Brazil’s government has stopped publishing a running total of coronavirus deaths and infections, prompting claims by experts it is an attempt to hide the true extent of the outbreak in the country.
It follows months of criticism of President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the crisis, after he dismissed the pandemic as “a little flu” and has refused to wear a mask or practice social distancing.
As the global total of coronavirus deaths passed 400,000 on Sunday and the number of confirmed cases 6.9 million, Brazil’s last official numbers showed it had recorded more than 34,000 fatalities related to COVID-19 and 615,000 infections – the world’s second-largest outbreak.
That is the third-highest death toll in the world, just ahead of Italy and behind the US, which has the highest, and the UK.
Brazil’s health ministry took down a website that had shown daily, weekly and monthly figures on infections and deaths in each of the country’s states.
Instead, it said it would now only be reporting cases and deaths in the past 24 hours, with Mr Bolsonaro defending the move, saying the totals were not representative of the situation.
“The cumulative data… does not reflect the moment the country is in,” he said on Twitter, citing a note from the ministry.
“Other actions are under way to improve the reporting of cases and confirmation of diagnoses.”
The website was taken down on Friday and reloaded on Saturday, with the ministry reporting 27,075 new confirmed infections and 904 related deaths.
The president said the daily update would “avoid under-notification and inconsistencies”.
Carlos Wizard, a businessman expected to assume a high-level post at the 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,” he said.
A council of state health secretaries said it would fight the changes.
“The authoritarian, insensitive, inhumane and unethical attempt to make the COVID-19 deaths invisible will not prosper,” it 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, as well as a lack of testing, was making it impossible to get a handle on an escalating situation.
Last month, an investigation by Sky News revealed the scale of the crisis gripping the nation, as footage showed more than 13,000 graves being dug at the Vila Formosa cemetery, the largest in Latin America.
Days later, Arthur Virgílio Neto, the mayor of Manaus, situated in Brazil’s Amazon region and in the heart of the rainforest, appealed to teenage environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg for help in a video posted online.
“We have to save the lives of the protectors of the forest,” he said. “We are in front of a disaster, something like barbarism.”
The city, in northwestern Brazil, is home to about two million people, thousands of whom are indigenous people from the Amazon jungle.
Sky News’ Stuart Ramsay went there and found people dying in their beds, and the mayor fearing that inaction will lead to deaths that may never be known about because communities in the region are so isolated.