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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.

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.

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COVID-19 | New modalities of online activism: using WhatsApp to mobilize for change by Lize Swartz

By Posted on

As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, we are slowly settling in to a ‘new normal’. For many of us, having lived our lives online the last few weeks has made us question the necessity of meeting in person to get things done. Can we also organize online to enact change? While internet access is not yet universal, a recent study shows that WhatsApp can be an important tool for mobilizing. Lize Swartz discusses how new forms of online activism can emerge on WhatsApp and whether it promotes inclusivity.


A recent post by Duncan Green on the drawbacks of online activism left me deep in thought. Green mentioned that not all people have access to a stable and reliable internet connection, leading to the exclusion of some groups and the domination of other groups in online campaigning. He also discussed how issues can be hyped on social media, how attention to the issues are based on the life span of content on different social media channels, and how ‘woke’ online activists need to be. Successful online activism therefore seems to involve the ability to connect to the internet and use it as a tool, for example by building an online presence and communications strategy.

Online activism is often equated to clicktivism and online campaigning for funds or signatures, but can be something else entirely. Being an online activist does not only mean subscribing to campaign emails and following campaigns online, donating money online to your favourite cause, or hashtagging or hyping issues you care about on social media. These are all tired forms of online activism that are seen as the lowest-hanging fruit. And being online does not mean working on a computer, being a ‘digital native’, or keeping up to date with and shaping how debates are developing by being online all the time.

Research I conducted about responses to the collapse of urban water supply systems in South Africa shows the tremendous potential of WhatsApp as a platform for organization and social learning. Mobile phones are the primary way of accessing the internet in South Africa, where I’m from and where I’ve been conducting research on social mobilization. Online activism through channels such as WhatsApp is part of people’s daily lives because the mobile phone has become the primary means of communication for many—a companion that follows us everywhere and helps us make sense of our lives.

Mobile phone users can become activists whenever they share pictures or information on WhatsApp with the hope of changing someone’s perspective or encouraging action. But WhatsApp can also be used to mobilize in different ways. It can either be used to organize physical protests or to organize initiatives or stage protests that take place entirely online.

I studied responses of water users in three South African towns to the interruption of municipal water supplies following the depletion of the towns’ water sources. Through WhatsApp, water users in these towns were able to inform each other about the collapse, including the date on which the municipal water supply would be shut off, where they could access water once this happened, and who needed help. Once the water ran out, people were able to organize at a national level through WhatsApp to collect and transport bottled and bulk water to towns in need (these are called ‘water drives’ in South Africa).

In the process, water users produced knowledge not only on how to adapt, but also about what drove the collapses that ultimately informed certain adaptation strategies. This includes the role they played in bringing about the collapse through how they interact with water. This may not be considered conventional online activism, but it clearly shows how WhatsApp can be used to mobilize for change, in this case by informing choices about preferred adaptation strategies and ways to access water. It also informed strategies to hold actors perceived responsible for the collapse accountable, for example by ‘going off the water grid’ (using private water instead of state-supplied water).

Several things about organizing through WhatsApp could be observed. The most important are:

You don’t need to be a ‘digital native’ or tech savvy to organize online. Most of the water users on the WhatsApp groups were middle-aged or retired persons who use WhatsApp to stay connected and share information. Many of the water users I interviewed for my research who are active on these groups do not own or regularly use a computer, neither do all of them have WiFi. Most of them surf the internet on their mobile phones using mobile data. They are more likely than hyperconnected ‘digital natives’ to call each other. And they regularly talk to each other and share information on WhatsApp. Something as rudimentary as WhatsApp can lead to sophisticated activist strategies that are not based on an extensive online presence or knowledge of how to promote your organization or hashtag the hell out of an issue to get your point across.

Not everyone needs to be on WhatsApp to be involved in campaigns or initiatives. Many participants on WhatsApp groups represented households. They would share information with family and friends in their personal capacity through personal connections on WhatsApp. This means that online participants linked to their networks to mobilize or share information.

You don’t need to be ‘woke’ about current issues. The participants in WhatsApp groups were part of the group based on a shared concern—a lack of water. Other WhatsApp groups exist in these communities for other issues, including an unstable energy supply (sharing information on ‘load shedding’) or neighbourhood security (organizing neighbourhood watch schedules). One thing I’ve noticed about these communities (of largely middle-class white people) is how there seems to be a WhatsApp group for everything: to organize a baby shower, a birthday gift, a water collection drive, or a protest. Thus, a central concern and an assertive, practical approach to addressing it, rather than the desire to hype an issue on social media, drives engagement and collaboration.

You don’t need to be part of an organization. WhatsApp users were organized loosely around a central concern they collectively identified, not one imposed ‘from above’ by NGOs or other ‘civil society organizations’. The WhatsApp groups emerged organically, with a central administrator and leader, but without any clear hierarchies or agenda. The freedom to set and pursue an agenda was enabled through this, facilitating social learning and deeper impacts.

Some other things should be kept in mind when organizing through WhatsApp:

A concrete goal is important. Do you want the WhatsApp group to be used to share information, to coordinate collective efforts, or to learn?

Think about who you want the message to reach. To make online activism successful, the measures need to reach the right people and have the right clout to place pressure for change. Visual imagery such as videos and photos may prove particularly effective in showing decision-makers, the media or the general public that real persons are concerned about and affected by an issue. It’s even better if social media and physical mobilization are combined.

Opportunism isn’t a problem, it’s strategic. If COVID-19 is seen as a moment of reality, is it so bad if its momentum is used to drive wider or deeper change not directly related to the pandemic? The restriction of movement for example has encouraged environmental activists to emphasize the link between human activity and climate change. Over the last three months I’ve heard how Venice’s water is crystal clear for the first time in years, of wild animals roaming the streets now that humans are not, and how visibility has increased due to the sudden decrease in air pollution. Linking your cause to wider developments can give it momentum to be propelled forward.

A number of concerns regarding the use of WhatsApp remain that require careful consideration. These include the way in which it and other social media platforms can exclude, privacy concerns, and the propensity of using it to circulate fake news. These concerns will be addressed in a future blog.


This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.


Lize Swartz

About the author:

Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher at the ISS focusing on water user interactions with sustainability-climate crises in the water sector, in particular the role of water scarcity politics on crisis responses and adaptation processes. She is also the editor of the ISS Blog Bliss.