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Brazilian government resumes providing coronavirus data it tried to suppress

A woman walks past workers who will disinfect the Turano favela in an effort to curb COVID-19's spread  in Rio de Janeiro.
A woman walks past workers who will disinfect the Turano favela in an effort to curb COVID-19’s spread in Rio de Janeiro.
(Silvia Izquierdo / Associated Press)

A Brazilian Supreme Court justice ordered President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration to resume publication of full COVID-19 data, including the country’s cumulative death toll, following allegations that the government was trying to hide the severity of the pandemic in Latin America’s biggest country.

The government complied with the decision Tuesday afternoon.

Justice Alexandre de Moraes said late Monday that the government is obligated to provide necessary information to Brazilian citizens, days after the Health Ministry scrubbed the cumulative COVID-19 death toll from its website. De Moraes said in his decision that the gravity of the pandemic, which has killed more than 38,400 Brazilians, requires transparency from the government as the country shapes policies to curb contagion.

Brazil’s health ministry stopped publishing the number of total COVID-19 deaths and confirmed coronavirus cases last Friday.

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The restriction on the release of data, combined with its announcement after evening news programs had ended, generated widespread criticism. Gilmar Mendes, another Supreme Court justice, said Saturday that manipulation of data is a tactic of authoritarian regimes and that hiding the numbers wouldn’t exempt the government from responsibility for the pandemic’s heavy toll in Brazil.

Facing intense criticism, a top Health Ministry official told reporters Monday night that the ministry would restore the cumulative death toll to its website, but with changes to the methodology for how daily deaths are tallied.

The extraordinary move to squelch the death toll came after months of Bolsonaro downplaying COVID-19 and maintaining that economic meltdown would inflict worse hardship than allowing the virus to run its course.

Pollster Datafolha found that roughly 30% of Brazilians surveyed May 25-26 rated Bolsonaro as good or excellent and also approved of his handling of the pandemic.

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Bolsonaro’s foes, seeing weakness, have submitted more than 30 requests for impeachment to Congress, where so far they’ve been stalled by the lower house speaker. The president’s allies hope energized supporters could make it costly to support such moves.

The muted support for Bolsonaro was on display the past weekend, with protests against Bolsonaro’s government held in 20 cities while pro-government demonstrations were significantly smaller than prior weekends.

Bolsonaro still enjoys considerable support on the far right. Backers in April were quick to join his call to defy social-isolation recommendations even as the coronavirus outbreak started exploding. Then they echoed the president’s call to treat COVID-19 with chloroquine, which many doctors refuse to prescribe for lack of evidence of its efficacy.

Olavo de Carvalho, an influential far-right ideologue, said May 12 that the “supposedly deadly virus” was nothing more than a scare tactic to cow the population into slavery.

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Bolsonaro has tried to energize his base by joining weekend rallies in the capital that feature banners denouncing the Supreme Court and Congress, sometimes in lurid terms, for undermining his administration. On May 31, he flew over the crowd in an Army helicopter and, after landing, rode into the plaza on horseback flanked by mounted military police.


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