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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro Faces Backlash After Withholding COVID-19 Data


The coronavirus is racing through Brazil. They have the most confirmed cases in the world, save for the United States. As the death toll there rose last week, Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, moved to limit information about the spread of the virus on a government website. Yesterday, his government backed down. But this attempt to suppress bad news has mobilized the president's opponents. And we have NPR South America correspondent Philip Reeves with us. Hi, Phil.


GREENE: So let's start with the numbers that, I guess, it sounds like President Bolsonaro apparently didn't want the world to see.

REEVES: Well, more than 38,000 people have been killed by the virus in Brazil. That running total used to be shown on the Ministry of Health's website along with the total number of new infections. Last week, the ministry suddenly stopped publishing these numbers. It only gave out new deaths that happened on the day in question. Yet in Brazil, more than half the COVID-19 deaths are registered days or even weeks after they happen. So that sudden change set off a lot of alarm bells.

Scientists ask, you know, how can we track the virus and allocate resources to the right parts of the country without reliable numbers? And then, they also said the public needs this information in order to know to socially distance. So Brazil's Supreme Court stepped in. One judge said concealing data is the sort of thing authoritarian regimes do. And another issued a ruling, saying the ministry must start providing the data again. And it is now doing so, although it says it was planning to resume doing this all along.

GREENE: Well, how have Brazilians been reacting to what sounds like just this attempt to hide this bad news from people?

REEVES: Well, there was a big outcry and a lot of pushback. Six news organizations, big guns from the Brazilian media, including Globo, Folha, Estado, immediately joined forces with health departments from Brazil's state governments. They formed a kind of consortium that's begun publishing numbers each day. There was also a lot of anger among the public. Remember, Brazil was a dictatorship before the mid-1980s.

And Bolsonaro is very close to the military. He speaks admiringly of that period. Nearly half his Cabinet are, like him, from military backgrounds. So many Brazilians are very sensitive to any interference with their democratic rights - in this case, their access to information that's obviously of crucial public interest.

GREENE: So, I mean, given the opposition and the anger over this, I mean, how firm is Bolsonaro's hold on power at this moment?

REEVES: Well, David, I mean, you know, the economy is nosediving. The country's unstable. It's in the grips of a pandemic, so he's in a precarious position. He's facing a rising tide of opposition. We're now seeing the rise of pro-democracy grassroots groups online. They're from a broad section of the political spectrum, not aligned to any political party.

One of them attracted hundreds of thousands of followers within just a few days of launching. And they see themselves as defending democracy in Brazil because they consider it to be under serious threat from Bolsonaro and his far-right supporters who've been on the streets, calling for the closure of the Supreme Court and Congress, attacking journalists, and in some cases calling for a military takeover.

GREENE: So maybe a political inflection point - and we should say at a moment when this virus is still spreading in this country.

REEVES: Yes, that's right. It's still spreading. And yet, it's opening up despite the fact that the World Health Organizations and others say that the virus hasn't yet peaked in Brazil.

GREENE: NPR South America correspondent Philip Reeves. Phil, thanks so much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "OUTLIER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.