Bolsonaro’s Health Ministry takes Brazil back to the 1970s

and . Jun 09, 2020
hospital emilio ribas meningitis In the 1970s, Emilio Ribas was the only hospital dealing with meningitis. Photo: GOVESP

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: a country blindsided by an epidemic; a reactionary leader who chooses not to take it seriously; an overburdened healthcare system scrambling to deal with an unexpected surge of patients, and a government that deliberately works to hide information from people, leading to a tremendously high number of avoidable deaths. We could easily be talking about how the Jair Bolsonaro administration has handled Brazil’s coronavirus crisis. Instead, this is a story from the 1970s, when the country’s military dictatorship tried to cover up a meningitis epidemic at all costs.

</p> <p>At the beginning of the 1970s, several Brazilian states — along with countries in <a href="">North America</a>, Europe, and Africa — experienced a meningitis outbreak. In São Paulo, the crisis was particularly severe, with the rate of cases per 100,000 people jumping from 2.16 in 1970 to 180 just three years later. Lethality rates oscillated between 7 and 14 percent until 1975, when the government effectively began tackling the disease. While the outbreak hit several countries, the severity of Brazil&#8217;s epidemic was only rivaled by the situation in Africa&#8217;s so-called &#8220;meningitis belt,&#8221; spanning from Senegal to Ethiopia.</p> <p>At the time, Brazil was in the middle of its <a href="">Years of Lead</a>, when political arrests and state-sponsored <a href="">torture</a> reached their peaks under the brutal military regime. The press&#8217;s attempts to report on the meningitis outbreak were censored and the government evoked the National Security Law to withhold any information indicating that the country was facing a major problem, under the pretext of avoiding panic among the population.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img src="édici-and-Ernesto-Geisel.png" alt="Emilio Garrastazu Médici (left) and Ernesto Geisel, the two presidents who oversaw the meningitis outbreak. Photo: National Archives" class="wp-image-42045" srcset="édici-and-Ernesto-Geisel.png 660w,édici-and-Ernesto-Geisel-300x182.png 300w,édici-and-Ernesto-Geisel-610x370.png 610w" sizes="(max-width: 660px) 100vw, 660px" /><figcaption>Emilio Garrastazu Médici (left) and Ernesto Geisel, the two presidents who oversaw the meningitis outbreak. Photo: National Archives</figcaption></figure> <h2>Brazil&#8217;s meningitis epidemic</h2> <p>The outbreak started in Santo Amaro, a neighborhood in the south of São Paulo. It was May 1971 when experts began noticing an abnormal number of patients with textbook meningitis symptoms —&nbsp;headaches, fever, and a stiff neck. &#8220;By 1974, when the epidemic reached its worst point, every single São Paulo district had been hit —&nbsp;with the first affected neighborhoods still presenting high incidence rates,&#8221; wrote researchers José Cássio de Moraes and Rita Barradas Barata in a <a href=";pid=S0102-311X2005000500019">2005 study</a>.</p> <p>Emilio Ribas Hospital — the only one in the city that dealt with meningitis cases — was overburdened, admitting three times its capacity thanks to setting up makeshift beds.</p> <p>The Ernesto Geisel administration (1974-1978) suspended schools and created the National Meningitis Control Committee. The 1975 Pan-American Games, scheduled to happen in São Paulo, had to be transferred to Mexico City. If the government had acted swiftly, many of the deaths would have been avoided.</p> <h2>Government censorship</h2> <p>With the military regime enjoying its so-called &#8220;Economic Miracle,&#8221; officials were adamant about keeping the meningitis epidemic completely under wraps, fearing it may harm the government&#8217;s image abroad.</p> <p>After the end of the dictatorship, the now-extinct newspaper Jornal do Brasil published a censorship note it had received from the Federal Police at the height of the epidemic, making it clear that reporting on meningitis would not be tolerated.&nbsp;</p> <p>&#8220;As an order from superiors [&#8230;] it is hereby prohibited to publish, by way of any spoken, written, or televised communication medium, any interviews given by the Health Minister about meningitis, any publication of data or charts, on the frequency of meningitis.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;Besides the censorship, authorities constantly accused the media of &#8216;sensationalism&#8217; and &#8216;unpreparedness&#8217; to deal with public health issues,&#8221; wrote journalist Catarina Menezes Schneider, in a <a href="">post-graduate paper</a> for the Federal University of Juiz de Fora.</p> <p>The epidemic was eventually quelled by a mass vaccination campaign in 1976, with an estimated 10 million people given meningitis shots in just four days. Only in the following year, five full years after the epidemic started to be noticed, cases began dropping.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img src="" alt="Vaccination campaign in 1974. Photo: National Archives" class="wp-image-42041" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Vaccination campaign in 1974. Photo: National Archives</figcaption></figure> <h2>Echoes of the past</h2> <p>Since the 2018 presidential campaign, Jair Bolsonaro has been compared to the generals who ruled the country during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship —&nbsp;a comparison he welcomes. A former Army captain, the president has <a href="">praised the dictatorship on numerous occasions</a> and has filled his government with members of the military. In fact, even the dictatorship administrations didn&#8217;t have as many representatives of the Armed Forces. The government&#8217;s recent efforts to hide data about the Covid-19 pandemic is yet another example of how Mr. Bolsonaro seeks to emulate what were some dark days for Brazil.</p> <p>Since dozens of military officers began occupying the Health Ministry, the department&#8217;s transparency in dealing with Covid-19 data has been dramatically reduced. New updates began being held until <em>after</em> newscasts were over —&nbsp;and then total death and case tallies simply disappeared from the government&#8217;s online dashboard. Mr. Bolsonaro joked about the change, saying it would make news organizations &#8220;run out of subjects to talk about.&#8221;&nbsp;</p> <p>His words echo those of one of his cabinet members, who said in April that the press should focus &#8220;more on giving positive news and less on coffins and dead people.&#8221;

Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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