Drummond, the stone and the loss



Pressures from the Bolsonaro government to hide and distort data about the pandemic are part of the Flat Earth strategy of persistently denying facts.

Upon leaving the Ministry of Health (MS) at the end of May 2020, after 17 months leading the Health Surveillance Secretariat (SVS), and having the task of delivering reliable epidemiological data on the COVID pandemic to the Brazilian government and society -19, Wanderson Kleber de Oliveira, quoted his countryman Carlos Drummond de Andrade and the poem, now a classic, “No Meio do Caminho”1. “There was a stone in the middle of the road, there was a stone in the middle of the road”, wrote the enigmatic Oliveira, who has been an epidemiologist for SVS/MS for 17 years, without clarifying what metaphorical “stones” (obstacles, difficulties…) he was referring to.

The stone that Drummond made eternal in 1928 when he published his poem in the first edition of Anthropophagy Journal it could have just been a stone, one of the many that the poet came across when walking through the alleys of Minas Gerais Itabira. But the poet, back in the 1920s, like the epidemiologist, now in 2020, would not be so literal. Drummond, for being a poet and Oliveira, for understandable reasons: he helped create SVS and, as he insisted on mentioning in his farewell letter2, has been a “civil servant” at the Ministry of Health since 2003. Oliveira could even leave the command, but he would not go “throwing stones” at the SVS.

There is, however, more than stones in the poem and the quotation. A lot more.

Gilberto Mendonça Teles, one of the best contemporary Brazilian poets from Goiás, a profound connoisseur and perceptive analyst of the work of the poet from Itabirá, author of 'Drummond, the stylistics of repetition', suggests the hypothesis of a hyperthesis in the poem3. According to Teles, the poem “No Meio do Caminho” would be a kind of obituary for Carlos Flávio, Drummond's first son who, born in 1927, survived for just half an hour. Resorting to the hypothesis would have transformed the word pergive in pedra, with the displacement of the “r”. The poem's stone would have the intention of, so to speak, placing a stone in the loss, a kind of sepulchral slab attributing to the stone the function of a poetic tombstone.

“The numbers speak for themselves”, goes the saying and many believe it. This is not quite the case, although some numbers seem to scream for themselves. Numbers, more properly given for what matters to us here, do not speak for themselves, as they always require, as with poetry, some interpretation. Sometimes, the junction or articulation of two data produces a third meaning, which is not present in the data taken separately. The production of meaning in these situations is a phenomenon similar to that obtained by repeating a word in a poem, as Drummond masterfully did, expert in technique.

The word is there, it is the same, but with each repetition it changes its meaning, altering the whole of which it is a part. Likewise with data. For this reason, readings, analyses, interpretations are never neutral, as they are inevitably marked by the beliefs and values ​​of those who carry them out. This consideration about numbers and data and words occurred to me when trying to decipher which stones Wanderson Oliveira is referring to that he, out of loyalty to colleagues and the SVS, could not make public when asking to leave. The facts after his dismissal, involving the disclosure of data by the Ministry of Health, constitute the key. Obviously, I will not talk about hydroxychloroquine, raw garlic, prayers or blessings, stones certainly, but sufficiently addressed by other writers.

By completely changing the standard created by Wanderson and colleagues at SVS/MS to disseminate data on the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Health, by determination of its executive secretary, complied with a requirement by the Planalto Palace that the number deaths from the pandemic would have to be less than “a thousand per day”. Bolsonaro’s order was based on advice from a well-known commercial entrepreneur, for whom the data that had been announced did not match reality, as “the hospitals are empty”4. But everything was announced as if the reason was to seek to “increase transparency” and “facilitate understanding” about the evolution of the pandemic “by region”, following the Hamilton Mourão method of reversing intentions and responsibilities.

The Vice President of the Republic has been noted for attributing to others, especially governors and mayors, practices that mark the government of which he is a part. He accuses opponents, for example, of “politicizing and partisanizing the epidemic”, which is precisely what Bolsonaro has done, repeatedly, since the first news about COVID-19. Instead of carrying out the attributions that the law imposes on him, he does nothing and accuses others of being what he is: negligent and incompetent, qualities that he proudly displays to the country on a daily basis.

Pressures to hide and distort data about the COVID-19 pandemic have been marking all MS actions, under Bolsonaro, whose government has shown an irresistible tendency to hide data, as part of its terraplanista strategy of denying facts, so as to stubborn. According to this strategy, what matters is the version that interests the government, not the facts to which they refer. It is a government strategy that, involving several sectors, is not limited to the Ministry of Health and the violation of data on COVID-19.

In this context, and for this purpose, “statistic blackouts” are not only possible, but desirable. According to Thais Carrança, da 'Brazil Reporter'5, the main unemployment and income indicators in the country are suspended or face problems that could compromise their disclosure. The reporter recalls that the General Register of Employed and Unemployed People (CAGED), an indicator of hiring and dismissal of workers with a formal contract, released monthly, has not had data published since last January. There is no date for the data to be released again. Since December 2018, unemployment insurance data have also not been updated. And the National Household Sample Survey (PNAD) Continuous, by IBGE, which covers the formal and informal labor market and reveals the official unemployment rate in the country, has been carried out by telephone.

The percentage of people who respond dropped from 90% to 60% and, with the impaired sample, the investigation could have its results compromised. Still in the field of health, after an exhaustive planning process of more than two years, the holding of the National Oral Health Survey of Indigenous Peoples, whose fieldwork was about to begin in the second quarter of 2020, was interrupted.

It may not have been the only one, but certainly the production and analysis of epidemiological data within the scope of the SVS/MS was one of the stones referred to by the epidemiologist.

It is worth noting that the fight against and control of epidemics relies on data and their timely and adequate dissemination, precisely one of the most effective “therapeutic” resources. Information is, in these contexts, an indispensable remedy. The power of its credibility is equivalent to the active principle of a medicine. If there is no reliability, it is as if the medicine were fake, or a simple placebo. The data therefore needs to be clear, exact, precise.

In the 66st century BC, the historical period in which Rome was beginning to form an empire, pirate ships, by the hundreds, dominated navigation in the Mediterranean and, challenging Roman power, created difficulties for trade, including the transport of wheat between provinces and to the political center of the empire. In XNUMX BC, after looting and robbery on the coast of what is now Italy, the Romans reacted, under the command of Pompey. The pirates were crushed militarily.

Plutarch narrated the life of Pompey (106-48 BC) and attributed to the Roman general the phrase “Sailing is necessary; to live is not necessary”. But Plutarch wrote in Greek and may have been mistranslated into Latin, the language in which the phrase reached the poet Fernando Pessoa. Many complain about the Portuguese who, incorporating it into the poem 'Navegar é Escolha', added, interpreting: “living is not necessary; what is needed is to create”. There are those who argue that it makes no sense to say that living is not necessary, but navigating does, because at the individual level the first is a condition for the second. Or the contrast between living and creating.

Pessoa would have let himself be carried away by a bad translation and embarked on a leaky canoe. I make this long consideration to affirm my alignment with another interpretation that some people make of Pompey's phrase, the one that sees in the term “precise” another meaning, that of accuracy, not of necessity. According to this interpretation, Pompey would have said, based on his maritime experience, that “Sailing is exact, but living is not”. Safe navigation requires course accuracy, which must be precise, exact, which we cannot give to our lives, as unpredictable events often change what we plan.

Producing accurate information on a daily basis, based on exact data, checking and confirming what is necessary, is what is taught, in qualifications and training, to Public Health employees who deal with injuries and diseases. During their training, they are prepared to recognize, respect and value scientific knowledge and responsibly exercise the functions assigned to them. This is what more than 1.700 SVS workers learned, both those working in Brasília and those working at the Evandro Chagas Institute and at the National Primate Center, in Ananindeua, Pará.

But federal government officials do not care or consider what these public servants think about the work they do. At the Ministry of Health, accurate information, based on accurate, duly verified and credible data, has not been properly produced during the pandemic. Since the beginning, there have been difficulties with underreporting and the precariousness of data, despite the competence and effort of these professionals.

There is visible dissatisfaction and professional frustration among public servants working in MS. There is open talk of “fear and persecution”6. Worse: although inaccurate and admittedly underreported, the data are currently being replaced by advertising pieces that spread praises to society for the President of the Republic, producing propagandistic maneuvers7 to hide deaths caused by COVID-19.

The deliberate invisibility of the pandemic, which is sought to be achieved by manipulating and hiding data, is part of the flat-Earth strategy of denying its occurrence. Bolsonaro effectively wants to put a stone on the COVID-19 data. For him, this would have happened in the first weeks of the pandemic's evolution, hence his undisguised fury against former minister Luiz Mandetta and his successor, Nelson Teich. But the validity of democratic freedoms prevents it. Yet. To go forward in its sepulchral purpose, it will have to tear up the Constitution.

It is, therefore, contrary to what Wanderson Oliveira thinks, more than a stumbling block. This is the irreparable loss of valuable data about a disease that has been killing thousands, in all social classes, throughout Brazil. Stone is criminal data loss. But this is just one of the stones. As a competent epidemiologist, Oliveira knows exactly what this means.

Although Bolsonaro celebrated the move of his publicists in MS (“An article in the National Journal is over!"), the gravediggers are witnesses of the deaths that the MS wants to hide from society, because in cemeteries the earth is round and the versions flat earthers of government publicists do not alter burials.

Oliveira knows that if data loss is a stumbling block, he also knows that there are seven stumbling blocks in the ten lines of Drummond's poem. He knows, therefore, though perhaps he prefers not to admit it, that there is a keystone in the stony reiterations of the poem. The main stone is Bolsonaro. The poem needs to be rewritten in part: “In the middle of the road there was a Bolsonaro/I will never forget that event/In the life of my very tired retinas/I will never forget that in the middle of the road/There was a Bolsonaro/There was a Bolsonaro in the middle of path". I regret the bad taste, and I sincerely apologize to the poet, but this is the truth of the poem, for the quotation that Wanderson Oliveira made of it.

Regarding the turmoil with the data related to the new coronavirus pandemic, Rodrigo Maia, president of the Chamber of Deputies, complained about the MS’s impudence, asked for seriousness and said that “you don’t play with deaths and patients”. Maia seems uncomfortable seeing Brazil alongside North Korea, where Kim Jong-un decreed that Covid-19 did not cause death or even affect any North Korean citizen. Or on the verge of reproducing Turkmenistan, a country that simply banned the words “pandemic”, “COVID-19” and “coronavirus”, as Marcello Rollemberg recorded in Journal of USP8. The attempt to restore order in the house, to end the mess of data in MS, came with a determination from the STF. Pandemic is a state matter, not just the executive branch, or a part of the government. But the mess goes on and the mess dominates the Ministry of Health.

In “Bicharada”, music from the children’s opera the Mummers, Chico Buarque talks about a certain country: “Once upon a time/And it still is/A certain country/And it still is/Where animals/Were treated like beasts/They still are, they still are”.

They are. Yet.

* Paulo Capel Narvai is Senior Professor of Public Health at USP


  1. Andrade CD. Halfway [internet]. Available here
  2. In a letter, Wanderson de Oliveira mentions 'stones in the way' and says he lost motivation after the tension on April 14. G1 Bem Estar [internet]. May 27, 2020. Available here.
  3. Gilberto Mendonca Teles. Interview with Marcos Caldeira Mendonça. The train. Itabira, June 30, 2012. Available here.
  4. Change in disclosure occurred after Bolsonaro demanded less than a thousand deaths per day. Time [internet]. 8 Jun 2020. Available here.
  5. Lack of government transparency promotes 'statistical blackout' on unemployment. Reporter Brazil [internet]. By Thais Carrança. 22 Apr 2020. Available here.
  6. The climate among technicians from the Ministry of Health is one of fear and persecution. See [internet]. By Mariana Zylberkan. 8 Jun 2020. Available here.
  7. Ministry of Health changes format for disclosing covid-19 data. Agência Brasil [internet]. By Andreia Verdelio. 8 Jun 2020. Available here.
  8. Rollemberg M. You can't play with numbers. Journal of USP [internet]. 8 Jun 2020. Available here.
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