Reckoning with the Covid-19 Pandemic in Brazil

Wednesday, Apr 8, 2020

Life as we knew it has been dramatically altered since the start of the coronavirus pandemic that has spread throughout the world. On April 7th, the Brazil LAB hosted its first online event with a wonderful group of social scientists, focusing on the impact of Covid-19 in Brazil. The conversation was moderated by João Biehl (Anthropology and Brazil LAB Director) and Thomas Fujiwara (Economics and Brazil LAB Associate Director).

Covid-19 in Brazil Today: Reckoning with the Pandemic in the Global South featured deeply-engaged Brazilian public intellectuals:

Monica de Bolle is an economist and Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, DC. De Bolle is the author of numerous books, including How to Respond to the Global Financial Crisis? Economic Policies for Brazil. She has a YouTube channel and writes for Folha de S.Paulo, Estadão and Época.

Miguel Lago is a political scientist and the Director of the Institute for Health Policy Studies (IEPS). Lago is also the co-founder of Nossas, a laboratory for harnessing social media for activism and civic participation in Brazil.

Marcelo Medeiros is an economic sociologist at the Brazilian Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA). Medeiros is currently a Visiting Professor at Princeton’s Program in Latin American Studies. He is also a Brazil LAB Research Associate.

Debora Diniz is a feminist anthropologist and Professor of Law at the University of Brasília. She is the author of Zika: From the Brazilian Backlands to Global Threat and was recently awarded the Dan David prize for Gender Equality.

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the precariousness of systems of preparedness worldwide. The panelists explored the ways in which the pandemic is challenging practices and models of public health, economics, politics, medical ethics, and community life in Brazil, as well as people’s very sense of futurity there.

The pandemic is rapidly unfolding in this country of over 200 million people. Infections are currently concentrated in the state of São Paulo (about 40%), but all 26 Brazilian states (except Tocantins) already have at least one death confirmed. Indigenous peoples in the Amazon and impoverished communities in the country’s bigger cities are the potential next targets of the pandemic, if not already. Community transmission, the panelists said, is putting into sharp relief the country’s deep inequalities, revealing how transmission spreads along the lines of class, race, and gender.

Brazil has a constitutionally mandated right to health and has pioneered in the universalization of health care through the creation of the Sistema Único de Saúde (SUS). The increasingly privatized public health system is marked by financial and administrative problems and faces large regional disparities in quality health care delivery. Lago highlighted that less than a quarter of Brazilian municipalities have public ICU beds. It is hard to fathom how the struggling system will be able to manage the high demand for intensive care treatment. Both De Bolle and Medeiros have been vocal and active advocates for extending social benefits to the country’s workers in these treacherous times. Any system of preparedness must have at its core a strong social protection measure, they said. Diniz, in turn, emphasized how the bodies most vulnerable to the pandemic are marked by gender, race, and region. Special attention has to be paid to the plight of women, as many are heads of households and their reproductive rights are under threat.

As in the United States, the Brazilian government took quite some time to acknowledge the real danger of Covid-19 in the country – with a patchwork of state and municipal authorities trying to impose social distancing measures, while the federal government is still not taking the threat seriously, the panelists highlighted. At the end of the conversation, they probed how science is being tooled politically at this moment as well as the dangerous political games that President Jair Bolsonaro (at odds with the mitigation measures advocated by the Minister of Health Luiz Henrique Mandetta) is playing, while the pandemic takes a heavy toll on the country’s most vulnerable.

Live-streamed on the Brazil LAB YouTube channel, this event was co-sponsored by the Center for Health and Wellbeing, the Program in Latin American Studies, the Department of Anthropology, and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.