COVID-19 and Conflict | COVID-19 in the Brazilian Amazon: forging solidarity bonds against devastation

COVID-19 and Conflict | COVID-19 in the Brazilian Amazon: forging solidarity bonds against devastation

The indigenous populations in the Amazon are putting up a commendable fight against the Brazilian government’s lack of adequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They are fighting an epic battle, ...

COVID-19 and Conflict | Why virtual sex work hasn’t helped sex workers in India survive the COVID-19 lockdown

COVID-19 and Conflict | Why virtual sex work hasn’t helped sex workers in India survive the COVID-19 lockdown

Virtual sex work, although around for many years, has become an alternative to traditional sex work during the global COVID-19 pandemic. In India, like elsewhere, sex workers due to a ...

COVID-19 and Conflict | Economic downturn, precarity, and coping mechanisms in the Eastern DRC

The Kivus in the Eastern DRC do not seem to be getting a break. Besides facing a protracted armed conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an economic downturn in the region as mining activities have been limited or shut down completely. In light of this intersection of crises, the region’s inhabitants have had to find ways to cope, defying lockdown measures in the process. Yet, the social ties of the region is what is keeping it alive, write Christo Gorpudolo and Claire Akello.

"TwangizaArticanalMiners" by USAID_IMAGES is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has faced a long period of protracted conflict, situated in a part of Africa that at one point in time has faced multiple conflicts or genocides, making the region highly volatile (Buscher, 2018: 194). The Kivu provinces in the Eastern DRC are facing a protracted armed conflict that has been widely reported on and has also been discussed on Bliss (see this article, this one, and this one).

As part of a research project hosted at ISS called ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict‘(Discord), we conducted a brief study of COVID-19 responses in the DRC, trying to find out what the responses were and how these were viewed and experienced on the ground. We conducted desk research and interviews with Congolese living and working in the Eastern DRC and the Kivus. We found that the intersection of the ongoing conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to great uncertainty in the region that people have sought to counter in their own ways.

Besides the prevailing economic situation as a result of violent conflict, the DRC has also experienced a new outbreak of communicable and highly infectious diseases, like its tenth Ebola outbreak in 2018, (see this WHO news article) as well as measles, yellow fever and, most recently, the outbreak of COVID-19, which occurred amidst the worst Ebola outbreak on the continent at the time (Mobula et al., 2020: 3). With the coinciding occurrence of COVID-19 and Ebola and an ongoing conflict, many Congolese families and miners feared the loss of their livelihoods and were at a greater risk of falling further into poverty due to dwindling incomes and severe health risks.

Following the recording of the first COVID-19 case (GARDAWORLD, 2020) on 10 March last year, on 24 March the DRC government announced a state of health emergency, declaring a nationwide lockdown to be observed in all of the country’s 11 provinces. Since then, the lockdown has been extended five times by the national assembly, with various forms of preventive measures introduced (Atlantic Council, 2020). The lockdown measures have immensely affected mining activities in the DRC (IPIS, 2020) a country where residents rely heavily on income from the mining sector. According to a report by the European Network for Central Africa (EurAc), insecurity in the mineral supply chain due to the outbreak of COVID-19 has had an impact on the Congolese economy in general, with the country preparing for a potential catastrophic economic downturn in the mining sector (Business and Human Rights Resource Center, 2020).

Mining activities in the Kivus and the Eastern DRC are conducted in person, with a strong reliance on human or person-to-person interaction. Thus, with the introduction of preventive measures, the livelihoods of miners and people living in Eastern DRC have been negatively impacted, as these preventive measures according to respondents run contrary to the somewhat informal practices in the DRC, particularly in the mining sector. Some prevention measures introduced by the government included the prevention of the movement of people, the closing of borders, and the limitation of legal mining activities, which forced small-scale miners to cease their operations that provided them with incomes necessary to survive.

One of the respondents participating in the research stated that with no definite time of earliest recovery in the mining sector, there is increasing anxiety and fear amongst miners and people living in the Kivus of little chance of a swift economic recovery as the situation moves from a short-term health crisis to a prolonged economic downturn.

In the Kivus, some areas such as Biholo, Nalucho and Kalehe have suspended mining activities, while in other sites artisanal miners continue to work amidst strict guidelines and awareness campaigns about the containment of COVID-19 by different civil society organizations. However, the situation is far from ideal. It was also highlighted by respondents that the closure of mining activities affects the wider population in the Kivus because many people rely on the income from the mines.

Defying lockdown measures to counter anxiety

These economic impacts have caused distress among families, miners, and people living in the Kivus. As a coping mechanism, the population in the Kivus find social gatherings important (although these gathering are not permitted) as a form of mental support. According to four of the six respondents interviewed for this study, families and residents living in Eastern DRC and the Kivus meet in what they referred to as ‘secret bars’ operating undercover. These bars usually appear closed or isolated from the outside, but are booming inside. Respondents also stated that most of the friends/or families meeting inside these ‘secret bars’ have a mutual agreement, as these gathering places remain secret to those outside the trust circles. These gatherings involve the sharing of drinks and friendly conversation. It is considered a way to handle anxiety that comes with uncertain times, including the current state of the Congolese economy.

A major risk factor posed by this form of coping mechanism is that it makes the population more vulnerable to COVID-19 and increases the risk of widespread COVID-19 transmission due to increased social interaction. Yet people felt that they had to defy lockdown measures to cope and were willing to take the risk. Consequently, social gatherings still take place, serving an important function in a time of economic precarity and great uncertainty. This form of coping may be the lifeline for many in the Eastern DRC and elsewhere, and its value should not go unrecognized.


Atlantic Council. 2020. “Shaping the global future together.” Accessed 25 July 2020

Büscher, K., 2018. “African cities and violent conflict: the urban dimension of conflict and post conflict dynamics in Central and Eastern Africa.” Journal of Eastern African Studies 12 (2): 193-210.

Business and Human Rights Resource Center. 2020. “Mining minister warns against the social and economic impact of mine closure during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

GARDAWORLD. 2020. “DRC: authorities declare state of emergency March 24/3.”

IPIS. 2020. “The impact of COVID-19 on the artisanal mining sector in Eastern DRC.”

World Bank. 2020. “World Population: DRC.” Accessed on 16 June 2020

Mobula, L. M., H. Samaha, M. Yao, A. S. Gueye, B. Diallo, C. Umutoni, J. Anoko, J. P. Lokonga, L. Minikulu, M. Mossoko, and E. Bruni, 2020. “Mobilizing the COVID-19 response in the DRC.” Accessed on 23 June 2020

About the authors:

Christo Gorpudolo is a development practitioner who has been working in the development sector since 2014. She is an early career researcher with an academic interest in topics including humanitarian aid, gender, peace, and conflict. She has a Master’s of Arts Degree in Development Studies from the ISS.

Claire Akello graduated from the ISS in 2019 with a major in Human Rights, Gender and Conflict studies. She has been engaged in both media and development work for local and international organizations for over five years, focusing on issues related to health, education, and access to justice.


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COVID-19 and Conflict | Between myth and mistrust: the role of interlocutors in managing COVID-19 in Haiti

COVID-19 and Conflict | Between myth and mistrust: the role of interlocutors in managing COVID-19 in Haiti

Mistrust in state-provided information about COVID-19 has characterized citizen responses to the pandemic in Haiti, preventing the effective management of the virus. This article shows that this mistrust is rooted ...

COVID-19 and Conflict | Pandemic responses in Brazil’s favelas and beyond: making the invisible visible

COVID-19 and Conflict | Pandemic responses in Brazil’s favelas and beyond: making the invisible visible

The inaction of the Brazilian government during the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed some members of Brazilian society into an even more vulnerable position. Yet many of these groups seem to ...

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’.



[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).


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.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.