A justice on Brazil's top court has ordered the president's administration to make its coronavirus data publicly available.
Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes said in an order dated Monday that Brazil's Health Ministry must resume publishing the running totals for confirmed deaths and infections — a practice the department recently halted to widespread criticism.
Brazil's government, caught in the throes of South America's worst coronavirus outbreak, abruptly ended public access to much of its past data earlier this month, instead sharing only the number of new confirmed cases each day.
But de Moraes said that concealing such information may hobble efforts to understand the virus, interfere with the public interest and, in general, have "disastrous consequences" for the country's response to the pandemic. Plus, it violates the government's "constitutional duty" to seek to protect "the life and health of all Brazilians."
So he is telling the Health Ministry to resume its coronavirus updates — as they were delivered until last Thursday with regularity — and make past data available again.
The legal drama is unfolding against a backdrop of increasing urgency in Brazil, which has suffered the world's third-highest confirmed COVID-19 death toll, behind the United States and United Kingdom.
Its more than 700,000 confirmed cases are surpassed only by the U.S., and none of its neighbors in South America has suffered devastation from the disease on the scale that Brazil has.
With rampant deficiencies in testing and questions about the country's overall response, Brazil's toll also is likely far higher than the official numbers reflect.
Despite recent spikes — including a record number of new daily cases shortly before the public data was pulled — President Jair Bolsonaro, a close political ally of U.S. President Trump, has continued to push local leaders to ease their coronavirus restrictions and reopen their economies. He has encouraged large rallies of his supporters and repeatedly questioned the measures implemented across the country.
In the midst of this controversy, the Health Ministry's decision to remove older numbers from its publicly available data was met over the weekend with protests from demonstrators and condemnations from medical experts who called the decision dangerous.
Others, including another Supreme Court justice, Gilmar Mendes, likened it to authoritarianism. "Manipulation of statistics," he tweeted, "is a maneuver of totalitarian regimes."
In a statement posted last weekend to Bolsonaro's Facebook account explaining the Health Ministry's decision to yank archival data from its official website, the president said the older information was simply "not representative" of the situation in the country.
"The dissemination of 24-hour data," the statement explained, "allows you to monitor the reality of the country at this time and determine appropriate strategies for public service."
The Health Ministry appeared partly to walk back its decision by Sunday, publishing cumulative tallies again, albeit with a different presentation. The main dashboard still presents only new confirmed cases, new deaths and new recovered cases.
In his court order, de Moraes gave the ministry 48 hours to resume providing public access to its data on the coronavirus as it had before.
NPR's Philip Reeves contributed to this report.