Jair Bolsonaro
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro during a press conference on the coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia Image Credit: AFP

From Argentina’s lockdown to Nicaragua’s devil-may-care, governments across Latin American have experimented with a range of strategies before the raging coronavirus pandemic. Brazil has added something new to the policymaker’s black bag: blindfolds.

Clearly something had to be done. Last week, Brazil leapfrogged most of the world’s worst-hit nations and now trails only the US in active cases, overtaking France and the United Kingdom to log the third highest death toll from covid-19.

Those numbers have made Latin America’s largest country an international scandal, drawn a US travel ban from President Donald Trump and sent protesters to the streets.

Brasilia’s sleight of hand fooled no one. “Do they think the bodies won’t appear?” former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso asked on a televised interview Sunday. Former health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, whose repeated calls for social distancing led to his firing in April, called the data eclipse a tragedy


But wait. President Jair Bolsonaro has just the medicine. Rather than subject his country to more ridicule amid a worsening health crisis, why not just change the rules?

On Saturday, two days after the country logged a record 1,473 deaths in a single day, the health ministry’s webpage went dark. Returning hours later, it displayed only the previous day’s toll of new infections and deaths.

No more running tally of new infections and fatalities, an important metric for tracking the disease over time; the metadata and subnational totals were no longer available.

Vexing headlines

What to do about all those vexing headlines on prime-time television, driving the national funk and the next day’s news cycle? No worries: Just push back release of the daily health bulletin, which in recent weeks has slipped from 5pm to 7pm to 10pm or so. The health ministry alleged technical problems for the delay and data reset.

Bolsonaro had a different explanation: “No more stories for Jornal Nacional,” he quipped, sniping at leading broadcaster TV Globo’s popular dinnertime newscast.

Even for the bottom-feeding Bolsonaro government, this was a new low. Since March, he has answered the emergency with denial (it’s “just a little flu”), magical thinking (chloroquine in every medicine chest) and hubris. Yes, many will fall, he allowed, but Brazilian patriots need to suck it up and retake the economy.

More on the issue

That pesky body count? Overblown, he claimed. Two health ministers have cleaned out their desks since April, and a third candidate demurred on Sunday, after causing national outrage by accusing regional health officials of padding their roll of victims to grab more federal aid.

So muddled were the numbers that followed the statistical makeover that Johns Hopkins University, which tracks the pandemic in 188 nations, briefly removed Brazil from its list of afflicted nations.

Data eclipse

Brasilia’s sleight of hand fooled no one. “Do they think the bodies won’t appear?” former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso asked on a televised interview Sunday. Former health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, whose repeated calls for social distancing led to his firing in April, called the data eclipse a tragedy.

“Authoritarian, insensitive, inhumane and unethical,” the national council of state health secretariats labelled the official move to occult deaths in a statement June 6. “Neither we nor Brazilian society will forget the tragedy befalling the nation.”

Leading media groups agreed to work together to compile and publish the complete national and state numbers for coronavirus infections and fatalities.

Bolsonaro’s repeated assaults on data — don’t ask him about deforestation in the Amazon, for instance — put him in the company of the leftist Latin American leaders he most reviles.

When Argentina’s economy went sour last decade, then-President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner fiddled with inflation and poverty statistics, drawing a rare “red card” from the IMF. Venezuelan fumbling strongman Nicolas Maduro simply stopped publishing numbers when the economy nosedived and has done the same during the pandemic.

Compounding Bolsonaro’s disgrace, the official attempts to hide health stats are also an assault on a discipline at which Brazilians, despite serial economic and political crises, have excelled: public medicine.

Some of the country’s most highly regarded civil servants have been the physicians who confronted not just deadly ailments but the popular pushback and political obscurity that kept them raging.

A health professional wearing full PPE (personal protective equipment) as a precautionary measure against the novel coronavirus, passes information about a COVID-19 patient through a window at the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of the Santa Casa hospital in Belo Horizonte, state of Minas Gerais, Brazil Image Credit: AFP

Fierce popular backlash

Early last century, microbiologist Oswaldo Cruz helped rid Rio de Janeiro, then the Brazilian capital, of yellow fever, while also fighting a fierce popular backlash against the mandatory smallpox vaccination campaign.

Cruz was followed by generations of medical doctors, epidemiologists and public health researchers who kept chasing pathogens even as politicians cavilled.

Ciro de Quadros took a polio vaccine campaign worldwide, persuading combatants in civil war-torn El Salvador and Guatemala to stop shooting long enough to inoculate citizens at risk.

Brazilian virologists and lab investigators pioneered affordable antiretroviral medication for HIV/AIDS patients, offering treatment at no charge for all victims.

They led research into more recent scourges such Zika, which provoked a severe neurological disorder in newborns, and are on the front lines of developing vaccines for the four strains of dengue fever, which last year sickened around 3 million Latin Americans.

Brazil’s universal health care sustem, SUS, though chronically underfunded and plagued by waste and waiting lists, treats anyone free of charge and orchestrates national inoculation campaigns.

A network of vaccine research institutes produces 80% of all vaccines, allowing for quick response to outbreaks. When H1N1 reached the Americas in the late 2000s, Brazil’s epidemic response team inoculated 89 million people, nearly half the population.

A handful of national research institutes, including Oswaldo Cruz’s eponymous foundation, has joined the global effort to develop SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.

That’s an awful lot of good medicine to overlook. And yet Brazil has been there before. During Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship, the generals banned all mention of one of the nation’s worst bouts of viral meningitis.

The result was a muddled official response and a surge in preventable deaths. That’s a historical relapse Brazil can ill afford.

Mac Margolis is a columnist covering Latin and South America. He is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”