The Covid-19 Experience in the South of Brazil

Dr.  Kathryn Lum*

December 17th 2020

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely of the author and not of CSES
Image courtesy: Photos (Getty Images): alexey_ds/daboost

When I first heard about a strange and virulent new virus that had emerged in China, I was so busy with adapting to living in a new country and culture, looking for accommodation and dealing with bureaucratic hurdles, that I hardly paid attention. I had assumed at the time that, as with previous viruses like H1N1, it would not spread internationally. However, I was soon proved wrong. One day I came into my office, only to be informed that the university was closing the following day and to collect my personal belongings. Sadly, I never got to teach in person and meet my students personally before lockdown occurred.

The first lockdown in my city of Porto Alegre turned it into a ghost town, especially in the first few weeks. Streets, parks and squares, once so lively and full of life, emptied and streets with shuttered shops became sad shells of their previous selves. It was only once they closed down that I realised just how much I valued the daily small interactions with the staff of the neighbourhood cafes and fruit store on my street.  Porto Alegre already had a severe homelessness and poverty problem, which was aggravated with lockdown, leading to even more people sleeping on the streets, suddenly deprived of the “bicos” or informal jobs that are the only source of income for slightly over 40% of the Brazilian population, and even more so for women and black and brown Brazilians. Hundreds of thousands lost their jobs, without however the benefit of generous government furlough schemes as in the U.K. The far-right government of Bolsonaro did adopt an emergency financial assistance programme aimed particularly at informal workers, small business owners and the unemployed, but its initial value of 600R (8, 621R) was halved after just a few months and the programme, which has prevented millions from becoming destitute is now coming to an end. While many native Brazilians were plunged even further into precarity and poverty, migrants and refugees to Brazil from neighbouring Venezuela and further afield, such as Haiti, were similarly struggling, but without formal legal status, were not always eligible for emergency government support. I started volunteering at a local Roman Catholic church, known as the CIBAI centre, whose special mission is to serve the needs of the local migrant and refugee population. Twice a week, we distributed food baskets to swelling numbers of migrants for whom feeding themselves and their families was now a daily challenge. What is euphemistically termed “food insecurity” in the West was on full display and sadly, while we now racing to develop vaccines for COVID-19, we also need to employ similar vigour and dedication in vaccinating against hunger, so that every human being is assured of good-quality, nutritious food without having to rely on charity.

As in many other countries, along with the COVID pandemic, two other silent pandemics stalked Brazilians: loneliness and domestic violence. With almost all socialising banned and places of worship closed, people living alone were plunged into severe social isolation, without regard for their mental or spiritual health. Those living with abusive partners/spouses or other family members in many cases experienced an intensification of violence and abuse, but were cut off from sources of support and found it more difficult to find the privacy to denounce their abusers to the police. In Porto Alegre and the state of Rio Grande do Sul (of which Porto Alegre is the capital), a new anti-domestic violence campaign was launched that enables women to ask for help in code in participating pharmacies (which were one of the few commercial establishments to remain open during lockdown), by asking for a purple mask. Trained staff then advise the police. A new Whatsapp number was also launched so that women can silently reach out for help via a simple text message.

As in other countries, the COVID pandemic exposed Brazil´s multiple and deep structural inequalities; while the wealthy of Porto Alegre were able to escape to second homes by the beach or in the tranquil countryside, the poor and precariat were struggling just to survive and many lost their jobs or had their salaries cut and could no longer afford to pay their gas and electricity bills. While the well-off have been able to afford the luxury of the home delivery of groceries and restaurant food, rampant inflation of food staples in Brazil, such as rice, milk and beans, without any government intervention whatsoever to cap prices, has further deepened the misery of millions of working and unemployed Brazilians. The stay-at-home mantra assumed that people had a dignified home in the first place, and viewed ´home´ as a safe place, a refuge. For the Brazilians living in favelas (slums), home is often a cramped place without a window or running water, where it is impossible to self-isolate or socially distance. For many women and LGBT youth, home is akin to a prison. In the case of LGBT youth, many of whom were forced to return to hostile family homes, they were returning to environments that are psychologically very unsafe and damaging to their mental health/emotional well-being.

The ongoing experience of the COVID pandemic in Brazil has made me grateful for the privileges that I have and also made me value so much more many things that I used to take for granted, both large and small, whether it be the ability to socialise freely, teach in the classroom, being able to leave the house without a mask, hug others, or experience full freedom of movement. While the pandemic has unleashed a great deal of solidarity in Brazil, as well as the formation of new digital communities, digital innovation cannot replace face-to-face contact, nor can donations substitute robust government policies and investment to ensure that every human being has access to sufficient food, clean water, a humane/safe home, and regular income. The silent pandemics that have long disproportionally affected marginalised groups in Brazilian society must now urgently be addressed with the same political and economic importance given to the COVID pandemic.

*Dr. Kathryn Lum is a professor in the Faculty of Education at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where she teaches courses on the anthropology of education. Her current research interests include comparative affirmative action policy and experience in India and Brazil and the integration of migrant and refugee students in higher education in Porto Alegre. Prior to Brazil, Kathryn Lum was a Lecturer in Global Studies at Nottingham Trent University in the UK and Research Fellow at the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. She has carried out fieldwork in the Punjab and Gujarat and in 2017 was Guest Fellow at the Indian Institute for Advanced Study in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh.