A Violent Disregard for Life: Covid-19 in Brazil

A Violent Disregard for Life: Covid-19 in Brazil

Angelo Martins Junior

It has been almost a month since the governor of São Paulo decreed a state of emergency and social isolation measures. At the time, I was in a city in the countryside of the State of São Paulo, conducting fieldwork for the ERC project I am working on, Modern Marronage? The Pursuit and Practice of Freedom in the Contemporary World. The project uses histories of Atlantic World slavery, and the means by which enslaved people sought to escape it, to guide research on marginalised people’s efforts to move closer to freedom today. So, my days are now mostly spent reading on the history of slavery and its aftermath, and anxiously following news on the Covid-19 pandemic, topics that are closely entwined in the Brazilian context.

Here, as elsewhere in the world, the Covid-19 crisis has illuminated existing inequalities. Up to now, Brazil has reported 43.079 confirmed cases, and 2.741 deaths. These numbers are known to be underestimates, due to the lack of tests available in Brazil. The country had ordered tests and IPE from China, but many of these orders were cancelled after the U.S sent 23 military cargo airplanes to China to buy medical equipment. Research suggests that Brazil has at least twice or possibly 9 times the reported number of deaths from Covid-19.

In addition to the unequal global power relations that left Brazil without enough tests and IPE as the virus spread throughout the country, there are internal inequalities playing out.

So far, the majority of deaths are concentrated in the city of São Paulo. The prediction is that the virus will spread to poorer states and smaller cities in the countryside, which do not have the same resources as São Paulo, and are already struggling with shortages of doctors, nurses, hospital facilities and IPEs.

Brazil has a free and universal public health service, the SUS, created by the ‘fresh’ democratic constitution of 1988. However, although around 80% of the Brazilian population depends entirely on SUS for health treatment, only 3.8% of the country’s GDP is spent on the public health system, almost half the average spent by OECD members (6.5%). As a consequence, Brazil has long struggled to maintain the quality of its public health provision. This problem was exacerbated by the approval of the Constitutional Amendment (PEC) 241/2016, a neoliberal austerity reform which freezes public spending in vital areas for 20 years, wrecking the public health system as well as other public services. Those who can pay for expensive health insurance are able to access good private health services. In fact, per capita private spending on health exceeds public spending; Brazilian families spend 5.4% of the country’s GDP on private health care, twice the average of OECD countries (2.3%).

The division between those who can afford access to high quality health care and those who cannot is just one aspect of the immense social inequality that creates radically different living conditions for rich and poor in Brazil. Indeed, in the current crisis, much of the country’s population simply cannot enact the practices recommended by the World Health Organisation to prevent contagion, such as washing hands or social isolation. Some 38 million people (41.4% of the labour market) are informal workers whose earning activities are street based, and who live from hand to mouth without any form of social security or protection. It is estimated that more than 100 thousand people are homeless. 31 million people (16% of the population) lack access to a water supply system; 13.6 million people live in the thousands of favelas spread across a country that is twice the size of the European Union.

According to research conducted by Data Favela/Instituto Locomotiva, 70% of favela residents have seen their family income decrease in recent weeks, due to the interruption of economic activities caused by the virus; and 86% will suffer from hunger and struggle to buy any other basic survival items if they do not work for a month. After pressure, the government did develop a support plan for the poorest people, distributing R$600 (£100) per month for three months. But this is not enough for people to survive, and without a government plan to support and protect people living in the favelas, several local organisations are working to try to keep the most high risk groups safe and to prevent people from dying from hunger.

A study has shown that, so far, it is poor people, particularly women between 30-39 years old, living in the urban peripheries, who are most likely to be infected and to die from the virus. It seems that, in Brazil, postcode, social background and gender (linked to care and domestic work) are as strong risk factors as age group. Also, the majority of people living in bad sanitary conditions in poor urban areas are pretos (black) and pardos (‘brown’) people. As in the US and the UK, historically marginalised communities of black and brown people are thus disproportionately affected by Covid-19.

Despite efforts to contain the spread of virus by some State Governors as well as city Mayors and organisations inside of the favelas, many Brazilians still do not take the pandemic seriously. I occasionally leave my apartment, wearing a mask, to drive for supplies and am always shocked by the amount of people on the streets. People exercising in crowded places, stopping and drinking in front of off licenses that are supposedly open only for take away and delivery services. Most people are not wearing masks, and, worse, they mock and are even violent towards those who do wear masks. Data shows that the social isolation rate in Brazil is around 50%, well below the optimal level of 70%.

Bolsonaro’s deny and defy approach to the Coronavirus pandemic has already been widely reported in the international media. Over the past month, the president has claimed that the Covid-19 crisis is a media fabrication and trick,  or a little flu that can not harm athletic people like him. He has also attacked scientists and fired his Health Minister for defending and promoting social isolation; urged people to go on demonstrations against their governors and isolation measures. He has even taken part in demonstrations, shaking supporters’ hands and wading into crowds thronging in gas stations, bakeries and supermarkets. Bolsonaro mobilises his support with a narrative that places the economy and the virus in competitive opposition, claiming that he is trying to save lives by demanding an end to social isolation, since hunger is a far greater threat to the mass of Brazilian people than a ‘little flu’. He therefore argues that we should isolate the elderly, and allow the rest to go back to their normal lives.

Hundreds of his supporters have taken to the streets across large cities in Brazil, waving Brazilian flags, calling the pandemic a communist farce,  chanting and shouting violent, nationalistic and authoritarian slogans, calling for the closure of the parliament, asking for dictatorship/military intervention, and mocking death (and those who died) in a morbid scene where protesters danced around coffins held in the air (see video here). Many people have been physically attacked by demonstrators on grounds that they are against Bolsonaro or simply for wearing red (a sign that is read as implying the person is ‘a communist threat’ – see video here). Other demonstrators have suggested killing governors who have decreed social isolation. Although you can find people from different groups supporting the end of isolation, research conducted on previous demonstrations in São Paulo supporting Bolsonaro shows that his average supporter is a middle-class white conservative man. A similar ‘face’ is found in the current protests (see video here).

These demonstrations are visceral testaments to two things that go hand in hand in Brazil – first, the absence of belief that the state has any role to play in providing for people, and second, a violent disregard for life. Instead of asking why the state is not providing for people so they can safely stay at home, the idea that people will die from hunger if they are not allowed to work individualises the problem and fosters violent sentiments towards those who defend social isolation measures.

Many will rightly link the popular response to the pandemic to neoliberal politics and its individualising social enterprise. It is true that, from the 1980s, neoliberal policies, and their individualising ideological commitments, have been normalised in Brazil, translating all social problems into matters of individual misfortune or misdeed. We can say, indeed, that the ‘neoliberal rationale’ has become a hegemonic feature of the Brazilian cognitive political struggle as well as in people’s minds.  This could help us understand why so many people do not see the state as responsible for caring for its population, instead of sending them to work to avoid dying from hunger even when this means spreading a virus that will kill thousands.

But we also need to remember that in the colonial and post-colonial order of Brazil, violence, disregard for (particular) lives and state repression have been almost omnipresent features. Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery, after having enslaved 4.9 million Africans or 40% of the total number forcibly taken to the Americas. To transform people into slaves, it was necessary to continually repeat acts of violence designed to impress upon the enslaved the knowledge that they were nothing but slaves, with no existence conceivable except as an appendage to the master who owned them. Violence was not only a matter of punishment, but something core to the existence of the enslaved, the masters and the whole system of slavery. For centuries, the mass of people in Brazil were condemned to live in a society where their own social status and very existence was dependent on perpetuating and/or submitting to acts of violence, and this has had great consequences for later generations, long after “emancipation”.

After abolition, an entire class of black and mixed people, the formerly enslaved and their descendants, as well as lighter skinned poor Brazilians were left to their own fates, having to survive in the poor peripheries of large urban centres. They have been marginalised both in the configuration of urban space and in the labour market, dealing with daily exclusion and discrimination. In Brazil, there was never a welfare state, as in Western Europe, which could attempt to remedy such inequalities by providing the basic social rights and protections required for this population to be able to live with dignity. In fact, after independence, almost all governments that have tried to promote social justice and diminish social inequality were impeached or suffered a military coup. In this context, violence has continued to be an important element into Brazilian’s social order.

The descendants of the enslaved and lighter skinned poor Brazilians have historically faced a discourse of degradation, rejection from the human commonwealth, and state violence – often being executed on the streets by the police. They are the ones now struggling in the favelas, being told to go back to their already precarious, low paid and insecure work to avoid dying from hunger in a moment of health crisis.

As Stuart Hall has noted, it’s difficult to work through the question of how violent colonial pasts inhabit the historical present. Yet there can be no doubt that this past still reverberates in Brazil’s socio-politic-economical structures, as well as in its collective psyche today. Unbidden, our history shapes a present in which the state and many ordinary people place no value on the lives of millions of their fellow beings, and are not only willing to allow death en mass but often to violently attack those who do, symbolically or materially, act to preserve the lives of all alike.


Angelo Martins Junior Is Research Associate in the School of Sociology, Politics & International Studies at the University of Bristol and member of the Laboratory of Work, Professions and Mobility at UFSCar/Brazil. He is Regional Editor of  Global Dialogue – International Sociological Association (ISA), and author of Moving Difference: Brazilians in London.

Image: Author’s own. A ‘street recycler’ and informal worker’s barrow – ‘My dream … is to have righst’