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 contradictory data.
Even as the situation has gotten worse 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 official and most widely used source for nationwide virus statistics, which paint a grim picture of its impact on Brazil: 36,455 deaths, the third-highest toll in the world, after the United States and Britain; and 691,758 infections, the second-highest caseload, after the US.
First, on Wednesday, the ministry began publishing the daily tally of infections and deaths around two and a half hours later each evening, just before 10:00 pm.
Many critics accused the government of doing that in a bid to avoid 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,'” he said.
“Nobody needs to be running around on account of Globo.”
Then, on Friday, 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.
Things only got more muddled on Sunday, when the ministry released two different daily tolls at different times, without explaining why or indicating which was correct.
Had there been 1,382 new deaths and 12,581 new infections in the past 24 hours, or 525 deaths and 18,912 infections? For half a day, it was impossible to know.
The ministry — currently run by an interim health minister, whose two predecessors were ousted mid-pandemic after disagreements with Bolsonaro — explained Monday that the previous day’s figures had been corrected because some of the data supplied by state health officials included duplicates.
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.
The far-right 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.
The administration’s changes to the way it handles the figures on the pandemic fueled fears it would try to manipulate them.
Concern only grew when well-known businessman Carlos Wizard, who has been tapped to serve as a top adviser in the health ministry, said Friday that the figures were “fantastical and manipulated.”
That outraged state health officials who supply the underlying data.
“This is a senseless, inhuman, authoritarian and unethical attack to make those who have died from coronavirus invisible,” they said.
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.
“Manipulating statistics is a move used by totalitarian regimes,” Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes wrote on Twitter.
“This trick will not absolve anyone of responsibility for a possible genocide.”
He added the hashtags “no to censorship” and “dictatorship never again.”
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.”
The government had already become the butt of jokes for its approach to the numbers.
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.”
“It creates a parallel reality, as if the owners of the Titanic said, ‘We saved this many people,'” Tomas Traumann, former communications secretary under ex-president Dilma Rousseff, told AFP.