COVID-19 and Conflict | The state’s failure to respond to COVID-19 in Brazil: an intentional disaster

The COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil stretches beyond the fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The inaction of the government over the past year to counter the effects of the pandemic has worsened living conditions for millions of Brazilians and ultimately resulted in the loss of lives. We argue that the intentional disaster resulting from the mismanagement of the pandemic was caused by the direct (in)action of the federal government as gross negligence rooted in apathy clashed with historically constructed conditions.

“The famous ‘stay home’ idea does not work for us here; it is not our reality […] quarantine in the favelas is the biggest fake news invented.” (Gilson Rodrigues, communitarian leader)

“The domestic worker already has a lot against her. If the boss gets sick, he uses his private healthcare system and is treated and cured. Domestic workers use the public system, stand in a large queue, and most of them die. This is the case not only for the domestic worker, but for all poor workers.” (Cleide Pinto, domestic workers union)

The above quotes provide just a glimpse of life during the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil, painting a picture of gross negligence, mismanagement, and death. These stories are not exceptions. Millions of Brazilians have had to navigate the pandemic, suffering as much from the inaction of the federal government as they did in fighting the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The pandemic became a crisis as the virus entered the country via elites and as existing inequities were compounded as the government stalled. The failure to act to save lives through imposing crucial pandemic measures is why we call it an intentional disaster.

To understand how this intentional disaster came to pass, we performed desk research and a qualitative comparative analysis of in-depth semi-structured interviews[1] conducted with members of three civil society groups in Brazil: residents of favelas (informal settlements), domestic workers, and indigenous peoples of the Amazon. Interviews took place in July 2020, at the peak of the first wave of the pandemic in Brazil. The struggles of the three groups to survive the pandemic represent an ongoing fight, but also show their capacity to be organized, innovative, and quick in resistance. The common threat to the studied groups, besides the virus, was and remains the inaction of the government.

Inequalities in Brazilian society were dramatically exposed by the posture of president Jair Bolsonaro, who relativized deaths and disregarded the importance of the disease by claiming it was “just a simple flu”. Bolsonaro’s government attempted to obscure the official number of lives lost to COVID-19[2] and created obstacles for governors and mayors who felt compelled to implement measures to fight the virus[3]. Initially, governors rejected the directions of the president and implemented lockdown measures. It came to a point where the Supreme Court had to intervene, clarifying that the governors indeed had the responsibility to intervene and were permitted to do so. This provided a shimmer of hope in the face of the absence of larger, national measures.

Moreover, after the resignation of the Minister of Health in May this year, no other minister has been proclaimed; the ministry has since been run by a military general. It is notable that the country is facing the worst pandemic in a century without an official health minister. A lack of leadership, lack of planning, and lack of care for the dying population became the norm.

The devastation this level of inaction caused should not go unnoticed. The number of deaths from COVID-19 in Brazil surpassed 175,000 by beginning December – as a country of continental numbers, Brazil is now the third country in the world in terms of numbers of lives lost to the virus and confirmed cases. Similar to the US, a populist government openly denied scientific findings showing that COVID-19 was real and potentially lethal. A difference between the two countries, however, is that in the United States, Donald Trump eventually realized the need to take measures to contain the pandemic (even if due to electoral motivations). In Brazil, Bolsonaro seems to continue to ignore that responsibility.

What can now be witnessed is that Bolsonaro did not seem to learn, with all the lives lost, nor with Trump’s defeat, how crucial the imposition of measures are. The president continues to appear in pictures without wearing a mask and without adhering to social distancing measures. He now behaves as if the pandemic was over, plans to cut the emergency cash support to the population, and incites the population not to trust a vaccine originating from China. The year has gone from bad to worse.

Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro: protest in remembrance of 100,000 lives lost to the new coronavirus during the first weeks of August 2020, when the country hit the second place in the number of lives lost to COVID-19.
Picture: Rio da Paz. Authorized by authors.

How is this failure to act felt on the ground? What studies revealed in the Brazilian case is that a virus that arrived through elites when returning from vacation in Europe had a bigger impact in the most vulnerable spaces. People on the peripheries, residents of favelas, informal workers, the black population, and indigenous groups are hit hardest. The highest number of deaths seems also to be among the poorest. In a study of infections in São Paulo, almost 66% of the victims lived in neighbourhoods with average salaries of below R$3,000 reais (around 200 euros) per month, and 21% in places with an income of up to R$6,500 reais (around 1.000 euros) per month. Within regions where the average income was above R$19,000 (around 3,167 euros) per month, only just over 1% of deaths were registered.

This pattern found in São Paulo is likely to be repeated in other parts of the country. Populations with a higher socioeconomic status are those who can afford to be in isolation or lockdown and can work from home. A large part of the population cannot afford to do that. In the State of Rio de Janeiro, the first death due to COVID-19 was of a black domestic worker infected in the house where she worked after her employers had returned from a trip to Italy and were tested positive. COVID-19 in Brazil brings to the fore historic inequalities that follow the country’s development. Additionally, these inequalities are aggravated by an intentional policy of negligence by the federal government.

The failure of the Brazilian government to deal with the pandemic seems to be a combination of: (1) the obscure discourse of the president; (2) the lack of specific policies and proper communication with different groups; (3) the cover-up of official information, especially regarding the number of deaths; (4) the deliberate weakening of public services by the current government; and (5) a lack of strategy and planning. In summary, it is an act of complete neglect by the federal government, which in times of pandemic can be perceived as an intentional strategy to decimate the population, especially the most vulnerable, which is known in the literature as necropolitics[4].

In the words of indigenous leader Anderson Tapuia,

here in Brazil we have a government that sends the message that if corona arrives at the villages, it should continue there, doing its work, which means exterminating indigenous peoples”.


 [1] This is the first out of three posts to be published on Bliss presenting the main findings of the research work about COVID-19 in Brazil for the project ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict’.

[2] https://g1.globo.com/politica/noticia/2020/06/08/veiculos-de-comunicacao-formam-parceria-para-dar-transparencia-a-dados-de-covid-19.ghtml

[3] https://g1.globo.com/politica/noticia/2020/06/08/veiculos-de-comunicacao-formam-parceria-para-dar-transparencia-a-dados-de-covid-19.ghtml

[4] Necropolitics is a process in which the state uses political power – by its discourses, actions and omissions – to put specific groups into a more marginalised and vulnerable position (Mbembe, 2019).


References:

MBEMBE, Achille. 2019. Necropolitics. Durham, London : Duke University Press.

About the authors:

Fiorella Macchiavello is an economist and holds an MA degree in Urban and Regional Development from the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), Brazil. Currently, she is a PhD researcher in the third year of a Joint Degree between the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam and UnB, University of Brasilia, Brazil.

Renata Cavalcanti Muniz is a full time PhD researcher at ISS in the last year of her research. Her PhD research was funded by CNPQ-Brasil, and she is part of two research groups at ISS, DEC and CI.

Lee Pegler

Lee Pegler spent his early career working as an economist with the Australian Labour Movement. More recent times have seen him researching the labour implications of “new” management strategies of TNCs in Brazil/ Latin America. This interest expanded to a focus on the implications of value chain insertion on labour, both for formal and informal workers. Trained as an economist and sociologist (PhD – LSE), he currently works as Assistant Professor (Work, Organisation and Labour Rights) at the ISS.

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