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Sara Brandellero: 'the news coming from Brazil is chilling'

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro called the COVID-19 disease “a minor illness”. With more than 200.000 confirmed corona cases today (May 18) however, Brazil is quickly becoming one of the world’s emerging coronavirus hot spots. How long can Bolsonaro continue to downplay the corona crisis? We asked Brazilian Studies scholar Sara Brandellero.

How would you describe the current situation in Brazil?

‘The situation in Brazil is calamitous at the moment. Brazil is tragically feeling the impact of the government’s inaction in supporting and implementing adequate measures, so the news coming out of Brazil is very chilling, especially in the poorest and more densely populated areas of Brazil’s urban centres, and cities such as Manaus, in the Amazon. The situation there is catastrophic. The impact the crisis is having on indigenous communities is also of grave concern.’

‘What is especially worrying is that the central government continues to be reluctant to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. President Jair Bolsonaro has been dismissing COVID-19 as a minor illness. In fact, when a journalist recently confronted him about the severity of the crisis, he flippantly answered “So what? My name is Messias (Jair Bolsonaro’s second name) but I can’t perform miracles."'

Why do you think Bolsonaro continues to downplay the severity of the situation?

‘In a sense, Bolsonaro is very much following the “Trump line” in reacting to this crisis. This situation has been exacerbated by the fact that Bolsonaro has very little regard for scientific expertise and has always been bent on keeping the ‘economy open’. So his stance is related to pleasing the business community over public health (of the poor, in particular), appeasing businesses that are reluctant to keep the shutters down.’

How does Bolsonaro’s stance resonate with the people?

‘There is outrage from corners abiding by social distancing rules, but Brazil is politically a deeply divided country, and Bolsonaro does have a considerable following. The poor are undoubtedly the most affected by this crisis, and for some Bolsonaro’s message resonates, as they fear social distancing measures could threaten their ability to feed their families. For many, especially the poorest, working from home is simply not an option.’

‘Brazil is a very unequal society. There are deep class divisions that are legacy of social structures that stem from the slave-based economy from colonial times, and the current crisis will only deepen historic inequalities. Tragically, Covid-19 is a disease that was ‘imported’ into Brazil by the affluent elite after travels abroad, but is now spreading like wildfire amongst the poor.'

'One of the first deaths from the disease was that of a domestic worker in Rio de Janeiro who caught it from her employer, who had recently returned from Europe. The middle and upper classes are better protected from this disease than the poor, in terms of access to healthcare and living and work conditions. The majority of those suffering live in precarious, overcrowded, marginalized neighbourhoods and still have to travel to work on packed buses and trains. Without adequate social welfare and government support to enable people to stay at home, the situation is only going to deteriorate.’

How are the different regions in Brazil responding to Bolsonaro’s passive approach to the corona crisis?

‘There is a political divide between the central government and some states. In general terms, the northeast of the country, which is also where some of the poorest regions are, has tended not to be aligned with the central government, and frictions have deepened with the crisis. A couple of weeks ago, Flavio Dino, the Governor of the northern state of Maranhão, took matters into his own hands by bypassing the central government and strategically flying medical equipment and supplies in via a plane that he himself had hired. Bolsonaro threatened to prosecute Dino for importing goods without proper due diligence.’

‘This created significant political unease. That said, even governors and other local politicians initially supportive of Bolsonaro, such as in Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo, are now distancing themselves from Bolsonaro and implementing isolation measures, for instance. So, the coronavirus has deepened divisions in the country, but Bolsonaro has so far carried on regardless.’

In what way does the corona crisis affect your work as a scholar?

‘I recently started a new project centred on the study of night spaces. Together with scholars from five different universities across Europe, we look at how public nightlife spaces that are associated with migrant communities, such as clubs, music venues and other cultural spaces are narrated in literature and the arts and how they are experienced by specific migrant groups.’

‘In the Netherlands, the Leiden team I lead focuses on the Cape Verdean community in Rotterdam and the Brazilian community in Amsterdam. The corona crisis has greatly affected our ability to carry out fieldwork. But the crisis has, of course, also greatly affected city nightlife itself. So, we have seen an immediate impact on our ability to do research, but have also been acutely aware of the devastating effect it is having on the communities that we are researching, and which we aim to support through our research. In that sense, the corona crisis has affected my work significantly. I have to rethink the research topic within the context of this pandemic.’

‘In Brazil too, we can already see how the coronavirus is affecting cultural communities. A number of high-profile writers and artists, including Aldir Blanc, have lost their lives to the virus. Overall, the arts scene has generally been very active in promoting messages of social distancing, and it has tried to react to the crisis through online events, such as virtual poetry readings. So there is quite a resilient online literary and cultural life happening as we speak, which is also coming on the back of severe recent government cuts to the cultural sector in Brazil.'

How do you see the near future? Could the corona crisis also instigate positive changes within Brazilian society?

‘The current state of affairs in a country of such historical social neglect is very worrying. We will have to see how the situation unfolds and what this will do to Bolsonaro’s popularity and political position.’

About Sara Brandellero

Sara Brandellero is a University Lecturer at the Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society. Her research focuses on Brazilian Literature and Culture, and transatlantic exchange in literature and film.

Header image: Palácio do Planalto

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