Fake News, Hiding Data and Profits: How COVID-19 Spun Out of Control in Brazil

Fierce messaging against social distancing from President Jair Bolsonaro, obfuscation of real figures and promotion of 'miracle drugs' has broken Brazil’s resolve to fight the killer virus.

Sao Paulo: On June 30 (Tuesday), the European Union decided to extend a ban on travellers from certain countries which still have rising cases of COVID-19. As the coronavirus graph goes down across the continent and it slowly opens its doors to tourists, people from Brazil have been barred from entering Europe. But citizens of Uruguay, a country of just three million people that shares its border with Brazil, can now travel to the EU countries.

In this important detail lies the story of how Brazil, the biggest country and economy in South America, has made a mess of its coronavirus situation, while its small neighbours have triumphed over the killer virus.

The virus reached South America on February 26, 2020 when Brazil confirmed a case in Sao Paulo. By April 3, all countries in the continent had recorded at least one case. Brazil recorded its first COVID-19 death on March 12. In four months, the country has reached a total of 1,448,753 cases of infection and 60,632 deaths.

The virus hit Argentina on March 3. As of June 30, the country had 64,517 cases and 1,307 deaths. In the past three months, Paraguay has seen 2,221 cases and 17 deaths; and Uruguay has reported 936 infections and 27 deaths. But Brazil registered 46,712 new cases and 1,038 deaths in just past 24 hours (June 30 to July 1).

While Brazil’s three southern neighbours, which have all shut their borders with the country of 210 million people, have managed to flatten the COVID-19 curve and prevent the contamination of their economies, the South American giant has seen an uncontrolled pandemic, a fast-spreading economic crisis and a deep social fissure that threatens its democracy.

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If Brazil today is in the grip of a deadly virus with no end in sight, the big share of blame rests with Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right president who blindly followed US President Donald Trump’s lead in first downplaying the danger of virus and then pressuring state governors and city mayors to “restart the commercial activities” as “economy is life”. Since the virus hit the country, Brazil did not go into complete lockdown, instead opting for a quarantine to be observed voluntarily by citizens.

With the closure of schools, colleges, pubs, cafes, restaurants, shopping malls and other non-essential activities, almost 50% of the population have stayed home. The other half, mostly the poor, have been out on the streets as they were the hardest hit by the virus and the recession caused by it.

Real threat, fake news

In denial mode from the beginning, Bolsonaro did his best to encourage people to break quarantine by calling the disease a “little cold”, joining pro-government rallies without a face mask, shaking hands with people in bakeries, openly demanding that social restrictions be lifted and attacking governors who tried to implement a strict quarantine.

Even as thin crowds attended his weekend rallies in Brasilia, where the president spoke about things like inviting “a group of 30 people” for a barbecue and repeatedly dismisses the virus as a “mild flu”, the messaging began to make an impact, with more and more people ignoring the social distancing rules, refusing to wear masks and taking part in neighbourhood parties which sometimes turned violent against those who tried to stop them.

A street cleaner disinfects a street wearing protective clothing (PPE), during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in the municipality of Breves, on Marajo island, Para state, Brazil, June 3, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino

With Bolsonaro giving a clear signal to his far-right base that he was not in a mood to recognise the threat posed by the virus, his supporters unleashed their time-tested weapon of “fake news” to further fuel the rage against governors and the Supreme Court, which had struck down several of the president’s decrees for curtailing the quarantine measures.

Since the virus began spreading in Brazil, its social media has been flooded with false data, memes, graphics and reports pushing the idea that COVID-19 was “not more dangerous than ordinary flu”. Bolsonaro himself posted dubious claims on his social media pages. While a few of his posts were taken down by Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, thousands of messages filled with conspiracy theories about the WHO, “evil scientists” and “miracle cures” have continued to circulate on WhatsApp groups across Brazil.

Even as hospitals has run out of ICU beds and mayors have to create new cemeteries in public parks, the fake news machinery had been working non-stop, putting the healthcare system under great stress. “We are trying to convince people of the problem that is right in front of them. Our biggest problem is fake news,” a nurse told the BBC in May, when the number of infections and deaths had just begun to spike.

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Brazil, which has an internet penetration of 70% and close to 130 million users of WhatsApp, has been a laboratory of fake news for quite some time. In 2018, just before the second round of presidential election in which Bolsonaro was pitted against Fernando Haddad of the Workers Party, a huge exposé in Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper revealed that Bolsonaro’s supporters fired hundreds of millions of messages to thousands of WhatsApp groups over the messaging platform. The illegal practice, which mostly spread fake news about Haddad, was financed by a group of businessmen in complete violation of the country’s election laws. In a recent decision, a Supreme Court judge got hold of the banking and financial dealings of a businessman who is suspected of financing the fake news racket during the elections.

The investigation into the fake news case, which is getting bigger and murkier by the day, can lead to serious charges of electoral crimes – an impeachable offence º against Bolsonaro. The probe, which also targets the president’s sons, has subdued Bolsonaro a bit but he has continued to undermine his own government’s effort to control the pandemic.

Hide the numbers, deny the problem

Between 1971 and 1974, when Brazil was under a military dictatorship, the country was hit by a meningitis epidemic. The crisis was so severe in Sao Paulo that thousands were hospitalised and hundreds died in weeks. The epidemic reached a peak in 1972 when the death rate spiked at 14%. But the generals running the country at that time decided to cover up the crisis. The government did not reveal the real scale of the epidemic and used the victory in the 1970 World Cup to rally the Brazilians around football, a passionate issue in this country. While the military obfuscated the truth to protect the regime from collapsing along with the healthcare system, in 1975, it was proven that the best way to lower the death rate was early diagnosis and treatment.

Bolsonaro, who openly admires the 21 years of military dictatorship and praises the torture inflicted on pro-democracy and leftist activists, seems to be using the same old playbook to hide the real scale of the disease that is ravaging this country. In the first week of June, when the infections were rising and it was becoming clear that the government was losing control of the situation – and its “mild flu” narrative – the federal government released two different sets of data about the confirmed cases and deaths. Even as people struggled to make sense of numbers, which brought the figure down drastically from one day to another, Bolsonaro joked on social media that the primetime television news would “not be able to report the numbers now”.

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The government came back to releasing the daily figures only after a court order. But for a few days the country was in the dark about the damage being done by the virus. This further weakened the already fragile quarantine. Former health minister Luiz Mandetta, who was fired by Bolsonaro as he refused to tow his line on relaxing the social distancing norms, called the government move “dumb and narrow”. “It is absurd and childishness and it will have consequences,” said Mandetta, who was replaced as minister by another doctor who, in turn, was replaced by an army general.

After many days of squabbling with Mandetta, who became hugely popular across Brazil because of daily briefings, Bolsonaro fired him in April and appointed in his place a doctor with no public healthcare experience. The second minister was forced out after just 30 days as Bolsonaro handed over the Ministry of Health to General Eduardo Pazuello, who has no medical or public health experience. Under Pazuello, the health ministry has pushed for the widespread use of drugs like chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), which have been rejected by most studies. Daily media briefings have largely disappeared.

Profit over people

Last week, it was revealed that May of this year was the month with the highest number of deaths recorded in the history of Brazil, with COVID-19 claiming 24,111 of the 1,23,861 people who died across the country. In June, Brazil has recorded close to 1,000 deaths a day. In recent days, the number of new infections has touched figures as high as 54,000 in a day. Several survey by the country’s top universities and research centres have released studies that show the actual number of cases of COVID-19 in Brazil is between four to five times greater than the figures officially issued by the Ministry of Health.

By no stretch of imagination is the coronavirus crisis in Brazil over. It has not even peaked yet. But the country seems to be rushing back to business as usual, as in pre-pandemic days. Since the first quarantine was declared in Sao Paulo on March 16, the president’s supporters have used aggressive tactics to break the social distancing rules. Demonstrations and car and bike rallies have been taken out by far-right groups demanding a return to work and the opening of trade.

Now, the combined effect of constant social media messaging against social distancing by Bolsonaro, obfuscation of real numbers by the government, promotion of “miracle drugs” like HCQ by the Ministry of Health and extreme pressure from business groups has broken the resolve of most governors and mayors to control the pandemic with strict measures. Sao Paulo, the South American financial hub, has already started to open shops, malls and restaurants, despite a record number of new COVID-19 cases. Cities and towns in the state, which is the epicentre of the pandemic with 20% of the infections reported in the country, are following suit even as cases continue to rise.

Cabofriense players are temperature checked as they arrive before a match, following the resumption of play behind closed doors after the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Photo: Reuters/Ricardo Moraes

In Rio de Janeiro, the second biggest city in the country with the highest per capita deaths in Brazil, even football games are back despite many top clubs not wanting to expose their players to the virus. But, egged on by Bolsonaro, big clubs like Flamengo and Vasco da Gama have pushed athletes to play in the middle of the pandemic. Even with the virus showing no signs of slowing down and several players testing positive, the city mayor is already under pressure to open one-third of the stadiums to spectators. The beaches of Rio, which were opened to the public some 10 days ago, are already packed with people. Masks are rare. Social distancing norms have been abandoned by most.

As Brazil becomes the first country to reopen its economy without ever closing it in a real sense, public health experts are watching the unfolding situation with horror. On Tuesday, members of the Pan American Health Organisation, the regional arm of the WHO, said the epidemic may reach peak in Brazil by mid-August and that the country may have more than 80,000 deaths by then. Some studies have estimated a much higher number till the end of 2020.

Bolsonaro, a self-declared fan of Donald Trump, follows the US president’s policies and style of functioning to a fault. Even in mismanaging a pandemic, he seems to be mimicking his idol on the northern side of the Equator.

Shobhan Saxena is a journalist based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.