This past May, 10 students were supposed to join me in Brazil for a study abroad course titled "Inequality, Race, and Gender in Brazil." The COVID-19 crisis made us change our plans. After the trip was cancelled we moved the course online and students could explore any issue related to race, gender, and inequality in Brazil. They completed various assignments, including a larger research paper reviewing the literature on a topic of their interest. After they were done with their research I asked them to write a blog post outlining the things they learned and some of the most intriguing aspects of their research. This is the third post of the series.
Before the start of this course, my understanding of Brazil came from a Eurocentric perspective. As I saw it, Brazil, being a former colonial possession of Portugal, was another building block to my understanding of Portugal’s — not Brazil — colonial empire. Brazil was thus grouped into the same category as Oman, or East Indian holdings because of the economic perspective, not due to a genuine understanding of the people or the modern day nation itself. Besides this, I knew where Brazil is on the map, I knew the primary language was Portuguese and that Brazil produced some of the best coffee ever.
I was excited to get the chance to read Brazil: A Biography since it would provide a more thorough and contextual perspective into Brazil as a nation and not just a sort of “pitstop” for colonial empire. As I read Brazil: A Biography, I came to find the institution of colonialism — an institution which encompasses trade, habitation and most importantly, slavery — would play such a role in Portuguese Brazil that even today the legacies of this institution may be found in the class and racial divisions of today.
With the current international pandemic known as COVID-19, class differences have become exceedingly obvious in societies with great wealth discrepancies. In Brazil, these discrepancies are found between the groups with more deaths/infections per capita with the least access to sanitation and adequate healthcare. While the pandemic has affected a number of countries in many significant ways, the outcome in Brazil has been particularly devastating to the urban poor living in favelas. For a comparative assessment of the disparates between those suffering in the favelas from COVID-19 and that of a previous outbreak within Brazil (the ZIKV or “Zika” epidemic of 2015-2016) and how the national/executive response affected the outcome of both events.
Brazil: A Biography
While reading through “Brazil: A Biography,” it became very clear that institutional colonialism instilled within Brazil a clear hierarchy based on gender, race and class. Historically, a colonial elite (usually European or of descent) established themselves as the benefactors of production within Brazilian society, while the vast majority of Afro-Brazilians were brought as slaves to work these predominately agricultural estates. While slavery has been gone from Brazil legally speaking for sometime now, a majority Afro-Brazilians still live in poverty and have limited access to adequate healthcare or even clean public facilities for washing or sanitation (Bryant, 2020). Since Jair Bolsonaro is the current executive office holder in Brazil, I wanted to compare his own approach to the COVID-19 pandemic to that of former president Dilma Rousseff’s handling of the Zika epidemic.
In my readings, I found that the government under former president Rousseff first caught wind of the virus after a number of alerts escalated from the local level notified national health authorities of an outbreak (Lowe, Barcellos, Brasil, Cruz, Honório, Kuper, Carvalho, 2018.). While the virus had been noticed from December 2014 onwards, the significant national presence was then confirmed as an epidemic of ZIKV. Health authorities diligently worked to curtail the spread of the virus all the while making sure those most vulnerable were educated on the virus itself and a number of ways to mitigate spread.
COVID-19, however, was a different thing altogether. The world itself was taken aback when in early March a number of countries began full-scale shutdowns to curtail the spread of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19), Brazil continued to stall on national level efforts to lockdown. Regional governments and mayors of large metropolitan areas closed down and were effectively left to their own devices. Furthermore, as apart of a larger political effort to deflect, downplay or outright ignore the virus, some international leaders (including Bolsonaro) have taken a more aggressive stance against health authorities, dismissing masks and ridiculing social distancing guidelines. Bolsonaro is even quoted to have said, “So what?” when asked to comment on the toll COVID-19 has taken on the poor in Brazil (Bruna Prado, 2020).
“So what?” The words of someone truly naïve to the struggles of their fellow citizens and the responsibility they’d rather deflect. I began to think back to the history of colonial Brazil and how often the colonial establishment, what with the viceroys, royal envoys, slavers, &c., all seemed indifferent to the situation of the vast majority of those they called ‘subjects.’ Bolsonaro’s dismissal of the pandemic and the lives it has claimed reflected something about his character (or a lack thereof), which plays into the rest of my assessment. A number of literary sources — newspapers and a few journal articles specifically — put Bolsonaro to the coals as they judge him for his inaction.
In the city of Sao Paulo, there’s a favela called “Paraisopolis,” which itself is home to a large number of Afro-Brazilians. For context, the area is roughly equal to that of the Manhattan area, New York. The favela has seen unprecedented losses in the community as COVID-19 makes its rounds in this community which functions without running water after 8 PM, frequent power outages and cramped housing (Alice Bryant, 2020). In those conditions, forget about social distancing; medical and national health authorities ought to have gone in and done their part to relocate or monitor parts of the population to trace spread and cordon off areas with larger spikes in infection. Eventually the ommunity pooled together some money and hired their own doctors and medical resources to care for the sick. It had gotten so out of control and so many medical resources were being diverted every-which-way, this community had to buy their aid since the executive authority had condemned the governors, mayors, councils and by extent everyone else to their fates.
The favelas were ripe for spread. The most vulnerable included the elderly but a significant amount of women, children and middle aged men seemed to also fall victim in the viruses’ course. One simply couldn’t practice social distancing. The news articles made it abundantly clear that despite the repeated calls to social distance and wash hands, it wasn’t possible in some of these favelas. The poor would suffer because the national government butted out of the response to COVID. Unlike the Zika virus where the national government took unilateral action to identify hot zones and attempt to move resources into vulnerable areas, the months of May and June seemed like a confusing mess. People were dying and the world watched Brazil’s numbers (and the US’s numbers) steadily surpass that of other nations. While there are differences between the severity of Zika and COVID, one couldn’t help but notice the differences between the two administration’s responses to these outbreaks. Rousseff’s government moved to send resources out, managed meetings with regional authorities and put information out for the public while Bolsonaro dismissed his pandemic as a “cold.”
I wanted to understand more about Brazil. My strength is more in the historical background of these nations but to my shame, it was only the relative relationship it had to Portugal which took up my understanding. Nothing could’ve let us see COVID hit the world on the nose, although the varied outcomes of nations responding to the virus certainly allowed people to notice the class discrepancies as it became apparent the poor suffered far more. But another trend became apparent — demographic minorities tended to be more vulnerable to the virus than white counterparts. Poor of African descent were going to bear the brunt of the virus because of the failures of executive ministers to care about the people since they were of a different class.
Citations and Recommended Readings:
Lowe, R.; Barcellos, C.; Brasil, P.; Cruz, O.G.; Honório, N.A.; Kuper, H.; Carvalho, M.S. “The Zika Virus Epidemic in Brazil: From Discovery to Future Implications.” Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2018, 15, 96. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph15010096 .
Monta, Monica, Anne W. Rimoin, and Steffanie A. Strathdee. 2020. “The Coronavirus 2019-ncov epidemic: Is Hindsight 20/20?” The Lancet 20 (100289). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eclinm.2020.100289 .
Zhao, Shi, Salihu S. Musa, Hao Fu, Daihai He, and Jing Qin. 2019. “Simple Framework for Real-Time Forecast in a Data-Limited Situation: The Zika Virus (ZIKV) Outbreaks in Brazil from 2015 to 2016 as an Example.” Parasites & Vectors 12 (1): N.PAG. doi:10.1186/s13071-019-3602-9 .
Shrivastava SR, Shrivastava PS, Ramasamy J. 2016. “2015 Outbreak of Zika virus disease declared as Public Health Emergency of international Concern: Justification, Consequences, and the public health perspective.” J Res Med Sci. vol. 21 55. 29. DOI: 10.4103/1735-1995. 187277.
Axelrod, Tal. 2020. “Brazilian Medical Officials Warn of Hospital Overload as Coronavirus Cases Mount.” The Hill, 25 April, 2020. https://thehill.com/policy/international/americas/494643-brazilian-medical-officials-warn-of-hospital-overload-as .
Bryant, Alice. 2020. “Brazil Neighborhood Hires Own Medical Team to Fight Coronavirus.” Learning English (VOA), 11 April 2020. https://learningenglish.voanews.com/a/brazil-neighborhood-hires-own-doctors-to-fight-coronavirus/5363714.html .
Ionova, Ana. 2020. “Brazil’s Overcrowded Favelas [are] Ripe for Spread of Coronavirus.” Al Jazeera, 9 April 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/brazil-overcrowded-favelas-ripe-spread-coronavirus-200409113555680.html .
Philips, Tom. 2020. “Brazil’s Bolsonaro Says Coronavirus Crisis is a Media Trick.” The Guardian, 23 March, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/23/brazils-jair-bolsonaro-says-coronavirus-crisis-is-a-media-trick .
Prado, Bruna. 2020. “COVID-19 in Brazil: “So what?” The Lancet 395, no. 10235. DOI: https://doi.org/10/1016/S0140-6736(20)31095-3.
About the author: Nevin Vincent is currently a junior studying political science and history at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University. He's particularly taken with international affairs and foreign domestic politics, all the while balancing his historical understandings of nations with these same ongoing processes. He's a forest firefighter from Palmer, Alaska, and enjoys flying, skiing, hiking, fishing, hunting and fighting fire in both the forest and in residential areas. He has some serious aspirations for globe-trotting, anywhere from Brazil to the Central Asian steppes
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