infections soar in Brazil, the latest epicenter in the pandemic, the health ministry has made a series of unusual moves on how it presents the numbers on COVID-19.
The ministry had been the most widely used source for nationwide virus statistics, which paint a grim picture of its impact on Brazil: officially, 37,134 deaths, the third-highest toll in the world, after the United States and Britain; and 707,412 infections, the second-highest caseload, after the US.
Last week, the ministry postponed its daily tally of infections and deaths by around two and a half hours, to just before 10:00 pm.
Critics accused the government of doing that to dodge negative coverage on “Jornal Nacional,” a popular evening news program on Globo TV, Brazil’s biggest broadcaster.
Bolsonaro himself appeared to confirm as much when asked about the delay.
“That’s the end of that story for ‘Jornal Nacional,’” the far-right president said.
Then the ministry stopped publishing the total number of deaths and infections, releasing only the figures for the past 24 hours for the country of 212 million people.
– ‘Statistical coup d’etat’ –
Things only got more muddled on Sunday, when the ministry released two different daily tolls, without initially explaining why or indicating which was correct.
It explained Monday that the previous day’s figures had been corrected because some data supplied by state health officials included duplicates.
It also said it had adopted a new methodology, with a new website, where victims will be counted under the day they died, rather than the day that posthumous testing confirmed a COVID-19 diagnosis.
“There are cases where lab results are for deaths that occurred weeks ago,” it said in a statement.
“The curve by date of death… helps understand the dynamic of the disease and how the authorities need to concentrate their efforts.”
It also moved the daily update back up to 6:00 pm.
But critics have been brutal.
“This is a statistical coup d’etat,” said newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, one of Brazil’s most-read, in a scathing editorial.
“Manipulating the number of dead in a pandemic is a crime,” said influential columnist Miriam Leitao in newspaper Globo.
Top media groups, including Folha and Globo, announced they were teaming up to release their own daily figures based on data collected directly from state health officials.
Already, their toll diverges from the official one, with 178 more deaths and 3,475 more infections.
Congress said it, too, would set up an independent count.
– ‘Totalitarian regime’ –
Brazil’s health ministry is currently run by an interim minister, whose two predecessors were ousted mid-pandemic after disagreements with Bolsonaro.
The president has famously compared the new coronavirus to a “little flu” and railed against stay-at-home measures to contain it, citing their economic toll.
Former health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who was fired by Bolsonaro in April, said the handling of the data shows “the government is more harmful than the virus.”
Criticism over the data confusion only increased when well-known businessman Carlos Wizard, who had been tapped to serve as a top adviser in the health ministry, said Friday that the government’s official figures to date were “fantastical and manipulated.”
That outraged state health officials who provide the underlying data. They accused the government of trying to make coronavirus victims “invisible.”
Wizard later apologized to victims’ families over the remark, and withdrew his candidacy for the health ministry post after online protesters threatened to boycott his companies.
The government has become the butt of jokes for its approach to the numbers.
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When it began putting the number of recovered patients in larger font than the number of dead on its website, one social media user snickered it was like describing Brazil’s humiliating 7-1 loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup by saying, “Brazil scored one goal, with 52 percent ball possession and eight shots on goal.”
Others are less amused.
“Manipulating statistics is a move used by totalitarian regimes,” Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes wrote on Twitter.
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