SANTIAGO — An ongoing investigation into the Health Department’s transparency in handling Covid-19-related deaths is looking to access emails exchanged by health authorities like former Minister of Health, Jaime Mañalich. Former epidemiological workers have claimed that the department altered figures. Both the government and the Health Department have denied access to classified emails, but the Supreme Court might soon mandate their release to help the investigation.
Santiago’s Centro Norte District Attorney’s Office opened an investigation into Covid-19-related death figures and the Health Department’s response to the crisis during the pandemic.
The DA’s Office requested private emails exchanged by health officials that both the government and the Ministry of Health have refused to provide amid allegations that the death figures may have been doctored. That is why an official request for the documents was sent to the Supreme Court, which will announce its decision sometime this week.
Amid the investigation, the Health Secretary’s Office (Seremi) in the Metropolitan Region was burglarized over the weekend, creating suspicion among investigators after 19 computers were reported stolen. However, authorities have said that no sensitive information was taken, and that 15 of those computers were brand new.
Former Health Workers’ Testimonies Crucial in Investigation
As part of the investigation, there have been a few testimonies that could be crucial in determining the government’s responsibility in a number of Covid-19-related deaths.
Investigative news outlet Ciper got access to statements Andrea Albagli gave to the DA’s Office. Albagli worked on the daily epidemiological reports on infections, but resigned on Sept. 15.
In her testimony, she talked about receiving a direct order from the Ministry of Health in April—headed by Mañalich at the time— to change the statistics of people infected with Covid-19. She mentioned six witnesses that could confirm her statement.
Albagli also handed over emails written by her, in which she questioned the way the figures were being handled and warned that the authorities were not adopting measures to clarify the numbers.
Another testimony, obtained by broadcaster T13, is from Johanna Acevedo, former head of the Ministry of Health’s Planning Division and also former head of the Epidemiology Department.
Acevedo was in charge of implementing the Epivigila platform, the database where Covid-19 cases and deaths are registered. According to her testimony, former minister, Jaime Mañalich, decided to set up a “parallel system,” to keep track of the numbers in addition to Epivigila.
According to the epidemiologist, the information was incomplete because of the different platforms being used at the time. She also said that she still has all the emails to back up her statements.
The Government’s Position
President Piñera’s attorneys, former Minister of Health Jaime Mañalich, and Undersecretaries of Health Arturo Zúñiga and Paula Daza asked the Supreme Court to dismiss the DA’s Office request for emails exchanged among health officials during the first months of the pandemic.
They have all argued that the request wasn’t made properly, and also claimed the information in those emails could compromise national security. The latter reason is explained in the document given by the attorneys to the Supreme Court. “The requested information compromises national security, as it includes negotiations made by the Chilean state to face the pandemic, such as the purchase of ventilators. This should be kept classified.”
To this argument, the chief of the Centro Norte District Attorney’s Office, Xavier Armendariz, responded by asking the Supreme Court to not cave in. “Accepting the ministry’s request would be a terrible precedent.”
The incumbent health minister, Enrique Paris, has come under criticism for defending his predecessor and keeping the information from being released to the public. However, he recently denied all the allegations and said in a press conference that “it’s not that I am personally refusing. It is unbelievable for the media to claim that ‘Paris refuses to give information,’ it’s not like that. It is the Ministry of Health’s legal team.” And he ended by saying that they will turn over all the information if the Supreme Court asks them to.
Fernanda Gándara is currently finishing her journalism degree at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. She’s passionate about writing, environmental issues and women empowerment. You can find her on Twitter as @FerGMarchant