Brazil: Bolsonaro Blocks Government from Using Mobile Data to Track Social Distancing

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazilian presidential candidate for the Social Liberal Party, attends a meeting with businessmen from the National Confederation of Industry (CNI) in Brasilia on July 4, 2018. - Brazil holds presidential elections on October 7. (Photo by EVARISTO SA / AFP) (Photo credit should read EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro this week ordered the federal government not to use cell phone data to track citizens’ adherence to social distancing guidelines amid the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, the relevant cabinet minister announced on Tuesday.

According to Minister of Science and Technology Marcos Pontes, Bolsonaro asked him for “prudence” with regard to such practices and warned that a tool to monitor cell phone data may only be used after closer examination by the government. Pontes thus stated that his ministry would not yet use the data to enforce guidelines.

“After evaluating the equipment and based on the international precedent, I recorded a video about the tool to be implemented. […] One day later, Saturday, the president called me and asked for caution with this initiative and that the tool should only be used after extra analysis by the government,” Pontes explained, “so I determined that the video and other posts should be removed from social networks until after the extra analysis and final government approval.”

Pontes added that the federal government would only use the tracking tool if it can guarantee that it works while also protecting Brazilians’ privacy. However, he pointed out that some states already have agreements with phone operators, admitting that the federal government “has no control or participation over these agreements.”

In São Paulo, Governor João Doria has already used the tracking tools to monitor agglomerations of people, after he ordered a statewide lockdown across the region. Doria has previously clashed with Bolsonaro over the severity of the pandemic, even threatening legal action if he fails to protect people’s lives.

On Wednesday, it was announced that two governors, from Rio de Janeiro and the Amazon rainforest state of Pará, had both tested positive for the Chinese coronavirus. In a video post on Twitter, Rio Governor Wilson Witzel said he had started feeling unwell Friday with a fever, sore throat and loss of smell.

“Today, the test result came back positive … Now, thank God, I’m feeling better, and will continue working while following my doctors’ advice,” said Witzel. “I ask you once again to stay at home, because this disease, as everyone can see, spreads quickly and doesn’t spare anyone.”

Witzel is another prominent critic of Bolsonaro’s approach, recently suggesting that his defiance of guidelines from the United Nations and World Health Organization may amount to “crimes against humanity.”

Bolsonaro has repeatedly played down the threat posed by the coronavirus, describing it as a “little flu” and accusing regional authorities of ruining the country’s economy.

“What I have been hearing from people is that they want to work,” he said last month. “What I have said from the beginning is that ‘we are going to be careful, the over-65s stay at home.’ We just can’t stand still, there is fear because if you don’t die of the disease, you starve.”

With its population of 200 million, Brazil has so far recorded over 26,000 cases of the coronavirus and 1,590 deaths. Such figures place its infection rates below that of other countries, although it has by far the largest number of cases in Latin America.

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