As the Bolsonaro government keeps COVID-19 data in the dark, Brazil’s media and open society advocates bring it into the light.
On the night of June 5th, 2020, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro made his usual stop at the entrance of Palácio do Alvorada, his official residence in Brasília, to take questions from journalists. A reporter asked him about a change in the Health Ministry’s timing of data releases on COVID-19 deaths in Brazil.
"No more stories on Jornal Nacional," the president chuckled, prompting laughter from others present.
The Ministry had been publishing updates on new deaths and new cases of COVID-19 in Brazil at 7 p.m for months. Suddenly, officials shifted the announcements to 10 p.m. And because the main news broadcast in the country (Jornal Nacional, which airs on TV Globo) ends between 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., the change meant that new numbers for each day would not be broadcast to the 20 million or more Brazilians who watch the program every night.
That same Friday evening, the government’s website that published COVID-19 statistics went dark. When it came online again on Saturday afternoon, the platform which compiled all the nation’s official data looked completely different. The cumulative number of deaths and cases had been removed. Numbers for the past 24 hours alone were available. Graphs had been changed, and information on “recovered cases” was highlighted.
That morning, Bolsonaro used Twitter to defend the removal of the numbers, arguing that the statistics did not “reflect the moment the country is in.”
The substantive changes that Bolsonaro’s administration made to statistical reporting of the pandemic sparked a crisis. Brazil's Public Ministry commenced an investigation, and gave the nation’s Health Minister, Army General Eduardo Pazuello, 72 hours to explain the decision. The Federal Public Defenders' Office filed an injunction request with a state court in São Paulo to force the Ministry to immediately reestablish the publication of the data including the cumulative numbers – at 7 p.m.
"The manipulation of statistics is a maneuver of totalitarian regimes," tweeted Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes, who added that "The trick will not exempt responsibility for the eventual genocide.” (Mendes added the hashtags: "No Censorship" and "Dictatorship Never Again.")
Only two nights later, on June 8th, the Supreme Court ordered the Health Ministry to resume publication of the numbers in the original format. In his decision, Justice Alexandre de Moraes argued that the Brazilian Constitution signed in 1988 secured the principle of publicity as one of the "essential vectors for public administration, giving it absolute priority in administrative management and securing society with complete access to information."
The substantive changes that Bolsonaro’s administration made to statistical reporting of the pandemic sparked a crisis.
When the data blackout occurred, professionals working with data and information on several fronts swiftly took on the job of providing society with data on COVID-19 where the government was failing to do so. Indeed, journalists had been battling government attempts to cloud the statistical picture of the pandemic even before June 2020 – including persistent attempts to focus on numbers of recovered patients rather than deaths.
"I do not think they dared to ask that of me, but there were plenty of insinuations and complaints that we were talking about the number of deaths," said Luiz Henrique Mandetta, Health Minister from November 2018 to April 2020. A doctor and former federal deputy, Mandetta was fired due to disagreements with Bolsonaro on the deployment of isolation measures. "I told them I was not willing to cede even one millimeter in being transparent, in maintaining open communication and credibility,” he added, “because this is a weapon when you are fighting a new disease and an epidemic."
As Bolsonaro suggested in his answer to the CNN reporter on that Friday night, the June 2020 data blackout was deliberate. Journalistic accounts later confirmed this fact. A Reuters report published in December, based on internal Whatsapp communication, revealed that health ministry officials did order that the cumulative cases be taken down from the Health Ministry website.
Yet the Bolsonaro administration’s June 2020 attempt to manipulate and suppress COVID-19 statistics led journalists to take their own action to keep accurate data in front of the public. On one side, the blackout led rival communication companies to join efforts to manually collect data with regional governments. On the other side, independent programmers and volunteers donated their skills and time to set up a database with the most updated information.
Little more than a year into the pandemic, Brazil is facing its worst moments of the crisis. But the battle waged by the country’s media outlets, independent observers, and civil society organizations to get the citizens essential data about COVID-19 reveals how far the Bolsonaro government will go to alter public perceptions of the catastrophe.
On June 8, 2020, the same day that the Supreme Court ordered the government to resume publication of the data, the newsroom directors of some of Brazil's biggest media outlets convened to discuss how they could confront the lack of official transparency. In a nearly unprecedented move, these journalists formed a coalition of media outlets to collect data directly from State Health Secretaries, the primary source for the nation’s numbers. The three biggest newspapers in Brazil – O Estado de S. Paulo, Folha de S. Paulo, and O Globo – agreed to the plan, as well as Extra, G1 (owned by Globo group), and UOL (owned by Folha de S. Paulo).
That very night, the new consortium released its first collected numbers: 849 deaths in 24 hours, adding to a total of 37,312 victims of COVID-19 in Brazil.
"It is sad having to produce this data to replace an omission by federal authorities. Transparency and honesty should be unshakable values in the handling of this pandemic,” said João Caminoto, journalism director at Grupo Estado, which owns the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo. “We will keep fulfilling our mission of informing society."
What started with a basic spreadsheet shared between journalists of the five outlets has evolved in the almost 10 months that have passed, explained Daniel Bramatti, the data editor at O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper. In the beginning, journalists from the five outlets distributed among themselves the duty of reaching out daily to the 27 State Secretaries to collect the number of deaths and positive tests. Now, as the consortium also collects regional vaccination data, the task has grown. Each journalist inputs the collected data into a spreadsheet that calculates numbers for key measures of pandemic spread (such as the 10-day-moving average) widely used by the media. All participating outlets may use the spreadsheet as a source for their stories and newscasts.
Historically, collaboration among outlets is uncommon in Brazil's oligopolistic media landscape. With a few powerful groups owning the outlets, competition is fierce. In these circumstances, the collaborative work of the consortium as a response to the government's data blackout gains heightened importance. Indeed, even after the government resumed publication of the data, the consortium continued its initiative.
"We considered it important to maintain the collection, because there was no assurance that the government wouldn't change directions again, leaving Brazilians in the dark as they tried to do," explained Bramatti. "The fact that the consortium kept working, making the data public in this way, forces the government to be transparent. They have no other option; they can't change the time because the consortium will publish the data anyhow."
Keeping Information Free
Established Brazilian media outlets are not the only eyes on the government’s COVID-19 statistics. Independent initiatives have also emerged to fill in gaps created by the government's attempts at a data blackout.
Álvaro Justen is a software developer behind one such effort: Brasil.io, a repository of public data in an accessible format. Based in São Paulo, his efforts are driven by what he calls "data release" or "data freedom," and his website works on those principles of accessing often illegible and erratic public data, priming it, and converting it into an accessible and friendly format for whoever needs to use it. Justen’s method draws some inspiration from Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s notion of “freedom education” – an internationally acclaimed teaching method that sees knowledge as a pivotal tool required for citizens to think critically.
Justen created Brasil.io in 2013, but traffic to the website soared as the pandemic took hold. In March 2020, Justen started to notice inconsistencies in data published by the Health Ministry. After subsequent days where such data was missing, Justen recruited volunteers to help him collect the data manually by contacting each of the 27 State Secretaries. "There was – and still is – no standardized data pattern the Secretaries use," he explains.
This newly-collected data was cleaned, organized and uploaded to Brasil.io. But in June, when the Health Ministry temporarily halted its disclosure, Justen’s response was to expand his collaborative work and create a daily bulletin. "We saw the government's decision as a form of masking the complete data," he observed. Since June 6, 2020, 297 bulletins have been published with the help of 40 volunteers. The team has not missed a single day.
Justen added that the website’s relationship with some State Secretaries has improved over the nearly 300 days they have published. Some government agencies have shown openness to publishing their data in improved formats that facilitate the work of those publishing it. It is a significant development, because academic research has identified that active and passive transparency practices at state and municipal levels lag behind those at the federal level.
"We saw the government's decision as a form of masking the complete data."
Gregory Michener, an Associate Professor of Government at Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV), in Rio de Janeiro, leads FGV's Public Transparency Program and has become one of the country's leading transparency experts. “When civilians request information that is denied by the city or state authority and they decide to go to court,” he explained, “the process is too demanding. Of the denied requests for access to information that are appealed, only about 5 percent of them reach the Controladoria-Geral da União (CGU) – the ultimate federal body that considers these cases. They almost always give up due to the difficulty."
Justen and his volunteers work pro-bono, and a crowdfunding campaign for the website collected around $950. But Brasil.io will never charge for the information it provides to the public. "If I did anything in terms of charging, I would be deviating from the focus of the project,” said Justen, “which is exactly to make data accessible.”
Although the work done by Brasil.io and the mainstream media consortium is virtually the same, Justen said he was never contacted by the media outlets to join efforts or consult, even though his team was collecting data before the consortium was created. "It was a top-down decision,” he remarked, “which in my view is tied to conveying a message to Bolsonaro that media outlets were uniting because the government failed to provide transparency in a moment it was needed. In my vision, it worked pretty well to have a political stance concerning transparency.”
As an editor at O Estado de S. Paulo, Bramatti agreed that the consortium’s open collaboration between established media outlets was an essential element of their enterprise. "I think that for it to be a political response, it had to be characterized as a response by the outlets," he explained. Yet he added that he welcomed the further attention that independent efforts like Brasil.io brought to the public: "This is also the type of thing that the more people looking into it, the merrier.”
Waking Up the Watchdogs
The June 2020 crisis over Brazil’s reporting of COVID-19 data was not an anomaly for Bolsonaro and his administration. Since he took office in 2018, the president, along with his allies and ministers, has demonstrated often that transparency would not be a hallmark of his term in office. A few months after becoming president, Bolsonaro signed a decree to extinguish participatory councils established to help devise policy. (This move was also blocked by Brazil’s Supreme Court.) The nation’s Social Security Reform, approved in October 2019, was signed into law without a full disclosure of the data that supported the proposal.
In studying Law to Access Information requests, Michener and other scholars researching governmental transparency found that the response rate to queries had not worsened much during the Bolsonaro administration when compared to the previous government. But Michener noted that rhetoric surrounding openness in government is also important.
"It is clear seeing his legal initiatives that [Bolsonaro] is not in favor of transparency,” said Michener. “We notice in Latin America and around the world that populists, in general, are not very appreciative of transparency."
Fernanda Campagnucci is the Executive Director of Open Knowledge Foundation Brazil, a watchdog civil society organization focused on researching public policy on access to information and creating tools to promote free knowledge. She has been studying the government’s relationship with information since Bolsonaro took office, and as soon as COVID-19 cases surged around the world, she predicted that access to data about the pandemic would become a problem in Brazil.
Campagnucci observed that earlier battles over transparency in Bolsonaro’s term, including the Environment Ministry’s attempts to change the existing methodology for deforestation data regarding the nation’s rainforests, led her to expect the worst. And when the pandemic hit Brazil, she found her organization's predictions of difficulties to be true.
The federal government’s deliberate effort to misinform, withhold information and belittle the virus was only the most obvious issue. Campagnucci and her organization also discovered that there was a lack of capacity from Brazil’s states and municipalities to collect data on cases and deaths to determine areas where the virus was most active, for example. She also verified the disparities in data observed by Alvaro Justen and others. Even when data was available, it was released in different formats by each city and state, making it nearly impossible to be aggregated and analyzed comparatively.
“We notice in Latin America and around the world that populists, in general, are not very appreciative of transparency."
This analysis led Open Knowledge to create a unique system of metrics called “Covid-19 Transparency Index” in April 2020 to evaluate each Brazilian state's openness on pandemic data. Each locality was given points for best practices in collecting and releasing data, with subtractions assessed for failures in substance and timing of disclosures. The five-point scale Open Knowledge devised ranged from full opacity to high transparency. (A new and more robust measure followed in July 2020.)
"When we began these efforts,” Campagnucci stated, “90 percent of states did not achieve the minimum level of information.” But the Open Knowledge scale soon attracted the attention of state administrators, and Campagnucci reported that assessment began to improve after a few cycles of scrutiny.
"We noticed a sort of healthy competition among states,” she concluded, “a political incentive to use the ranking to claim it is being transparent." By September of 2020, the rankings had been reversed. Only 10 percent of Brazilian states were ranked below the ”good” level on the index.
The Covid-19 Transparency Index had a direct impact on the quality of data from state governments. But this was only half the battle. As the June 2020 federal data blackout demonstrated, the quality of information doesn't matter if it is concealed or suppressed.
Campagnucci added that the federal government plays a key role in transparency policy. The data collected by the media consortium and by independent developers like Álvaro Justen is official state-level data. But the availability of this statistical information does not exempt the federal government from collecting and disclosing the data on a nationwide basis.
"The Federal Government has a leading role [in transparency],” Campagnucci observed. “And when it makes [a choice not to disclose], it authorizes itself and authorizes state administrations to do the same.”
The federal government not only has the responsibility to collect and publish COVID-19 data, however. Campagnucci also pointed out that the federal Health Ministry is best situated to get the best information from widely varying state-level sources to the public in a country as big as Brazil.
“The United States had that difficulty at the beginning, because of its decentralization,” she noted. “The United Kingdom, on the other hand, having a national system, was able to gather both quantity and quality of data. In Brazil, we have a unified health structure, but we do not have a unified information structure.”
The Damage of Denial
A little over one year after Brazil’s first confirmed death from COVID-19, the country found itself at its worst moment in the pandemic. The deaths recorded from the virus in March 2021 – 66,868 – accounted for 20 percent of the nation’s death toll at that precise moment.
When he was still Health Minister, Mandetta handed President Bolsonaro a projection of 180,000 deaths by the end of 2020 if the government persisted in taking the path of denial and refusal to deploy stringent public health measures.
"What was the projection based on? On numbers, treating the data, and on science,” Mandetta observed. “Not on fortune-telling or crystal balls. [That projection was] based on epidemiology and knowledge of the data we have of the disease.”
Recent events have indicated that Bolsonaro’s government has not reversed course. After reaching more than 300,000 deaths in the pandemic, Bolsonaro fired General Eduardo Pazuello from the Health Ministry on March 23, 2021. In his place, the president appointed cardiologist Marcelo Queiroga as his fourth health minister.
The changing of ministers that day was accompanied by yet another federal data blackout, as the government altered its system of recording new COVID-19 deaths to drastically lower the daily count. The incident met with immense public criticism, including protests from state governors. Bolsonaro’s government reverted back to the previous system the very next day.
Although local and regional authorities have been learning difficult lessons in handling information during the pandemic and upgrading their transparency, the federal government has yet to change its modus operandi. One difference now, however, is that the media, as well as independent observers and watchdogs, are ready to respond.
As Daniel Bramatti observed: "The response [media] outlets gave to the attempt to hide the truth is very likely to happen again, [and] perhaps on an even larger scale, with more outlets, if there is a renewed threat.”
João Monteiro is a journalist based in São Paulo, where he works as a text editor in a primetime news program.
Laís Martins is a Brazilian freelance journalist based in Amsterdam, where she is pursuing a Masters in Political Communication.
Cover Photograph: The Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro is lit up with a message that reads (in Portuguese) - "More than 500 thousand lives " - to commemorate the total number of worldwide COVID-19 worldwide, July 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)