Nation hides virus data as death toll spikes
Brazil is suffering through a major health crisis.
The country sits at the front of the World Health Organisation's recent declaration that South America is the "new epicentre" of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brazil alone currently has the world's second-highest number of cases after the United States, according to John Hopkins university figures, with over 670,000 people infected since the pandemic began.
The country's death toll has overtaken Italy's with 35,930 deaths, and looks set to pass the United Kingdom's.
Now, Brazil's far-right government has been accused of censorship after it stopped releasing its COVID-19 figures, and wiped an official site clean of data.
The country's controversial leader, Jair Bolsonaro, faces increasing global criticism for his response to the pandemic, and his insistence on prioritising the country's economy over the health crisis.
He has also been slammed for downplaying the pandemic, having infamously compared it to a "little flu", and for touting an antimalarial drug as a cure for the virus despite inconclusive scientific evidence.
BRAZILIAN GOVERNMENT HIDES COVID-19 DATA
Brazil's far-right government has been accused of censorship after it stopped releasing its COVID-19 figures, and wiped an official site clean of data.
Health ministers said the order came directly from Mr Bolsonaro, and was met with outrage across the virus-ravaged country.
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 total numbers of infections for states and the nation were no longer there. The site now shows only the numbers for the previous 24 hours.
Mr Bolsonaro tweeted on Saturday that disease totals are "not representative" of the country's current situation.
A Bolsonaro ally contended to the newspaper O Globo that at least some states providing figures to the Health Ministry had sent falsified data, 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 be conducting a review intended to determine a "more accurate" toll.
"The number we have today is fanciful or manipulated," Mr Wizard said.
BOLSONARO'S MOVE SPARKS OUTRAGE
The Brazilian government's decision to revoke its numbers prompted outrage around the country, with state governors and medical authorities accusing Mr Bolsonaro of censorship.
A council of state health secretaries said it would fight the President's changes. Alberto Beltrame, president of Brazil's national council of state health secretaries, released a statement saying the move was "authoritarian" and "inhumane".
"The authoritarian, insensitive, inhuman and unethical attempt to make those killed by COVID-19 invisible will not succeed. We and Brazilian society will not forget them, nor the tragedy that befalls the nation," he said.
Gilmar Mendes, a supreme court judge, likened the move to covering up genocide.
"The manipulation of statistics is a manoeuvre of totalitarian regimes," he said. "The trick will not exempt responsibility for the eventual genocide."
A manipulação de estatísticas é manobra de regimes totalitários. Tenta-se ocultar os números da #COVID19 para reduzir o controle social das políticas de saúde. O truque não vai isentar a responsabilidade pelo eventual genocídio. #CensuraNao #DitaduraNuncaMais— Gilmar Mendes (@gilmarmendes) June 6, 2020
Paulo Câmara, governor of the northeastern state of Pernambuco, likewise slammed the "authoritarian" move.
"You can't face a pandemic without science, transparency and action," The Guardian reported him saying.
"Manipulation, omission and disrespect are the striking marks of authoritarian administrations. But this won't destroy the effort of the whole nation. We will continue producing, systematising and releasing the data."
BRAZIL'S PRESIDENT COPS INCREASED CRITICISM
Mr Bolsonaro has sparked global outrage over his response to the coronavirus pandemic.
In a lot of ways, he has been compared to US President Donald Trump. Both are brash conservatives who have stressed the need to prioritise their countries' economies.
Both downplayed the risks of the coronavirus when it first broke out. Both have also championed the anti-malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, despite no conclusive evidence they can cure or prevent COVID-19.
Brazil's last health minister, Nelson Teich, resigned last month after less than a month on the job, reportedly after clashing with Mr Bolsonaro over his insistence on widespread use of the drugs.
No sooner was Mr Teich out the door did Mr Bolsonaro's government recommend that all COVID-19 patients receive one of the drugs as soon as they show symptoms.
"There is still no scientific proof, but (chloroquine) is being monitored and used in Brazil and around the world," the Brazilian leader tweeted afterwards. "We are at war."
Mr Bolsonaro infamously compared the virus to a "little flu" when it first broke out.
He also played up the fact that people under the age 40 are less likely to die from COVID-19, telling Brazilians that 90 per cent of "us" would not exhibit symptoms even if "we" were infected.
He also said Brazilians should be careful not to spread the virus to "our" parents and grandparents, but added that if some people die, such as his mother, who is more than 90 years old, then he would say: "I'm sorry … that's life."
In an editorial running the length of newspaper Folha de S.Paulo's front page, the Brazilian daily highlighted that just 100 days had passed since Mr Bolsonaro described the virus now "killing a Brazilian per minute" as "a little flu".
"While you were reading this, another Brazilian died from the coronavirus," the newspaper said.
BRAZIL THREATENS TO LEAVE WHO
On Friday Mr Bolsonaro threatened to pull Brazil out of the World Health Organisation (WHO), after the UN agency warned governments about the risk of lifting lockdowns before slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Asked about efforts to loosen social distancing orders in Brazil despite rising daily death rates and diagnoses, WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said a key criteria for lifting lockdowns was slowing transmission.
"The epidemic, the outbreak, in Latin America is deeply, deeply concerning," she told a news conference in Geneva. Among six key criteria for easing quarantines, she said, "one of them is ideally having your transmission declining".
In comments to journalists later Friday, Mr Bolsonaro said Brazil will consider leaving the WHO unless it ceases to be a "partisan political organisation".
Mr Trump, an ideological ally of Mr Bolsonaro, said last month that the United States would end its own relationship with the WHO, accusing it of becoming a puppet of China, where the coronavirus first emerged.
- With wires
Originally published as Nation hides virus data as death toll spikes