Bolsonaro's politics of death, Covid-19 and racial inequality in Brazil

Covid-19 infections and deaths in Brazil continue to grow at an alarming pace: at the time of publication (8 July 2020), the Latin American country has recorded over 1 million and 670 thousands infections, and nearly 67,000 fatalities, making it the second worst nation in the world on both counts (the US is first). Several days in recent months have seen deaths going over the 1,000 bar. The country hit the international headlines yesterday, as President Jair Bolsonaro announced that he tested positive for Covid-19.

The leadership of Bolsonaro, a far right politician, has certainly played a role: he has been pushing against state governors and mayors who imposed various forms of stay-at-home measures and lockdowns, and he has aggressively supported the reopening the economy, regardless of the implications for public health and human lives. Bolsonaro’s government also lost two health ministers in rapid succession, over disagreements with the president’s approach to the pandemic. With the contagion curve still moving upwards, most states and big cities in the country are currently open for business.

Bolsonaro has rivalled, if not beaten, US President Donald Trump in downplaying the virus. In early April, he dismissed Covid-19 as a “little flu”. Earlier on, at the end of March, he said: “I’m sorry, some people will die, they will die, that’s life”. On 28th April, when asked about the spike in deaths, he replied: “so what? I am sorry. What do you want me to do? I am a messiah, but I do not conduct miracles”. On that same day, news about the collapse of the health system in Rio de Janeiro, the country’s second largest city, proliferated. It was also reported that some emergency care units near favelas (Brazilian shantytowns) suffered from a lack of doctors, and dead bodies began to pile up outside these wards. Since then, there have been reports about hospitals near collapse and mass deaths in  several parts of the country.

“So what?”

Bolsonaro’s disregard for human lives needs to be unpacked further. As several scholars (such as Judith Butler and Francis Nyamnjoh) have already noted, the virus affects everybody, but it does not affect everybody equally. There are several reports  about how people of colour and working class communities have been disproportionally hit by the virus, for instance in the US, UK and Sweden. In Brazil too the emerging evidence indicates that the deep racial and class inequalities that plague the country are being reproduced in the differential effects of Covid-19.

A recent piece of research by the Brazilian health research centre NOIS suggests that the 55% of people hospitalised for Covid-19 who identify as black or brown in the Brazilian census died, as opposed to 38% of hospitalised white people (the analysis was conducted with data based on 29,993 deaths, updated to the 18th May). Another report by Brazilian investigative journalism outlet Agência Pública notes that there is one death for every 3.1 black and brown people hospitalised with the virus, and one for every 4.4 white people – this is based on government health data updated to 26th April.

Scholars Kia Lilly Caldwell and Edna Maria de Araújo highlight various factors that might account for these racial inequalities: black and brown Brazilians have higher levels of chronic illness, inadequate access to healthcare, food insecurity and wage exploitation. They are also more likely to work in frontline jobs and to live in high-density areas with poor water and sanitation. The authors identify the root cause of these inequalities in the structural racism that carries on as the visible legacy of slavery. A recent note from Abrasco, the Brazilian Association of Public Health, reiterates the unequal effects of the pandemic, pointing out the important role that structural racism and income inequality play in Covid-19 outcomes.

When Bolsonaro says “so what?” and “some people will die”, he is not simply disregarding people’s health and wellbeing. He is also implying that he is fine with the fact that people of colour and low-income groups are likely to suffer and die from Covid-19 in bigger numbers than other privileged groups. As the most powerful official in the country, he is enabling a kind of “necropolitics” (a politics of death) – to cite philosopher Achille Mbembe – where the federal government exercises its sovereign right of life and death over its citizens, by keeping a highly unequal economy going, while letting Covid-19 run loose and kill people in disadvantaged and high-risk groups.

Mbembe’s work on necropolitics is informed by a biopolitical paradigm that draws from, among others, philosopher Michel Foucault’s notions of biopolitics and biopower. Scholars in this tradition of thought note that the political choice over who deserves to live and who deserves to die is often not exercised directly. The Brazilian government does not need to directly and physically kill citizens with well-drawn out plans targeting certain groups – as is the case with the totalitarian regimes of the first half of the 20th century.

All the government needs to do is to let certain forces operate without constraints, so that they can cause suffering and death. In this instance, a biological entity (Covid-19) works together with the pre-pandemic structural factors that already thwart the possibility to live and prosper for many people – an under-resourced public health system, higher rates of pre-existing medical conditions caused by structural racism, and so on. The government lets people die by not enforcing more effective regulations to curb the spread, and by not doing enough to strengthen and expand the capacity of the public health system.

Bolsonaro’s discourse, and that of his virus denialist allies around the world, performs another important complementary function. A major tool that the virus has at its disposal to unleash its deadly power is our own body – we can carry the virus and spread it to others. As Mbembe put it in a recent interview, “now we all have the power to kill. The power to kill has been completely democratized”.

When people are exposed to messages from leaders that encourage them to flout public health advice from the World Health Organization (WHO), they are more likely to exercise their power to kill, which is also racialised and classed. A person in a privileged neighbourhood, in good health and with better working conditions, has a lower risk to develop serious complications from Covid-19, compared to those less privileged and in the high-risk groups, who are more likely to experience severe symptoms and death if infected.

It is a zero-sum game, where the risks taken by privileged individuals to go on with “business as usual” increase the chances of infection and death for discriminated others. The genesis of community transmission in Brazil is another manifestation of this unequal landscape: even though it is the most discriminated groups that are hit hardest, Covid-19 spread first in the wealthy suburbs in connection with European travel.

The work of care in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro

So how do people at the receiving end of this politics of death respond to the current situation? How do they resist and counteract the destructive forces set against them? We will try to provide some answers drawing from our ongoing research in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

Since 2016, one author of this piece (Carolina Parreiras) has been carrying out fieldwork on public and private forms of violence in a group of favelas in the northern part of Rio. These favelas are home to more than 20,000 people, the vast majority experiencing social vulnerability and extreme poverty. The other author (Viviane Mattar) is doing research in a favela located in the western part of the city. She is studying moralities, and health and gender conventions in relation to the Bolsa Família welfare programme. This favela has approximately 4,000 residents and a considerable part of them live in extreme poverty. The majority of the population in our research sites are black and brown.

These neighbourhoods are among Rio de Janeiro’s more than 1,000 favelas, home to an estimated population of more than one million people. With a Human Development Index lower than the rest of the city, favelas are known for their high population density, improvised housing, little ventilation and lack of access to sanitation, water, and healthcare facilities.

These conditions make it difficult to implement WHO guidelines to curb the spread of Covid-19. Residents of several favelas live with constant water rationing, which makes it difficult to adopt basic hygiene measures such as washing hands. Soap and hand sanitiser are even greater luxuries, as is the cleaning of clothing and groceries.

The majority of favela residents works in the informal economy, without fixed wages and benefits. Thus, they have no option but to leave home in order to make a living. Unlike the upper and middle classes in professions that allow for smart working, they cannot afford to isolate at home. A great number of inhabitants of favelas receive direct cash transfers from the federal government under the Bolsa Família programme, first rolled out by the leftist government of President Lula in 2003.

Bolsa Família has done a lot to reduce poverty and to sustain food security. It has also helped guarantee access to education and health, because parents who do not get their children vaccinated or do not send them to school risk losing their welfare payments. But the money, even when complemented by the recently approved emergency aid grant, is not enough to cover the needs of sanitary and protective equipment.

There is also an important gender dimension. This welfare measure has prioritised women as recipients, with contradictory effects. Conventional gender roles are reinforced, as mothers are entrusted with the responsibility of caring for their families’ basic needs. But the grants give female recipients greater autonomy and decision-making.

During the pandemic, women’s responsibilities have expanded to the creation and support of networks of solidarity that distribute basic hygiene items, cleaning materials, and food. In the last few months, there has been a growing number of solidarity campaigns that seek to guarantee food security and Covid-19 safety for favela residents. In our research sites, the campaigns are run on crowdfunding websites, but all the local actions are organised by favela women residents. Women identify the households in the worst conditions, find out which products are needed, go to the market and sort the items for distribution. Every week, they distribute food baskets (usually with beans, rice, sugar, cooking oil, coffee, pasta and tomato sauce) and cleaning kits (toilet paper, bleach and disinfectant).

Women are key in this essential work, which further emphasises, as an unintended consequence, the idea of care as a feminine matter. The women who run these community chores are among the most affected by the pandemic, facing even higher rates of infection than their neighbours. As they often tell us in conversation, they feel tired and stressed with the regular domestic work, compounded by the additional labour required to survive the virus and avoid the risk of starvation.

Police violence and informal curfews

Despite the levels of self-organisation shown by local residents in the procurement of basics for food security and sanitation, it would be wrong to think of favelas as places where the state is absent. It might not be present through adequate healthcare or more comprehensive welfare provisions, but the state still shows its hostile face through the Military Police. Police operations are frequent, and transform black, poor, and peripheral bodies into targets and “enemies” through the racialised language of “the war on drugs”. As other studies show, we can talk about favelas as militarised territories ruled by what anthropologist Juliana Farias calls a “government of death”.  During the pandemic, violent police operations have continued.

The social landscape of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas is also marked by the local control exercised by drug trafficking gangs and militias. These groups are predominantly male and regulate the use of public spaces in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. At the end of March, national news reported that these groups autonomously imposed curfews to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Our research participants confirmed that such informally imposed measures were indeed being rolled out in the neighbourhoods where we conduct our fieldwork. Families were being forced to stay in their homes and placed in quarantine. Flyers circulated on WhatsApp and Facebook “ordered” local residents to isolate. Some of them mentioned the ineffectiveness of state policies: “if the government does not solve the problem, organised crime will do that”. Whatever the extent to which these actions were justified by the state’s inaction, these “informal lockdowns” placed armed men in a dominant position in the public sphere, reinforcing gendered conventions of male dominance.

Letting die

To go back to the concepts we started with, in his 1975-1976 lectures translated in English under the title Society Must Be Defended, Foucault described the move from classical to modern forms of governance (in an admittedly Eurocentric history) as one from the right of the governing power to “take life or let live” (what he called “sovereignty”) to “the right to make live and to let die” (he named the latter “biopower”). By this he meant that premodern forms of government (often embodied in the figure of the king in Foucault’s work) did not interfere directly with the production and reproduction of people’s social and biological life, but retained the ultimate right to kill anybody who might be deemed to be a threat to the social and political order.

Modern forms of government instead are directly concerned with creating the conditions that produce and reproduce certain forms of life (read also certain social groups), while letting other individuals and social groups die, ultimately because, in the eyes of the governing power, unworthy of living. State policies that regulate (or deregulate) labour markets, access to health and education, general welfare provisions, and residential patterns, to name a few, all have a direct impact on what kind of life one lives, and on how race, class, gender and other identities end up shaping one’s life trajectory.

There is no doubt that Rio de Janeiro’s favela residents are set against a brutal system that, through a mix of inertia and active violence, tries to diminish their chances of a good life, perpetuating the structural violence to the point of enabling the conditions for mass death in the current pandemic. The state’s inaction when it comes to protect people from these neighbourhoods from the virus and from food insecurity, is an example of government’s power to “let die”.

Yet, the two examples of self-organised gendered activities that we described in this piece show how, against all odds, favela residents are not mere “victims”. Despite the hostile structural forces working against them, people continue to resist Bolsonaro’s politics of death, and to be proactive in finding alternative ways to protect themselves and their livelihoods. By doing so, they claim their right to full humanity from a world that constantly denies it.

Carolina Parreiras is an anthropologist and a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Anthropology, University of São Paulo (Brazil), and a member of NUMAS (Centre for the Study of Social Markers of Difference) at the same university. She is also an adjunct professor at the Graduate Programme in Social Anthropology, University of Campinas. Her research project that led to this article was funded by São Paulo Research Foundation (Project Fapesp n. 2015/26671-4).

Viviane Mattar is a nutritionist and a PhD candidate in Public Health at the Institute of Social Medicine, Rio de Janeiro State University (Brazil), and a member of CLAM (Latin American Centre for Sexuality and Human Rights) at the same university.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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