André Freire: 25,000 dead in Brazil, no end in sight

As of May 16, Brazil is reporting 218,233 coronavirus infections and 14,817 Covid-19 deaths. The real number is likely at least twice as high and it is growing at a terrifying rate. Neo-fascist President Jair Bolsonaro is encouraging far-right street protests and pushing to open the economy in the coming weeks. And while the military asserts its power, Brazil’s powerful left-wing parties have agreed on a unified campaign push for Bolsonaro’s ouster, Fora Bolsonaro/Bolsonaro Out!

In this article, André Freire explains how the Brazilian government is systematically undercounting Covid-19 deaths as part of deliberate policy to downplay the pandemic’s toll in order to push for an end to social distancing and the reopening of the economy. Frere is an historian and a member of the Resistência current of the Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL). Published in Esquerda Online and translated by No borders News as part of our international coronavirus coverage. 


As of Friday, May 15, the press is reporting that Brazil has suffered 13,993 Covid-19 deaths. However, it is well known that this figure is significantly undercounts the real total, both in terms of infections from the coronavirus and the number of deaths.

The almost total absence of testing and delays in the compilation of mortality data are the most obvious reasons for this underreporting.  

Yet, specifically with relation to the undercounting of the number of deaths, there is another important factor, that is, a significant growth in death certificates that are recording alternative causes of death, such as pneumonia and respiratory failure. These deaths are growing all out of proportion to any established pattern and, thus, can only be explained by the existence of the Covid-19 pandemic and its growing spread over the last two months. 

The data published in a special report by Arpen (Association of Registrars), Portal da Transparência – Especial Covid-19, leaves little room for doubt: the number of deaths caused by the coronavirus in Brazil is much higher than that reported by the Ministry of Health, perhaps up to two times the official numbers. 

The numbers speak for themselves. According to the death certificate filed with the Office of Civil Registry, between March 15 and May 15, 2020, 35,944 Brazilians died of pneumonia. This compares to 29, 547 deaths during this same period in 2019, an increase of 6,397 in the absolute number of deaths, or 21.56 percent. 

[Read next, Paula Nunes, Valerio Arcary: Brazil, Bolsonaro, and Covid-19 (video).]

With regards to deaths caused by respiratory failure, the increase was still greater. During these same two months in 2020, 31,065 people died, compared to 22,464 in 2019, an increase of 8,061 deaths, representing an increase of 38.29 percent. 

If we add the growth in the number of deaths recorded as pneumonia and respiratory failure over the period indicated, we arrive at a total of 14,998 more deaths than in 2019. A growth that can only be explained by the existence of the pandemic and its severity across the country. 

If we accept that a 10 percent growth in deaths of this nature would be possible in any given year, then we arrive at a figure of 13,000 additional deaths that, in reality, were most likely caused by Covid-19, that is to say, practically double the official figure. 

It is important to stress that, in fact, the records show a slight decline for deaths attributable to pneumonia and respiratory failure for the months of January and February 2020 compared to 2019 (see: Civil Registry figures here). Thus, the jump in these deaths over the two months surveyed are even more closely linked to the existence and wide extent of Covid-19 in our country.

Keeping in mind that these figures do not included growing numbers of deaths attributed to other causes that might also be related to Covid-19, nor does it count deaths for which a cause of death was not listed, a classification which is also growing. Finally, there is a significant increase in the number of people dying in their own homes without even minimal medical attention.

Faced with a pandemic of such enormous proportions, a certain amount of underreporting is to be expected, both in terms of the rate of infection and the number of deaths. After all, it is not possible to test the entire population simultaneously to record a precise figure.

But this is not is what is happening in Brazil today. The truth is that we are dealing with a policy of widespread underreporting that seeks to hide the pandemic’s grave human and social consequences in our country. 

Using only the figures that are available to us, it is possible to conclude that the number of deaths in Brazil already surpasses 25,000. And, given ample evidence of this underreporting, we must point out that the Ministry of Health has failed to develop any protocol for more efficient recording of Covid-19 deaths. Likewise, the Ministry has no serious plans to increase the number of tests as its announced intention to do so was nothing more than a misleading promise.

In Brazil, underreporting serves President Jair Bolsonaro’s policy and his allies constantly minimize the pandemic’s terrible impact. 

The official number of Covid-19 deaths in Brazil are already extremely high. However, if the official figures were to reflect reality, that is to say, if the government admitted deaths were twice as high, it would be that much more difficult for Bolsonaro to defend his criminal and irresponsible policy of loosening social distancing measures, which are still only partially in place today.

[Read next, Luciana Genro: Taking stock of the quarantine in Brazil.]

Yet, Bolsonaro continues his sordid and genocidal campaign against social distancing. 

Just this Thursday, May 14, the president once again advocated loosening up social distancing practices in an interview. Next, he met with big business chiefs from the São Paulo Chamber of Commerce (Federação das Indústrias do Estado de São Paulo) in order to pressure governors and mayors to open non-essential sectors of the economy still more. Finally, he issued a provisional measure intended to exempt public officials from punishment for potential wrongdoing in combating the pandemic, a measure that is totally unconstitutional and that ultimately aims to insulate them from such failures.

Faced with the severity of the situation, Bolsonaro’s new Minister of Health Nelson Teich (who himself represented the private healthcare industry) lasted just four weeks on the job. Teich took over after Luiz Mandetta resigned the post under pressure from Bolsonaro. 

In just one day, the neo-fascist Bolsonaro demonstrated once again that defending Brazilian lives is incompatible with the continuation of this criminal government.

Social movements and left-wing parties must continue, and redouble, the struggle to defend the lives of the majority, especially workers, black people, the unemployed, the underemployed, and favela residents living in the impoverished outskirts of large cities. In short, we must defend the exploited and oppressed who are suffering most acutely from the pandemic’s social and human consequences.

We must defend a “total quarantine,” especially in the main metropolitan regions of the Brazilian capitals, where the Covid-19 contagion is most extensive and where we are witnessing a collapse (or close to it) of the public health system that is generating long lines for medical care, especially in Intensive Care Units.

And for a genuine quarantine to be possible, the government must increase the guaranteed income to the value of the minimum wage and this must be paid without the current bureaucratic obstacles at least as long as social distancing policies remain in place. Moreover, a more effective campaign to raise public awareness about the need to stay home is urgently needed while government officials, big business executives, and Bolsonaro and his supporters must be held accountable for their campaign against social distance.

We must push to open up private sector ICUs to serve the entire population, including the creation of a single ICU list for all Covid-19 patients under the direct authority of the Unified National Healthcare System (SUS), as has already been proposed by the Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) in its appeal to the Supreme Court (STF).

It is each day more obvious that the struggle to save lives and to defend social rights and democratic freedoms is inseparable from the struggle to end the Bolsonaro government.

That is not an easy task, not least because we are cannot organize large street demonstrations. But also due to continuing support for Bolsonaro by sectors of big business and the banks, the military high command, part from the judiciary, and the National Congress. Nonetheless, the struggle to end this government is growing urgent.

The left and social movements must unify around the struggle for #ForaBolsonaro, by demanding the National Congress immediately open impeachment proceedings and appoint a special prosecutor (CPI) to investigate the Bolsonaro government’s crimes.

At the same time, we must fight against the potential assumption of power by Vice President General Hamilton Mourão, who is Bolsonaro’s accomplice in the government’s crimes against life and democratic freedoms. Mourão himself made this very clear in an article published in Estadão last Thursday. The struggle for #ForaBolsonaro must be combined with a demand for early presidential elections, which are really free and democratic.

[For international coronavirus coverage and analysis from working-class and socialist points of view, read No Borders News.]

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