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Brazil’s Government Accused of a ‘Statistical Coup’ After it Limited Publishing of COVID-19 Data

4 minute read

Brazil’s health ministry appeared to partly reverse course Sunday night from a controversial attempt to stop publishing the country’s COVID-19 case and death totals, after critics accused President Jair Bolsonaro of trying to hide Brazil’s devastating toll from the pandemic.

The South American country of 200 million has the world’s second-highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, after the U.S., with 691,758 as of Monday. Brazil has recorded 36,455 deaths from the disease.

But Brazil’s true caseload may be far larger because of limited testing. By May 12 Brazil’s health ministry said the country had done 482,743 tests — around 5% of the 9.6 million U.S. tests reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention up to the same date.

The health ministry web page for COVID-19 data went offline on Friday night, Brazilian newspaper Globo reported. When the page returned, the cumulative figures for Brazil’s total cases and deaths were gone, and only daily figures for new cases and deaths were visible. The option to download the data — essential for analyzing the figures and comparing them to other countries — was no longer available.

Bolsonaro justified the decision, sharing a statement he said came from the health ministry on Facebook on Saturday. “The dissemination of 24-hour data allows us to follow the current reality of the country,” it read. “[The cumulative data] doesn’t show that most people no longer have the disease.”

Reacting to the move, health ministers of state governments, former health officials and independent data collectors quickly mobilized to share regional tallies for COVID-19 in new online databases.

An editorial in Folha de Sao Paulo, one of Brazil’s largest newspapers, accused the president of attempting to mount a “statistical coup”. “In trying to hide the complete data on coronavirus deaths and cases from the public, Jair Bolsonaro has put an end to the little seriousness that remained in the way his mockery of a government is dealing with a now out of control epidemic,” the paper said, comparing the government’s behavior to the way Brazil’s military dictatorship dealt with health crises in the 1980’s.

On Sunday, the federal government appeared to abandon its plan to limit the data, and resumed publishing cumulative tallies in a new format accessible from the health ministry website. But the ministry website’s main dashboard for COVID-19 still only shows new daily cases.

New figures published Sunday night did little to end the confusion. Around 8.30pm local time, the health ministry said 1,382 people had died from the virus and 12,581 had been confirmed infected over the past 24 hours. But updated figures on the website a few hours later said only 525 had died. The number of new cases, meanwhile, was larger than first reported, at 18,912. The health ministry has not explained the disparity.

The dispute over the data adds to an already chaotic image of Brazil’s health ministry during the pandemic. Two health ministers departed in the space of a month between April and May, after they disagreed with Bolsonaro’s discouragement of social distancing and promotion of the unproven drug hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. An active-duty army general is currently serving as interim health minister, meaning former or active military officials now fill nine of the core 22 seats of Bolsonaro’s cabinet. The president is himself a former army captain.

Over the weekend, protesters gathered in at least 20 Brazilian cities to hold rallies against Bolsonaro’s government. The demonstrations focused on protecting democracy – which some on Brazil’s left say is under threat due to Bolsonaro’s alliance with the military – and denouncing racial injustice, inspired by U.S. protests over the killing of George Floyd. Most in the crowds wore face masks, according to local news reports.

Bolsonaro, who has previously praised the use of violence by Brazilian police and celebrated police killings, described the protesters as “delinquents.” He threatened to deploy security forces to deal with the demonstrations.

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Write to Ciara Nugent at ciara.nugent@time.com