Brazil, Corona and the History of Epidemics

Brazil, Corona and the History of Epidemics

Patricia Lorenzoni

In March of this year, in the solitariness of a Rio apartment during lockdown, philosopher Marcia Cavalcante Schuback gave a lecture entitled “On the isolation of the world”, in collaboration with the YouTube channel Bazar do Tempo. What does it mean, Schuback asked, to do philosophical reflection in times of pandemic? And more specifically, what does it mean not only in a certain time, but also in a specific place; a country that knows all too well epidemics of different kinds, be they biotic, social, or political. A country, where ever since the very beginning of the modern era, indigenous people have been killed and exterminated through epidemics.

One could pose a related question: How to deal with the historical fact that epidemic contagion is constitutive in the making of Brazil, and that it was so before Brazil was even thought of as “Brazil”?

On April 28, president Jair Messias Bolsonaro held an outdoor press hearing during which a reporter asked for his comment on Brazil recently surpassing China in Covid-19 deaths. Visibly impatient, the president retorted, to the sound of chuckles from supporters: “So what? I’m sorry, what do you want me to do? I’m Messiah, but I don’t do miracles.”

Reactions to this tasteless pun followed a by now familiar dramaturgy. It became the object of indignation and notes of public repudiation, against a president who had already on various occasions trivialized the spreading of the virus and demonstratively defied measures of social distancing. Emotions of shame over the country being represented by such a man, were expressed.

Yet, despite a growing political chaos, as with former scandals nothing seems to shake Bolsonaro’s devoted supporters. Not only is he his own middle name Messias, but he is also O Mito. “the myth”. This soubriquet circulates widely together with Bolsonaro’s picture on posters, memes, t-shirts and the like.

A strange myth, it might seem; a Messiah without miracles, strikingly devoid of personal charisma. Bolsonaro is the military man who never managed to rise above the degree of captain, and who later as a congress deputy never distinguished himself except for occasional racist, sexist or homophobic slurs.

When he was sworn in as president, writer and journalist Eliane Brum observed that what Brazil was now experiencing was mediocrity rising to power. She did not write this as a mere dismissal articulated from a position as public intellectual, but rather in an effort to understand the peculiar form fascism is taking in Brazil.

Bolsonaro’s image rests on him being the “ordinary man”. He manages to represent segments of Brazilian society that feel the increasing discomfort of the loss of privilege, and that are now allowed to see their aggressive attacks on feminism, antiracism and leftism as legitimate self-defense. We all have an uncle or cousin like him, Brum wrote. Or perhaps our whole family is him. Bolsonaro elevated to “myth” might be the most perfect political incarnation of predominantly white, male and middle class resentment.

If Bolsonaro incarnate “ordinary man”, what is the “ordinary” in a country like Brazil? The president’s reaction to the reporter’s question is a case in point. As Schuback noticed in setting the ground for her reflection: epidemics are no strangers in Brazil. The fatalism in Bolsonaro’s remark makes visible the continuity between the instrumental role of pathogens in colonial warfare and how the exposure to contagion in poverty-stricken areas and neighborhoods becomes part of a continuing class war.

Whole population categories – be they indigenous, be they poor, be they both – are simply expected to suffer mass death. Segments of the population that are more fortunate tend to react to the fate of the unfortunate ones with either tolerance, bare celebration, or indifference. As the president says: What do you want me to do?

The pathogen itself might not recognize race nor class. But as we know, vulnerability to infection is unevenly distributed along those very lines. In Alicia Schmidt Camacho’s expression, there are those who travel under the sign of death; narrative hegemony constructs them as always already doomed, and their death will therefore neither surprise nor upset too much.

In the imagination of the Brazilian national project, this is exactly the place assigned for indigenous people, inserted in an evolutionary slot as anachronistically surviving representatives of a pre-colonial past. Reading representations of the índio in Brazilian literature from romanticism and onward, Antônio Paulo Graça talks about a “poetics of genocide”, and draws a direct ideological line between representations of the vanishing índio and colonial interests in the Brazilian inlands. This poetics of genocide so impregnates Brazilian culture – this is one of Graça’s main points – that not even those appearing as defenders of the causa indígena, the indigenous cause, escape it.

Following the implications of Graça’s study, we should inquire into what the supposed inevitableness of indigenous death looks like historically. Despite often fragmentary documentation, examples are abundant. Let us take just one, relatively recent: the experience of epidemic infection suffered in the 1960s by the A’uwe (Xavante) of Marâiwatsédé in Mato Grosso. Through interviews, as well as the archives of Brazilian indigenist agency Funai, Patrícia de Mendonça Rodrigues pieces together the history of a tragedy foretold.

In 1965 the A’uwe of Marâiwatsédé were persuaded to accept a relocation from their traditional territory to the Salesian mission São Marcos in Mato Grosso. The relocation was a result of an agreement between land grabbers, functionaries of the then indigenist agency SPI and the Catholic missionaries. The aircrafts used to transport the two hundred and thirty-six A’uwe belonged to the Brazilian Air Force. For the A’uwe themselves, agreeing to the move was motivated by an impossible situation; for years they had been fighting an uneven struggle against colonial invaders, suffering severe decimation.

When the time came to relocate the community to São Marcos and thus liberate the land for latifundia, the mission that was to receive them was plagued by an outbreak of measles. Even so, the relocation was carried through. The new inhabitants of São Marcos were on arrival exposed to a contagious disease against which they had no immunity. Numbers are imprecise, but what is clear is that for the group itself it was an apocalyptic experience. Around half of the population died, newly arrived as well as those already living at the mission.

Survivors became deeply traumatized by witnessing bodies being loaded on trucks to be thrown in mass graves without ritual care. There are testimonies of children being separated from their parents by the mission priests and taken away without any information given the families, who would never see them again. Psychologist Bruno Simões Gonçalves, who made interviews in the community in 2016 for the Brazilian Federal Attorney (MPF), concludes that the experiences of repeated displacement, culminating in mass death by measles, created a collective and cumulative psychosocial trauma transmitted to the following generations.

In times of pandemic we are on a daily basis fed with numbers. Death is quantified, at the time of writing in hundreds of thousands. Stories such as the one above risks drowning in these numbers. But the experiences of the A’uwe of Marâiwatsédé points to something crucial in understanding the history of colonial Brazil – and I write colonial as a reference to the present as much as the past, for from indigenous perspective there is nothing postcolonial about Brazil.

The history of Brazil, right up to our times, is a history of “micro-genocides”. Each event is relatively small in the number of deaths, but for the communities they are of apocalyptic proportions. Community after community have seen colonial violence and epidemics sweeping away now a third, now half, now the very majority of their population. The resistance of the dead and of the survivors, the loss and the trauma, or the struggle to recover what was lost, have never been made part of Brazilian collective memory.

Today’s pandemic, therefore, resonates against five centuries of history. If the virus does not know neither class nor race, the health history of those infected as well as their access to health care play a crucial role for the outcome. The setbacks in terms of protection of land and health assistance which indigenous communities have seen since Bolsonaro assumed presidential power in January 2019, is unprecedented.

While we repeatedly hear that the virus mainly affects the elderly, and that those of us who are relatively young need not worry too much, among the first three indigenous deaths from Covid-19 in Brazil was a schoolboy from the Yanomami community Rehebe in the state of Roraima. Fifteen years old Alvanei Xirixana came to the General Hospital of Roraima on April 3rd with a fever, respiratory difficulties, and chest pains. He died after a week in intensive care.

Quoting a street beggar in Rio, shouting out his panic in front of the possibility of the virus reaching communities of people treated as disposable, Marcia Cavalcante Schuback suggest the concept of multicídio. Multicide as a crime not only against the many, but against the very dynamics of multiplicity. The rise of the new fascist right in Brazil – mediocrity elevated to myth as Eliane Brum suggests – is an accentuation of a war long waged against multiplicity, against the existence of multiple worlds within the world. For all its arrogant vulgarity, the president’s commentary to the reporter’s question was nothing out of the ordinary.

Camacho, A. S. (2004). Body Counts on the Mexico-U.S. Border: Feminicidio, Reification, and the Theft of Mexicana Subjectivity. Chicana/Latina Studies 4(1), 22-60.
Graça, A. P. (1998). Uma poética do genocídio, Topbooks, Rio de Janeiro.
Rodrigues, P. de. M. (2018). Marâiwatsédé, uma tragédia anunciada. Espaço Ameríndio 12(2), 181-211.


Patricia Lorenzoni is a research fellow at Centre for Multidisciplinary Studies on Racism (Cemfor), Uppsala University. Among her recent publications are ’With admirable precision they exercise Swedish gymnastics …’: Nation-building and production of innocence in early Brazilian state indigenism”, Educação em Revista, vol 35 2019, and ”What’s in a landscape? Indigenous art and the coevalness of colonial expansion”, PARSE Journal vol 8: Exclusion, 2018.


Image Credit: author’s own, Acampamento Terra Livre, a national indigenous mobilization