Furious Backlash in Brazil After Coronavirus Data Withheld by Ministry

RIO DE JANEIRO — As the coronavirus tore through Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro came under blistering criticism for sabotaging the isolation measures imposed by states, encouraging mass rallies by his supporters and lashing out on the soaring death toll, saying “What do you want me to do?”

Now that the outbreak in Brazil has gotten even worse — with more infections than any country but the United States — Mr. Bolsonaro’s government has come up with a unique response to the growing alarm: It decided to stop reporting the cumulative toll of the virus altogether.

Brazil’s health ministry took down the website where it had been reporting coronavirus statistics on Friday. And then, when it came back online on Saturday, the site omitted the historical data — leaving out how many people had already been infected or killed because of the virus.

Lawmakers and health experts quickly attacked Mr. Bolsonaro in unusually blistering terms. Not only did they condemn the government’s decision to withhold comprehensive statistics as deaths and contagion continue to soar, but they roundly criticized the Bolsonaro administration’s repeated practice of downplaying the danger of the virus, regardless of what scientists and his own health ministers may say.

Gilmar Mendes, a Supreme Court justice, called the government’s “manipulation of statistics a tactic of totalitarian regimes,” adding that the “trick will not absolve the government from an eventual genocide.”

Image
Credit…Adriano Machado/Reuters

The pandemic — and, specifically, the government responses to them — have been highly contentious around the world. But in few places have the issues been quite as polarizing as in Brazil, a country already separated by a political chasm between Mr. Bolsonaro’s furious detractors and equally fervent devotees.

Mr. Bolsonaro, who initially described the virus as a “measly flu,” says the challenge of the virus is dwarfed by the economic fallout of stay-at-home measures, and that the real danger is the rising unemployment that will leave people hungry.

But he has also come under withering criticism for joining large pro-government protests that risk spreading the virus, for ordering the armed forces to mass produce an unproven medication for the virus, hydroxychloroquine, and for fighting with his own health officials as the crisis intensified.

Now Brazil is suffering the highest daily number of deaths in the world — often over 1,000 a day — and the government has stopped reporting the cumulative toll of the outbreak.

“By altering the numbers, the health ministry is trying to cover the sun with a sieve,” Rodrigo Maia, the Speaker of the lower House of Congress said in a message on Twitter posted shortly after midnight on Monday. “It is urgent to restore the credibility of statistics. A ministry that distorts numbers creates a parallel universe to avoid facing the reality of facts.”

Carlos Wizard Martins, a businessman who was recently tapped to help lead the government’s response, told the newspaper O Globo last week that the country’s coronavirus statistics were being audited because federal officials believed that states were reporting inflated figures in an effort to secure more funding.

That explanation, which was not supported by evidence, was broadly seen as the government’s latest misstep in its response to the outbreak.

Credit…Victor Moriyama for The New York Times

The health ministry has been rocked by personnel turnover in recent weeks as the virus took hold in Brazil. Mr. Bolsonaro fired one health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, in mid-April after the two clashed over the president’s disdain for social distancing measures that the ministry and state governors were promoting.

Then the health minister’s successor, Nelson Teich, quit after less than a month on the job, leaving the ministry in the command of an active duty general with no health care experience.

The government on Sunday issued two different figures on the latest daily death toll, initially reporting 1,382 fatalities, only to revise that number to 525. The ministry said the early figure included erroneously reported deaths.

The health ministry on Sunday also said in a statement that its new record-keeping method would provide “a more realistic snapshot of what is happening at the national level.”

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 5, 2020

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


The government did not explain its new methodology for tracking cases.

Over the weekend, the National Council of Health Secretaries, which represents local health officials, launched a website compiling comprehensive data. According to that tally, as of Sunday Brazil had more than 680,400 confirmed coronavirus cases and at least 36,151 deaths.

The council responded with indignation to the accusation that state officials were providing fictitious numbers for monetary gain, referring to the allegation leveled by Mr. Wizard.

Over the weekend, outraged Brazilians called for a boycott of Mr. Wizard’s businesses. On Sunday night, Mr. Wizard announced he would step down from his role in government.

“I apologize for any statement I have made that could have been interpreted as disrespectful toward the relatives of victims of Covid-19 or health professionals who have embraced the noble mission of saving lives,” he said in a statement.

Credit…Miguel Schincariol/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Brazil, which has a robust public health care system, has historically excelled at epidemiological surveillance. If anything, experts said that a rigorous audit of Covid-19 cases would reveal that the disease has killed more people than the official data has captured because testing has been severely limited. An analysis by the Times found that in Manaus, a metropolis deep in the Amazon, the number of deaths in April was three times its historical average for the month.

“The tampering of pandemic data by the Ministry of Health is, to say the least, distressful,” said Denise Garrett, a Brazilian American epidemiologist who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more than two decades. “The data should be communicated in a transparent, accurate and timely manner. This is crucial for decision-making and also of utmost importance to avoid public confusion.”

Manuela Andreoni and Letícia Casado contributed reporting.