In a move officials said was personally ordered by the president, months’ worth of coronavirus data vanished from Brazil’s health ministry website overnight on Friday, with a supreme court judge describing the manoeuvre as “totalitarian”.
The health ministry said it would only report Covid-19 cases and deaths that had occurred in the previous 24 hours - a day after the South America country reported its daily record number of deaths.
Defending the move on Twitter, Mr Bolsonaro said the cumulative data did ”not reflect the moment the country is in”, despite officials recording 1,473 coronavirus deaths on 4 June. Bolsonaro did not elaborate further on why the data had been taken offline.
The decision sparked outrage among members of Brazil’s congress and judiciary, while medics in the country – now considered the epicentre of the pandemic – said it would hamper their efforts to manage the disease.
“The authoritarian, insensitive, inhuman and unethical attempt to make those killed by Covid-19 invisible will not succeed,” Alberto Beltrame, president of Brazil’s national council of state health secretaries, said in a statement.
“We and Brazilian society will not forget them, nor the tragedy that befalls the nation.” Gilmar Mendes, a supreme court judge tweeted: “The manipulation of statistics is a manoeuvre of totalitarian regimes.”
“The trick will not exempt responsibility for the eventual genocide,” said Rodrigo Maia, speaker of the lower house of Congress, calling for the data to be reinstated.
Attempts to begin suppressing Brazil’s Covid-19 figures had begun at the beginning of last week when the ministry rescheduled the broadcast of its daily news bulletin from 7pm to 10pm local time.
“That’s the end of 'Jornal Nacional' reports,” Bolsonaro said after Friday evening’s programme – hours before the data was removed from the health ministry website.
On Sunday night, the health ministry resumed releasing the cumulative number of coronavirus cases and deaths following national outrage.
As of Monday morning, Brazil had reported 692,000 coronavirus cases and more than 36,000 deaths, according to official figures – the third-highest total in the world behind the US and the UK.
It is feared these figures could be much higher due to a lack of testing on the ground, while locals say that many hospitals in the country are on the brink of collapse.
Despite the seriousness of the outbreak in Brazil, Bolsonaro has continued to downplay the dangers associated with disease and has urged people to get back to work.
He has previously described the infection as a “little flu” and has been pictured mixing with crowds and embracing children during protests.
Thousands of protesters defied lockdown restrictions over the weekend and took to the streets to demonstrate against Bolsonaro's handling of the pandemic.
Large crowds gathered on Sunday in cities across the country and in capital Brasilia to denounce the president and his nonchalant approach to the disease.
Many also used the protests to show solidarity with George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died by asphyxiation after a white police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes.