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Latin America has a transparency problem when it comes to COVID-19

In the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, the governments of 12 countries on the American continent have hidden some relevant information in managing the public health crisis, and although Mexico has so far shown one of the best openings, it is still lagging behind in several items, according to a pan-regional journalistic investigation.

Brazil, Guatemala and Paraguay do not disclose the geographical location of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 by location, something that only this week the Mexican government began to do when the Federal Ministry of Health opened the information on infections at the municipal level.

However, Mexico has other important transparency issues: to accurately disclose the number of beds available for those requiring hospitalization and to provide specific data on the number of tests carried out to confirm or rule out cases of infected people .

The government reported a month ago that IMSS had 1,867 beds in intensive care areas and another 1,553 were available in medical services. Since then, converted hospitals and private hospitals have been added, but the total number has not been updated nor has the number of beds available by state been disclosed.

“The number is undetermined because they are not audited figures. A hospital may say it has a thousand beds, but what does a thousand beds mean? The technicians themselves tell you that a bed is not literally a bed, but is the set of connections, medical and technical resources around a bed. So there is the fantasy that a stadium can be enabled as a hospital in Brazil,” said Eduardo Bohórquez, executive director of Transparencia Mexicana.

Other countries that, like Mexico, do not reveal exactly the capacity they have of beds in intensive care units are Ecuador, El Salvador and Guatemala, according to the Latin American Alliance of Investigative Journalism “Centinela COVID-19”, which groups 15 media in more than a dozen countries.

“In the entire region, there are only two data points that are universally available: how many people have been confirmed as COVID-19 carriers each day and how many have died. Not even the statistics of how many people have recovered are public throughout the continent, underscoring how Latin American governments are betting on communicating a minimum amount of data on the disease caused by the new coronavirus,” the Sentinel research revealed.

Regarding detection tests, Mexico reports every day on the number of positive and negative cases, which allows calculating the volume of tests carried out. However, there is a lack of clarity as there is in countries like Bolivia, which even reveals where the samples are being taken.

“The information that governments provide about testing, which is one of the most urgent technical capabilities to scale, is generally restricted. Less than half of Latin American countries consistently disclose the numbers of screening tests they perform each day,” said the Sentinel report.

In the Latin American context, Mexico stands out because it has shown that it is open to reporting, although the opening of data has been gradual, as happened with the disaggregation of cases by municipality, published only on April 13.

And although it has shown a willingness to report and detail more precisely the evolution of infections, it is also true that Mexico is among the countries that decided to temporarily suspend the attention to requests for access to public information, under the pretext of a health emergency.

Argentina, Colombia and Peru also modified the terms and periods to respond to requests for public information, extending the legal deadlines or changing the response conditions.

This debt with transparency places Mexico on the same level as Argentina, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia or the United States, where governments have chosen not to disclose information that, in the context of the pandemic, it would allow civil society to proactively participate in containment measures.

“In an emergency, information about the emergency itself and its economic and social consequences is vital,” said Eduardo Bohórquez.

In addition to the lengthening of deadlines for responding to requests, the fact that the National Transparency Institute ( INAI ), the body guaranteeing the right to public information, has had to suspend its sessions on the grounds of respecting the national strategy of healthy distance. The deadline to attend review resources and complaints from those who request information from public agencies is suspended until April 30.

The Brazilian government also tried on March 23 to extend the deadlines set forth in the Access to Information Law, but the measure was temporarily revoked days later by a Supreme Court, so it is not currently in force.

The most extreme case regarding transparency and access to information is that of Honduras, where President Juan Orlando Hernández decreed a state of emergency and suspended several articles of the Constitution, including the one that protects the right to freedom of expression.

“Such disproportionate measures affect the right of the population to access complete information about Covid-19,” said Edison Lanza, the special rapporteur for freedom of expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ( IACHR ).

“You should not abuse these measures to limit freedom of expression, particularly at a time when the media play a key role in keeping society informed and safe,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists ( Global CPJ ).

In Mexico, the federal government has yet to provide the data and evidence it uses in its projection model for the spread of COVID-19 in the country. These models help authorities make important decisions for protecting the public but their sources are being tightly held in the government.

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