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Top COVID scientist: Bolsonaro tried to ‘silence me’

Andressa Anholete / Getty When funding for Dr Pedro Hallal’s COVID-19 study was sharply cut, deaths from the virus had just soared to grim new heights in Brazil. Hallal says the government just didn’t like what its study found: Indigenous peoples are five times more likely to be infected with COVID-19 than other ethnic groups in Brazil. His findings came amid a wave of invasions of indigenous lands by soybean growers, cattle ranchers and illegal miners encouraged by friendly signals from denialist President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro. “I’m absolutely sure this was meant to silence me,” Hallal, an epidemiologist and professor at Federal University of Pelotas, told The Daily Beast. “The study was showing results they didn’t want it to show.” Hallal, whose funding for COVID research was cut last year, is not alone. Dozens of researchers studying the virus say they have been targeted by fans and allies of Bolsonaro, who has long presented himself as a Trump-like populist opposed to science, the mainstream media and the “corrupt liberal elite” “. Brazilian researchers from the world’s worst COVID leader say they have suffered from relentless social media attacks, death threats, funding cuts and arbitrary investigations over the past year as they seek to better understand the virus that is ravaging the country. They say the attacks are a thinly veiled attempt to muzzle them and suppress their work. Bolsonaro has played down the virus as a “fantasy” and a “little flu,” denounced lockdowns and – until recently – rejected vaccines. “Brazilians need to be studied. They don’t catch anything. You see the guy jump into the sewer, dive into it. And nothing happens to him, “the president said of the virus last year. Even though COVID has killed 398,000 people in Brazil, the president and his allies have repeatedly questioned his record and accused governors and mayors of inflate the death toll to politically weaken the president. “There is this conservative base which presents itself as opposition to science,” said Pablo Ornelas Rosa, professor at the University of Vila Velha in Espírito Santo. “If you are pro-science and pro-fact, you are labeled as a leftist, as a communist, as an enemy of the president.” “The health minister panicked,” recalled Hallal, who coordinated the study – the largest epidemiological analysis of the virus and its spread across the country. The scientist maintains that during a press conference organized to unveil his latest findings, the ministry banned the publication of data on the increased risks to indigenous peoples. Hallal says he was never told why officials disputed the results. Weeks later, the study – commissioned by a former health minister who was sacked last April after clashing with Bolsonaro – lost federal funding. Soon Hallal came under investigation by the federal audit body after he criticized Bolsonaro in a livestream and his allies were kicked out of college elections. On social media, vicious attacks on the scientist poured in, including from Bolsonaro himself. Hallal told the Daily Beast that the president’s supporters made threatening phone calls to him and even photographed him on the street with his family. “It was direct persecution, triggered by my stance on the pandemic,” he said. “Instead of correcting its mistakes, the government attacked those who discovered its mistakes.” The attacks were particularly harsh against those who questioned Bolsonaro’s stance on chloroquine, an antimalarial that he – along with Donald Trump – adopted as a “miracle cure” despite the lack of evidence that he could fight the disease. COVID-19. Bolsonaro quickly grabbed the drugs and ordered the military to dramatically increase domestic production. When the president received the COVID himself, he took the drug live and bragged about improving quickly. Marcus Lacerda’s troubles began when he decided to determine whether the drug really was a “miracle cure” for the novel coronavirus. In the Amazonian city of Manaus, the research group he led had used chloroquine for years as part of his malaria research. As infections swamped hospitals in his town last March, Lacerda decided to leverage his team’s know-how by testing the drug’s ability to fight COVID-19, but the clinical study of the The team quickly revealed that chloroquine was not only ineffective against COVID-19, but high doses of the drug could cause serious heart problems in patients infected with the virus. The results caught the world’s attention, drawing scathing criticism of Trump’s support for chloroquine, but at home in Brazil, Lacerda’s team saw a different response. He says it started with a tweet from the president’s son, who accused the researchers of being a group of “leftists” who intentionally killed people with high doses of chloroquine just to demonstrate the drug was not working. This sparked a wave of attacks on social media by supporters of the president. “People said they knew where I lived, that I had killed people on purpose, that I would pay for it,” said Lacerda, infectious disease specialist and researcher at the Carlos Borborema Institute for Clinical Research in Manaus. , Lacerda says he has received a multitude of attacks and death threats on social networks. Concerned for his safety and that of his family, he was forced to walk around with armed bodyguards for two weeks. “It was one of the worst experiences of my life,” he said. “It was this intense climate of fear.” Triggered by complaints from Bolsonaro’s allies, state and federal medical agencies as well as public prosecutors have opened investigations into Lacerda’s study. He says he spent most of the last year defending his research in front of lawyers, instead of conducting studies in a lab. Attacks on Brazilian researchers echo the United States’ own war on science, which intensified during Trump’s tenure as president. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, American scientists have faced more than 150 attacks during Trump’s presidency. “Radical right-wing governments – like the ones we’ve seen in the United States and here in Brazil – are not ready for science to show something that contradicts what they’re doing,” Lacerda said. “When a study shows something that you don’t agree with, you simply eliminate the scientists.” The assault on science has had a profound impact in Brazil. Scientists say the attacks they suffered derailed research or discouraged some from tackling studies related to the virus. Others have left the country, driven outside by threats or disillusionment. “The sciences are currently being persecuted,” said Rosa, who has studied the behavior of Bolsonaro supporters on WhatsApp and Telegram. “We are living in a really dark time. And this has a direct impact on research and the quality of scientific production. Meanwhile, Brazil still struggles with one of the world’s worst epidemics, with a death toll just behind the United States. In recent weeks, infections have exploded, fueled by new, highly infectious variants and weak lockdown restrictions. With the doses running out, the vaccinations brought little relief. For more, check out The Daily Beast. Get our best stories delivered to your inbox every day. Register now! Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside delves deeper into the stories that matter to you. Learn more.



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