Enlarge /. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, shown here without a face mask, has public health precautions for others.
View more stories
Outside the United States, Brazil has the most confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infections. It is only behind the US and the UK in terms of confirmed COVID-related deaths. In the meantime, its chairman, President Jair Bolsonaro, has often minimized the risks associated with the pandemic and has been photographed with minimal precautionary measures – without a face mask and without embracing the followers.
To complicate his country's political response, Bolsonaro also fired his health minister in the middle of the pandemic, only to see his successor quit after a month.
However, all of this happened against the background of detailed data on the known extent of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country, so that the public proclamations of Bolsonaro could be verified based on the facts. At the weekend, however, all of this data was removed from government websites. After a brief pause, it was replaced by a simple list of cases and deaths – only to see that it was replaced by another set of numbers shortly afterwards.
Previously, the government website provided access to data that tracked the progress of the pandemic over time and was broken down by state. Information on larger communities was also available. This data could be useful to track the spread of the disease over time and to develop guidelines to limit its spread in areas where it is widespread for people with fewer cases.
Instead, the website has been replaced by a page listing only new cases, deaths, and recoveries, with new cases defined as the last day. However, a separate report on the total number of cases and deaths listed numbers that did not match those on the daily updates website. The numbers had been reconciled by Monday, but the reason for the discrepancy had not been disclosed.
As in the United States, the government's response to the pandemic has been heavily politicized, which has led to accusations that the decision to limit data availability should mask the scale of the pandemic in Brazil. On the other side of the political spectrum, a minister accused state and local governments of increasing their numbers to get more funding. The same minister announced on Sunday that he would step down after threatening to boycott his business.
Math is difficult
Even in countries where there is no evidence that reporting basic medical statistics is biased, getting accurate numbers can be challenging. On Monday, the Washington Post published a government analysis of the pandemic numbers that was submitted to the Centers for Disease Control. It is found that less than half of the countries follow the CDC guidelines for the data they transmit.
Because of the common problems with providing adequate testing capacity in the United States, many people with COVID-19 symptoms, including some who ultimately died, have never been tested. As a result, the CDC was advised to include suspected cases in its numbers. However, even months after the publication of these guidelines, many states have not submitted the data on suspected cases. The submission of data is voluntary and the countries contacted have given a number of reasons why they have not complied with the CDC requirements. However, in at least one case (Illinois), the state indicated that it was not providing data for reasons reflecting the allegations in Brazil: "Public concern that the number of deaths will increase."
Many countries with strong national health systems provided tests shortly after the outbreak. They probably have exact counts of the total cases. In many countries, however, we may have to wait for a detailed analysis of nationwide mortality rates to get a full picture of the magnitude of the pandemic. This can take years – provided it takes place without political interference.