[BigDataSur-COVID] A Brazilian cautionary tale on pandemic negationism: Open data is an essential safeguard for evidence-based policy-making

Header photo by Alan Santos/PR

by Nicolo Zingales

When it comes to COVID 19 deaths, Brazil is the second hardest hit country in the entire world (reaching almost 130.000 at the time of writing). This may be surprising to those who remember that, when the new Corona virus made its way to Brazil, after having caused thousands of deaths in other countries such as China and Italy, there was a widely shared belief that the warm temperatures in the country would prevent its spread. Perhaps this bolstered the confidence of the country´s President Jair Bolsonaro in minimizing the importance of the virus, criticizing the “oversized” concern for its destructive power and attaching economic motives (mainly linked to oil prices) behind that exaggeration. What was more puzzling however is that the President maintained a negationist approach despite the steady increase in the numbers of victims, and in direct clash with the instructions given by health authorities, state governors and even his own Health Minister. On March 24th, Bolsonaro gave a national address on television, where he made clear the key tenets of his strategy in fighting the pandemic: first, a preoccupation for the economic consequences, demonstrated by his admonition that “life goes on, and jobs must be maintained”. Second, a forceful rejection of the social isolation imposed by state and municipal authorities combined with an exhortation to “vertical” isolation, meaning an isolation of those segments of the population with higher risk of death or of developing serious conditions with Covid-19. In support of that strategy, he suggested that for most people the virus would be no more than a “gripezinha” (small flu), and that Brazilians have somehow acquired an immunity to disease by “diving into sewers” (a reference to the fact that in certain areas of Brazil people have to cope with sewage water pouring onto the streets). Third and last, an investment into demonstrating the efficacy against the virus of hydroxychloroquine, a medicine produced in Brazil and widely used to fight malaria, lúpus (SLE) and arthritis, not without some significant side-effects.

While one could oppose this strategy on ideological grounds, a different criticism concerns the way in which it was reached: marking a stark contrast with the position advocated by scientific authorities, and devoid of any evidential justification. The first telling sign of that was the dismissal on 16 April of Health Minister Mandetta, due to a divergence of views over the necessity of social isolation measures. This was followed not even a month later by the resignation of his replacement, Nelson Teich, appointed by Bolsonaro in the hope to find a better ally on the economy-focused strategy. Although Teich did not provide any reasons for the resignation, it is worth noting that it came the day after he learned in a press conference that the President had issued a decree (without consulting the Ministry) classifying gyms, beauty salons and barbers as “essential services” that cannot be interrupted by state and municipal authorities. In later declarations, Teich explained that the government´s request to the Federal Council of Medicine to allow the prescription of chloroquine for mild cases of Covid-19 had a weight in its resignation, stressing that the country´s health care budget is too small to be used for things that don´t work. The epilogue of this saga was the official government guidelines for wider use of chloroquine in mild cases, published when the Health Ministry came under the control (on an interim, but still lasting basis) of Eduardo Pazuello, an active-duty army general. The decision to authorize the use of hydroxychloroquine was reached unilaterally, despite the existence of scientific studies on the medicine finding “no beneficial effect against the disease”, and without revealing any results from the studies announced by the President in his television address in March. Especially considering the delicate nature of this decision (which is liable to impact lives of thousands of people), it was logical to expect that the evidential basis for any decision would be produced and made available for public oversight.

Another tension with the scientific community arose on June 5th, when the Health Ministry removed from its portal key statistics about the Coronavirus, explaining that it was doubting the accuracy of the numbers due to the prevalence of “sub-notifications”: it was alleged that numbers were manipulated by States and municipalities in order to receive emergency aid, and that as a result, new reports would be limited the numbers of deaths occurred (rather than notified) on each day. However, despite the stated purpose, the changes involved a significant curtailment of published data: in the new version made available as of June 7th, one could only see daily contagions, deaths and recoveries without reference to the accumulation of such number in the past, or the breakdown of those per state and municipality, or the records of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, (another useful indicator). In this version, numbers could no longer be downloaded, which created obstacles to further analysis. All this motivated the Sustainability Network, the Communist Party of Brazil and the Socialism and Freedom Party to launch a constitutionality challenge against the new policy, resulting in a judicial order to the health ministry to revert to the original configuration. Supreme Court Judge Alexandre de Moraes reminded in his decision that the Brazilian Constitution enshrined the principle of publicity as one of the main vectors for the public administration, giving it absolute priority in the administration´s management and granting full access to information to the entire society. The same principle had been invoked by the judge in another ruling against the government in March, setting aside a decree that created an exception in the law of access to information to the 20 day-response deadline. due to the pandemic. According to the ruling, the decree “ha[d] not established exceptional and concrete situations that would [legitimately] impede access to information”, rather simply turning the principle of publicity and transparency into an exception. In both cases, the Judge spoke clearly: the pandemic cannot be used as an excuse to lower transparency standards, which are indispensable (arguably even more so during the pandemic, given the wide range of public measures adopted) to hold public power accountable.

A third and last example of negationism and rupture with evidence-based policy was the case of O Brasil não pode parar”, a mediatic campaign encouraging autonomous workers to continue working despite the imposition of social isolation measures. The video of the campaign was published on the official Instagram page of the Special Secretariat of Communication of the Presidency and shared by several persons close to the President (including his son, Rio de Janeiro´s senator Flavio Bolsonaro), but its dissemination was immediately enjoined by a court in Rio de Janeiro. The injunction followed a complaint lodged by the Federal Public Minister to prevent the spread from official government accounts of this campaign, as well as other information against social isolation that is not strictly grounded on scientific evidence. Interestingly, when these facts were brought to light by the Press, the Secretariat denied the existence of the campaign, despite its wide circulation and the public availability of screenshots of its publication by the Secretariat just three days prior. While this nation-wide campaign was withdrawn, however, Bolsonaro remains able to use his own channel (TV Bolsonaro) to broadcast content of choice to his audience through an app. According to an article published by the Intercept on 15 June, TV Bolsonaro is the main channel in the app “Mano”, produced by IP.TV, who is the contractor of the state governments of São Paulo, Paraná, Amazonas e Pará for the provision of long-distance education to primary and secondary schools during the pandemic. The Intercept documented that the livestreaming app requires users to give broad permissions to the collection of personal data (for instance, access to the photo album), and suggests that this disproportionate data collection may have been the economic value justifying IP.TV´s provision of such services free of charge to the state governments. Unfortunately, no further information is available on these contracts between state governments and IP.TV, and it is not clear what safeguards were included to protect the personal data of millions of students and professors. This lack of clarity over data processing has been a reality for the entire duration of the pandemic in Brazil: the country is still awaiting the entry into force of a comprehensive data protection law and the formation of a data protection authority, both of which have been repeatedly postponed, but are now bound to happen in the next few days. While public-private partnerships could in principle help the country to deliver to citizens the services and information they need, the inadequacy of the applicable data protection framework (at least at the time these contracts were signed) is such that these partnerships must be looked at with suspicion. It is not a coincidence that it was the revelation of the terms of the partnership between telecom operators and the Agency for Statistics for the measurement of unemployment that led to a successful constitutional challenge, on grounds of the insufficiency of the applicable safeguards This Supreme Court ruling was a good reminder of the promises of transparency and open data, highlighted by Judge de Moraes in the two above-mentioned cases, which simultaneously allow direct citizen engagement with evidence and to keep public power in check. And perhaps with even more important consequences in the context of the pandemic, as more transparency and evidence-based policies could arguably have prevented the normalization of agglomerations we are seeing today across the country.

About the author

Nicolo Zingales is Professor of Information Law and Regulation, and coordinator of the E-commerce research group at FGV law school in Rio de Janeiro. He is also a founding member of MyData Global, an organization promoting empowerment by improving the effectiveness of the right to informational self-determination; and a coordinator of its Brazilian Hub, which recently co-hosted a workshop on Data Governance At A Time of Pandemics: Charting A Way Forward For Latin America.