A supporter of Jair Bolsonaro wears a face mask with the president’s image – Getty Images
Brazil’s government was accused of trying to cover up the scale of its catastrophic coronavirus epidemic after it stopped publishing its total rates of deaths and infections.
The Federal Health Ministry closed the webpage showing daily, weekly and monthly figures on infections and deaths in Brazilian states on its Website on Friday.
The move came as president Jair Bolsonaro, who has previously dismissed the deadly virus as “a little flu,” claimed that the official count was “not representative” of the country’s situation and threatened to pull Brazil out of the World Health Organisation.
The last figures released before counting stopped showed Brazil had recorded over 34,000 deaths from Covid-19, the third highest in the world after the United States and the United Kingdom. It had 615,000 infections, the second-highest behind the United States.
The webpage reappeared on Saturday, but only showing the numbers of infections for states and the nation recorded over the previous 24 hours – not cumulative totals.
On Sunday it said that there had been 27.075 confirmed cases, 904 deaths, and 10,029 recoveries. Brazil has about 210 million people, making it the globe’s seventh most populous nation.
The move faced immediate pushback from Brazilian health officials.
A council of regional state health secretaries saying they would fight what it called an “authoritarian, insensitive, inhumane and unethical attempt to make the COVID-19 deaths invisible.”
But Carlos Wizard, a businessman and ally of Mr Bolsonaro, defended the move on the grounds that some states had been submitting falsified and possibly exaggerated data to the federal health ministry.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro leaves the Palacio do Alvorada, headquarters of the presidency, in Brasilia, Brazil, 02 June – Shutterstock
“The number we have today is fanciful or manipulated,” Mr Wizard told O Globo, a Brazilian newspaper. He said the government would conduct a review to produce more accurate figures.
Brazil began lifting some restrictions imposed by regional authorities last week.
Mr Bolsonaro, 65, has been accused of presiding over one of the worst coronavirus responses in the world after he resisted quarantine and social distancing restrictions and publicly played down the seriousness of the disease.
Late last week he also said he might follow Donald Trump in taking Brazil out of the World Health Organisation, accusing it of being a “partisan political organisation””
“I’m telling you right now, the United States left the WHO, and we’re studying that, in the future,” he said on Friday. “Either the WHO works without ideological bias, or we leave, too.”
He has also argued forcefully for an early lifting of lockdown restrictions imposed by local authorities, saying they would wreck the economy.
Two health ministers have resigned since the outbreak of the epidemic in Brazil following disagreements with Mr Bolsonaro.
A Demonstration against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, in Brasilia on Sunday June 7 – ADRIANO MACHADO/Reuters
Luiz Henrique Mandetta and Nelson Teich, both qualified medical professionals, were ousted from the cabinet after disagreeing with Mr Bolsonaro over social isolation measures and the prescription of anti-malaria drug chloroquine to treat Covid-19.
Last month the mayor of Sao Paulo warned that the city’s hospitals in Sao were near “near collapse”. The virus has also reached deep into remote areas of the Amazon, with jungle cities like Manaus recording spiralling death tolls.
Indigenous tribes have also recorded fatalities. All countries are thought to undercount coronavirus infections and death tolls because of a lack of universal testing.
Scientists have tried to correct the undercount by taking account of excess deaths in a country or region compared to previous averages.
However, health experts have warned that Brazil’s figures are less accurate than most and dramatic inconsistencies have made difficult to arrive at even an approximate picture of the epidemic.
On May 14, as independent investigators were questioning the inconsistencies, the Civil Registration office pulled more than 500,000 death certificates from its website, saying most were from Rio and it needed to review how the figures were tallied nationwide in order to make sure statistics were consistent year over year.
Margaret Harris, a spokeswoman for the WHO, said on Saturday that the “the epidemic, the outbreak, in Latin America is deeply, deeply concerning.”