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Student working on a laptop, with support from tutor

by Barbara Pressendo, third year undergraduate at Durham University, and will be starting a Master’s programme at LSE in Autumn 2020

Eurovision was off and the COVID-19 show was drawing people in every day. A new platform for global competition where the lower you ranked, the better.

There’s no denying that Coronavirus has altered the world stage, not only in terms of how we judge our own government’s reaction, but also those of other countries. Whilst the pandemic and global responses are ever-changing, one might have hoped that numbers and data could provide a steady and fair basis for comparison. Instead, it appears that even statistical information cannot escape the grasp of politics. Before the UK had the highest number of cases and deaths in Europe, we compared ourselves to that of Spain and Italy. At least we weren’t that bad, right? Then as we crept into the lead, the new number to care about was suddenly ‘R’, the rate of infection.

Whilst we have always considered numerical data to establish a fair foundation for global comparison, the numbers are anything but objective. Data has become highly politicised, a weapon in a battle of poor leadership, in which the poorest pay the price. Nowhere else do we see such a brazen attempt to hide the data dagger than in Brazil.

The North and North-East of Brazil are the places worst affected by coronavirus, due to a consistent lack of investment in healthcare and other public services. In the city of Manaus, graves are being dug at night in an attempt to hide the severity of the ‘little flu’, as Bolsonaro calls it. In graveyards where they have typically dug 30 graves a day on average pre-pandemic, they now dig upwards of 120. There are reports of incorrect corpses being given to relatives and of hospitals running out of oxygen. Despite being called a ‘rich persons disease’ a few weeks ago, coronavirus has been disproportionately cruel to poor and indigenous communities. Amazonian tribes have been particularly affected and the death of a prominent indigenous chief drew attention to the discriminatory nature of the pandemic.

However, Bolsonaro and his government have turned a blind eye. In recent weeks, two health ministers, both qualified and experienced doctors, have been removed from their posts. A military official, and good friend of Bolsonaro, is now the health minister in the biggest public health crisis many Brazilians can remember. The shameless and blatant disregard for science and public health contributes to Bolsonaro’s attempt to mould a new military dictatorship, or emulate the one he so fondly remembers. Truth matters less than Fear, and Bolsonaro has proved that he is working towards a totalitarian regime. The Brazilian Ministry of Health has refused to publish official data since the beginning of June, leaving the responsibility to independent organisations, individual states and regional governors.

Bolsonaro is not the only leader attempting to hide the data; Trump openly contemplates the same. Testing less would mean fewer cases, which would mean a better global ranking. Bolsonaro actively carries out what Trump can only ponder doing. Brazil has a different history and a different present. Fear runs deeper when everything is at stake.

China’s annoyance that Brazil has become the USA’s latest puppet has not gone unnoticed. China is Brazil’s biggest market, the country exporting three times more to China than to the USA. Despite the complexities in this twisted love triangle, perhaps they can all take solace in the fact that they all share a contempt for the transparency of information.

The international stage has shifted, as has Brazil’s global reputation. Once a cliché for good football, coffee and samba, Brazil has now come to represent an outrageous disdain for data. The focus on the incumbent political crisis overshadows the COVID catastrophe, which further substantiates Bolsonaro’s efforts to discredit the seriousness of this disease.