At the beginning of the year, when first reading of the coronavirus, I thought it would never reach Brazil. In my naivety, I believed that scientists would act quickly and find a solution before COVID-19 could hit the Americas. The possibility of a global pandemic in the 21st century never occurred to me. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
On February 24, Brazil registered its first case of COVID-19 and today our country has the second highest absolute number of infected people in the world, behind only the United States. As of June 7, there had been about 650,000 cases and more than 35,000 official deaths registered. Today marks my 90th day in total isolation. During this time, I have realized that the pandemic has exposed two deep wounds of Brazilian society.
The first is the immense social inequality that exists. We have two different Brazils battling the same virus. There is a middle-class Brazil that has isolated itself at home, adapted its routine for remote working, filled the fridge with food and spent the tedious hours watching a live show on YouTube. And then there is a miserable Brazil, which works in the informal sector and has completely lost its income. Before the pandemic, about 40 per cent of Brazilian workers were informal. With the economic slowdown, thousands have been pushed below the poverty line. In this context, social distancing is a privilege of the affluent classes and a measure almost impossible to achieve in poor communities, where families of eight or more live together in one or two rooms.
The second is the absence of positive leadership. Today’s Brazil looks like a colossal boat floating aimlessly in the midst of a big storm. The public health crisis has come amid an unprecedented political crisis. Our president, Jair Bolsonaro, is encouraging people to get back to work immediately. Yet he has not been able to present an effective plan. Instead, his populist rhetoric calls for the use of the malaria drug chloroquine in the fight against COVID-19, it has caused unnecessary political conflict with mayors and governors, and he has joined public demonstrations calling for the closure of the National Congress and the Supreme Federal Court.
Since March, two health ministers who supported social distancing and opposed the rampant use of chloroquine have been fired. The current interim minister of health is an army general without any training in public health. Denial and scientific obscurantism have dominated the Brazilian government’s response to the virus.
The hope that everything will pass remains alive, however. In these 90 days of isolation, I read Albert Camus’s The Plague. The author offers a powerful lesson: ‘What we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.’
In other words, despite the uncertainties and anguish that we are experiencing in Brazil, we are a hard-working, supportive and resilient people. I am confident that we will come out of this pandemic stronger and more aware. And so, better days will come.