Brazil: Favela Residents And Indigenous Communities Among Those Most At Risk Of COVID-19

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Above photos: Thousands of people including Indigenous peoples march against a power plant in Brazil. Once again, their land is being threatened as Indigenous peoples are under lockdown in villages. Image: Rui OgawaCC by-NC-SA 2.0.

As of noon on April 8th the total number of Covid-19 positive cases reported by Brazil’s health ministry exceeded 14,000 and the number of deaths exceeded 700. This is, by far, the highest number of reported cases in Latin America (though Ecuador has a greater number of reported cases and deaths on a per capita basis).  The actual number of cases is likely many times greater, given that the current rate of testing for Covid-19 in Brazil is still very low – 258 per million, compared to 3,159 per million in Chile, 6,423 per million in the U.S. and 10,962 per million in Germany. In São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, and the hardest hit urban area in the country, the local health secretariat is reportedly only providing tallies for severe cases of the virus.

Far right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, an admirer and close ally of President Trump, has been seriously downplaying the gravity of the pandemic. He has referred to the virus as a “little flu” and has openly flouted social distancing measures, promoting political rallies in mid March and wading into crowds of supporters.  Ironically, prior to the recent rallies, senior members of Bolsonaro’s cabinet tested positive for the virus following an international trip that included a meeting with Trump at Mar-a-Lago.  These and other members of the delegation were among the first imported cases of Covid-19 to Brazil (and it is rumored that Bolsonaro himself was infected).

As seems to be the case with his U.S. counterpart and mentor, Bolsonaro’s rejection of experts’ recommendations has a clear motivation: keeping the economy running at all costs.  Even before the virus arrived, Brazil’s economy was in sad shape, with no signs of real recovery following a deep recession in 2015-16. Unemployment remained stubbornly high (more than 11.6 percent in February) and economic growth stood at less than one percent during the first year of Bolsonaro’s presidency (as might be expected given the government’s constitutionally-mandated austerity policies).  As is the case in most of Latin America (see ECLAC’s grim predictions for the region), business state and local shut-downs and stay-at-home measures designed to save hundreds of thousands of lives are expected to have devastating economic consequences.  Brazil’s biggest bank, Itaú, forecasts as much as 6.4% negative economic growth for 2020 alone if virus containment measures are maintained for an extended period of time.

In response to these and other dire predictions, Brazil’s lower house has passed a “war budget” amendment to the constitution, which – if approved by 3/5 of the Senate – will ease current draconian budget constraints and allow the state to engage in significant deficit spending to try to address the country’s looming health and economic emergencies.  Meanwhile, many of Brazil’s state governors have ordered non-essential businesses to close and have supported social distancing measures. In response, Bolsonaro has engaged in heated clashes with governors and threatened to issue a decree forcing businesses to re-open throughout the country. He has also butted heads with his own health minister, Luis Henrique Mandetta, who has supported strong social distancing protocols, threatening at one point to fire him.  Currently, Mandetta has the highest ratings of any politician in the country while Bolsonaro’s favorability ratings have been sinking. Millions of people in cities across Brazil have protested Bolsonaro’s dismissive approach with regular panelaços – loud, pot-banging protests staged from residents’ windows and balconies. Brazil’s major leftwing leaders have called for the president’s resignation. 

It’s possible that Bolsonaro is making a long-term political calculation,  attempting to position himself to better weather the coming economic tsunami by blaming others for taking lifesaving measures that shut down much of the economy.  Here again, his behavior bears similarities with that of the occupant of the White House.

Regardless of what social distancing steps are taken throughout Brazil, many observers believe that the pandemic will exact a particularly terrible human and economic toll in the country’s poor favelas, where around 11 million people live. Historically neglected by public authorities (apart from police agents engaged in increasingly widespread extrajudicial killings targeting Black youth), favela communities have extremely limited access to healthcare resources and water and sanitation infrastructures.  As Brazilian-Colombian researcher Nicole Froio explains in NACLA, many favela residents are simply unable to wash their hands regularly or practice social distancing measures in houses where large families share tiny living spaces.  Given the lack of effective support from the state, favela communities in Río de Janeiro and São Paulo are pooling scant resources to hire round-the-clock medical support. 

Brazil’s rural indigenous communities are also particularly vulnerable, given the fact that they are often located far away from hospitals able to treat infected patients with acute symptoms.  Ironically, the first indigenous Brazilian to test positive for Covid-19 is a healthcare worker who was in contact with an infected medical doctor who was visiting a remote Kokoma community.  Researchers fear that the virus could wreak enormous destruction and havoc in communities, especially as those at highest risk – the elderly – are typically the pillars of social order and transmitters of traditional knowledge.  In response to the pandemic, many indigenous peoples are likely to disperse into small groups, according to Dr. Sofia Mendonça, a researcher at the Federal University of São Paulo. Amnesty International reports that some communities are blocking roads and going into voluntary isolation to keep the pandemic at bay.    

Amnesty notes that Brazil’s indigenous communities are facing two sorts of attacks now.  Alongside the threat of Covid-19 infections, grileiros – those that illegally appropriate land – are taking advantage of the pandemic, and the fact that indigenous communities are prevented from effectively patrolling their territories, to step up the use of indigenous lands for illegal logging, agriculture and mining enterprises.  Government protection of indigenous lands has already been severely weakened under Bolsonaro – who has sought to open up indigenous lands for outside exploitation – and indigenous leaders who resist land invaders are being threatened and killed at an increasing rate.  On March 31st, Zezico Rodrigues Guajajara, a well-known Guajajara leader and opponent of illegal logging in Araribóia indigenous lands, was assassinated.  It was the fifth murder of a Guajajara land rights advocate so far this year, according to Amazon Watch.  

Alexander Main is Director of International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.