President Jair Bolsonaro supporters in Brazil

People in São Paulo, Brazil participate in a demonstration in favor of President Jair Bolsonaro amid the coronavirus outbreak on March 15, 2020. Despite warnings from Brazil’s health ministry, Bolsonaro has downplayed the threat of the virus and ridiculed social isolation efforts

Just before the coronavirus crisis hit Brazil, our team at Agência Pública, the nation’s first nonprofit investigative journalism center, had been very excited to go back to our office. After several weeks of working from home during renovations, we would have a workstation for each employee, new computers, perfect lighting and – at last! – plugs for all the devices. We had also finished a two-month hiring process, which has seen five new staff members join the team. We were to have a little office happy hour to celebrate.

Of course, none of that happened.

On March 16, we decided to send everyone to work from home, following advice from the World Health Organization (WHO) to flatten the curve of the coronavirus spread.

Our first challenge, having our staff working from home, including the newcomers, proved not to be problematic at all. Our journalists have shown again and again they are very committed to the kind of reporting we do: covering human rights violations in all its forms.

For us, even with a very fast-shifting situation, it was not hard to decide where we should look – to the underprivileged majority and how they would be affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Every day, starting at 10 a.m., all editors start receiving an array of new ideas and angles to be covered. The engagement from our reporters to tell the stories that may get overlooked by legacy media is outstanding.

As for the reporting itself, that has proven to be a little bit more challenging. Our journalists are used to shoe-leather reporting, being out and about in the country and traveling for days to remote parts of the Amazon or the impoverished drylands, to get their stories firsthand.

In the early days of the pandemic, one reporter managed to travel to a small town in Rio de Janeiro where a 63-year-old maid was suspected to have died of coronavirus. The test results were not in yet, but we sent her to the town to see what she could find about the story. Our reporter managed to meet the family – at a distance – when they were coming back from the burial. And sure enough, she had died of corona, and her death, the first one in the state of Rio de Janeiro and the fifth in the country, is so exemplary of what is happening in Brazil.

She worked for an upper-class woman who had spent holidays in Italy and then quarantined herself as soon as she arrived home, but never dismissed the maid or told her of the risk of contamination. This information never got to the medical team. “If the information had arrived earlier, maybe we could change the clinical history,” the hospital’s director told Agência Pública

Reporting on this story – which was later covered by Reuters and the Associated Press – was only possible because we had someone on the ground. Just days later, Rio de Janeiro went on lockdown.

This case shows the sad reality of one of the most unequal countries in the world. In the past weeks, our reporters have been telling stories of informal workers who cannot afford to skip a day selling gadgets in the trains or delivering food on UberEats. They are still exposed and we are doing our best to have their voices heard.

As a leading pulmonologist said in an interview, the way coronavirus will hit Brazil is still unpredictable. The virus arrived through the middle class, who vacationed in Europe and the U.S. but is quickly moving to the lower classes, many of whom live in overpopulated favelas where social isolation is impossible. Due to Brazil’s size, there are many differences of population density, culture, lifestyles, and access to information and healthcare in different regions of the country. Think of the indigenous populations living in the Amazon jungle versus the hipsters working in start-ups in Sao Paulo, the largest city in South America.

And then, there is our president, Jair Bolsonaro. He has clashed with his own ministers, who unanimously support social isolation for everyone as a way to slow down the progression of the disease so that the public health system is able to cope with the severe cases and avoid preventable deaths. But while the health minister requested, and several governors have shut down all non-essential businesses, Bolsonaro is claiming the virus is not that dangerous, but merely a “fantasy” and “trick” promoted by the media.

The far-right president has also said governors and mayors who want a shutdown should abandon their “scorched-earth ideas” about social isolation for all. And, after having been in close contact with at least 23 people who contracted the virus, he himself has broken the quarantine to shake hands with supporters and workers in the streets of the capital, Brasilia.

More than that, the president and his digital army – informally known as the “hate cabinet” – have started to spread misinformation about the pandemic. First, they used bots to promote a hashtag accusing China of spreading the disease. Then, they spread the story that social isolation was unnecessary, even though WHO and the health minister himself have said it was necessary. Now they are questioning the number of deaths in São Paulo, the wealthiest state in the country, governed by a former ally turned opposition. The president himself has said, “I don’t believe in these numbers,” suggesting they may be inflated.

So in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Brazilian journalists are facing not only the challenges of the disease itself, but the dangers of a government that sends contradictory messages to a population that is already frightened for their health and their pockets. It is an encouraging sign that Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have, in the past few days, deleted for the first time posts from the Brazilian president, claiming they were putting lives at risk.

But what are journalists to do? From an investigative journalism perspective, we at Agência Pública believe in working toward dismissing false information with in-depth investigations. We have shown, for instance, that coronavirus casualties in Sao Paulo are actually under-reported instead of exaggerated as the president claimed.

We are also publishing interviews with top experts, which then are published by our network of 900 re-publishers. And we are digging into the ways in which the disinformation campaign, led by the president and his family, is trying to corrupt the public debate, adding even more confusion to a crisis with unpredictable developments.

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