Brazil 'Driving in the Dark' on COVID-19 as Contradictory Data Deepens Confusion

By Pedro Fonseca and Eduardo Simões

June 09, 2020

RIO DE JANEIRO/SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil drew further criticism for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic on Monday after it published contradictory figures on fatalities and infections, deepening a scandal over the country's COVID-19 data.

Initial data released on Sunday from the health ministry on the number of cases and death toll in Brazil was later contradicted by numbers uploaded to the ministry's online data portal.

On Monday, the ministry said in a statement the discrepancy was predominantly due to mistakes in the numbers from two states that were later corrected. It explained that the later, lower daily death toll of 525 was the correct one.

It said it had "been improving the means for releasing information on the national situation of the handling of COVID-19."

The discrepancy followed recent decisions to remove from a national website a trove of data about the country's outbreak, and to push back the daily release of new numbers late into the evening and after the country's main television news program.

"By changing the numbers, the Ministry of Health covers the sun with a sieve," Rodrigo Maia, speaker of the lower house, said on Twitter.

"The credibility of the statistics needs to be urgently recovered. A ministry that manipulates numbers creates a parallel world in order not to face the reality of the facts," he added.

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Monday stressed the importance of "consistent and transparent" communication from Brazil, which is now one of the main coronavirus epicenters. It has the second highest number of confirmed cases behind the United States, and a death toll that last week surpassed Italy's.

Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has come under growing criticism for the way his government has handled the pandemic, which he has regularly played down as a "little flu."

For Carlos Machado, head of research at the National School of Public Health, part of the respected public institute Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, the lack of dependable data is dangerous.

"Not having updated and reliable data during a pandemic of this proportion is like driving in the dark," he said.

"While we do not have a vaccine, information is the best weapon we have at our disposal," he added.

Confusion over the figures has led a group of Brazil's largest media outlets to launch their own data tracking system, according to a report in newspaper Folha de S.Paulo.

The National Council of Health Secretaries (Conass), which brings together the heads of Brazil's state health departments and is separate from the health ministry, has also created its own platform.

According to the council, Brazil had recorded 680,456 cases of COVID-19 and 36,151 deaths from the disease by the end of Sunday afternoon.

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