(AP) — 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 in Latin America’s largest nation.
Saturday’s move came after months of criticism from experts that Brazil’s statistics are woefully deficient, and in some cases manipulated, so it may never be possible to understand the depth of the pandemic in the country.
Brazil’s last official numbers showed it had recorded over 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 second, behind the United States. Brazil, with about 210 million people, is the globe’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 cumulative numbers of infections for states and the nation were no longer there. The site now shows only the numbers for the previous 24 hours.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted Saturday that disease totals are “not representative” of the country’s current situation. Public prosecutors announced an investigation into the Health Ministry’s justification for the change.
A Bolsonaro ally contended to the newspaper O Globo that at least some states had sent falsified data to the Health Ministry, 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 conduct a review to determine a “more accurate”‘ toll.
“The number we have today is fanciful or manipulated,” Wizard said.
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 illness.
“The authoritarian, insensitive, inhumane and unethical attempt to make the COVID-19 deaths invisible will not prosper,” the health secretaries council said Saturday.
Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes said Saturday on Twitter that “manipulating statistics is a manoeuvre of totalitarian regimes.” João Gabbardo, the Health Ministry’s former number two, told television channel GloboNews that reviewing the death toll “shows the management inexperience in the Health Ministry. There’s no sense to that review. When countries do reviews, the number increases.”
While precise counts of cases and deaths are difficult for governments worldwide, health researchers have been saying for weeks that irregularities with Brazilian statistics were making it impossible to get a handle on an exploding situation.