Brazil’s government has stopped publishing a running total of coronavirus deaths and infections in an extraordinary move that critics call an attempt to hide the true toll of the disease in Latin America’s largest nation.
The move came after months of criticism from experts saying Brazil’s statistics are woefully deficient, and in some cases manipulated, so it may never be possible to gain a real understanding of the depth of the pandemic in the country.
Brazil’s last official numbers showed it had recorded over 34,000 deaths related to the coronavirus, the third-highest number in the world, just ahead of Italy.
It reported nearly 615,000 infections, putting it at the second-highest, behind the United States.
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.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted on Saturday that disease totals are “not representative” of the country’s current situation.
An ally of Mr Bolsonaro 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.
A council of state health secretaries said it would fight the changes by Mr Bolsonaro, who has dismissed the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic and tried to thwart attempts to impose quarantines, curfews and social distancing, arguing those steps are causing more damage to the economy than the pandemic.
“The authoritarian, insensitive, inhumane and unethical attempt to make the Covid-19 deaths invisible will not prosper,” the health secretaries council said.
While precise counts of cases and deaths are difficult for governments worldwide, health researchers have been saying for weeks that a series of serious irregularities with Brazilian government statistics was making it impossible to get a handle on an exploding situation.
Around the world, coronavirus deaths are being undercounted to varying degrees due to lack of universal testing.
Academic groups in dozens of nations have tried to figure out the magnitude of the undercount by studying the total number of deaths in a set period compared to the average of prior years in a particular nation, state, province or city.
Where they find unexplained surges in deaths, it is likely due in large part to undiagnosed cases of the coronavirus.
In Brazil, such efforts by academics and other independent experts have been handicapped to an extreme degree by problems with the government statistics that serve as a baseline.
“It is very difficult to make predictions that you think are reliable,’’ said Fabio Mendes, an adjunct professor in software engineering at the federal University of Brasilia, who studies Brazilian coronavirus statistics.
“We know the numbers are bad.”
Brazil’s Health Ministry did not respond to queries about the experts’ allegations about problems with the data.