Black Brazilian Researchers and Activists Respond to Covid-19

Professor Jacimar da Silva Gama, State Full-Time School in Brazil (IMF/ Raphael Alves via Flickr).

By late May 2020, Brazil was the country with the second-highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths in the world.  Since then, the country has remained among the top three countries affected by the pandemic. To date, there have been over 6.3 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 173,000 confirmed deaths there. Similar to the U.S., the pandemic has had a disparate impact on Black Brazilians, who comprise over 50 percent of Brazil’s 209 million citizens and constitute the second-largest African descendant population in the world. This article highlights how some Black Brazilian researchers and activists are responding to the pandemic.

How the Coronavirus Pandemic is Affecting Black Brazilians  

Brazil is a multiracial and profoundly racist country. The vulnerability of the Black population is so accentuated that in whatever economic, health, environmental or political crisis, Black women and men are the first to suffer the consequences. Racism penetrates all aspects of social life, produces and sustains inequalities, regulates citizenship, and determines the conditions of life and death. During the pandemic, racism operates by amplifying these inequities. Its impacts reflect the socioeconomic condition, quality of assistance, and health services destined for the population. The inequities are absurd and reveal that the use of masks, social isolation, and comprehensive health assistance are privilege. Many deaths are not accounted for in the statistics. There is an elevated level of sub-notification in the country and a lack of data by race/skin color. If the cases are not accounted for, you cannot recognize the gravity of the situation or demand rights. The fact is that the Black population has been disproportionately affected. This is the strongest point of inflection of this pandemic. —Dr. Ionara Magalhães, Center for Health Sciences, Federal University of the Recôncavo of Bahia

Diverse segments of the Black population are in a situation of vulnerability, such as workers in the informal sector, the segment of the population that lives in peripheral urban communities, the homeless, those who are imprisoned, quilombolas, and immigrants from Latin America and Africa. Difficult access to health services in their different dimensions is a crucial factor in raising the risk of complications and deaths due to Covid-19. In addition, a series of comorbidities that are prevalent in the Black population, such as sickle cell anemia, hypertension, diabetes, and tuberculosis are risk factors for becoming ill with and having complications due to Covid-19. — Dr. Joilda Nery, Public Health Institute, Federal University of Bahia

How Black Brazilian Activists and Researchers are Responding

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Brazil, the Thematic Group on Racism and Health of the Brazilian Collective Health Association (ABRASCO) has led the way in denouncing the living and health conditions of socially and economically vulnerable populations, making recommendations to mitigate the effects of coronavirus infection for these segments.  We co-chair and are part of this group, which also includes other public health researchers and practitioners, as well as activists, from across Brazil. In addition to publishing articles for blogs, newspapers, and academic journals, we have advocated for the inclusion of race/skin color in governmental epidemiological data and publications on Covid-19.  Our advocacy prompted the Brazilian Ministry of Health to require the collection of data on Covid-19 cases and deaths by race in April 2020. Our group has collaborated with transnational organizations, such as the United Nations and Amnesty International, as well as Brazilian organizations, including the Baobá Fund and Ibirapitanga Institute to enhance efforts to lessen the impact of the pandemic for groups with less resources to protect themselves.  All of these actions have led ABRASCO to consider the Racism and Health Group as one of the most active in the context of this pandemic, — Edna Maria de Araujo, Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Health Inequalities, State University of Feira de Santana, Bahia and Dr. Luis Eduardo Batista, State Health Institute, São Paulo

We, of Reaja ou Será Morto (React or Die) 1, began a solidarity campaign that was answered by dozens of people who were sensitive and empathetic to our historic struggle against systems of oppression, against the prison, and against hate. They supported us in taking care of the needs of people deprived of liberty. Many of them are affiliated with Reaja and our family members that compose our Nucleus of Family and Friends of Prisoners. We collected approximately $R 7,000 (US$ 36,000) in March 2020 and also received in-kind donations. In light of the urgency of the application of preventative measures (washing hands and surroundings with soap and water), we delivered personal and collective hygiene products to Conjunto Penal Feminino (Conjunto Female Prison) in Salvador, Bahia on March 23, 2020 (powdered soap, clean water, liquid detergent, and hand soap). On March 25, 2020 we delivered the same products to the prisoners of Penitenciária Lemos Brito  (Lemos Brito Penitentiary). Still, we need to take that support to the Colônial Penal Lafayette Coutinho (Lafayette Coutinho Colonial Prison). These supplies and the prevention guidelines about COVID-19, were also demanded by the families of the prisoners of the Presidio of Salvador—also known as the detention house. — Dr. Andreia Santos, Family and Community Medicine Physician and Member of Reaja ou Será Morto

Many social ills in traditional and rural communities 2 are rooted in Brazil’s history of enslavement.  It is important to point out that even 132 years after the official abolition of slavery, the reality of these communities remains unaltered, whether through socio-environmental or political conditions or structural racism that maintains systematic discrimination against racially identified groups. 3 The current government has actually implemented a policy of attacking traditional peoples and communities, especially quilombo descendants (maroons) and Indigenous peoples.  There is also paralysis in the demarcation of land, as well as the negation of public policies.  In addition, strategies of social isolation designed to stop the spread of the virus, lead to the confinement of community members without minimal conditions to deal with the virus in a healthy manner or to maintain their (sub)existence.  There have also been sub-notifications of confirmed cases and deaths for this segment of the population.

In the specific case of quilombo communities, high rates of chronic illnesses make them even more vulnerable to the impact of Covid-19.  By late May, there were at least 185 positive cases and 45 deaths in quilombo communities. 4 According to the National Coordination for the Articulation of Black Rural Quilombo Communities (CONAQ), in Brazil there are 6,000 communities, with an estimated presence of 16 million people.  Of this total 30 percent are elderly. The loss of an elderly person for these groups has a collective impact of great importance, since there is also a loss of knowledge and traditional ways of knowing that involve cultural and religious practices e the know-how of working the land, in the forest, and in the water through shellfishing and artisanal fishing.  More than this, there is a loss of collective memory of the social organization of the group. Diana Anunciação Santos, Center for Health Sciences, Federal University of the Recôncavo of Bahia

My team and I worked directly with homeless people in Salvador, Bahia between March and October 2020.  One of the first things we noticed was the difficulty in applying preventative health standards for this segment of the population. How can you guarantee that people will stay in the house and wash their hands without access and basic rights such as dignified living conditions and basic sanitation (not to mention proper food)?  For example, speaking about social isolation for homeless people is surreal.  Maintaining distance when living on the streets can expose an individual to various forms of physical violence and even death. Since mid-March, we have done trainings for social agents who work with the homeless about the utilization of personal protective equipment and prevention methods for the streets, as well as for homeless shelters.  We have distributed approximately 10,000 cloth masks, hygiene kits (with soap, sanitary products, toothpaste etc.) and some food supplies. In addition, informational materials about Covid-19 were developed and adapted with visual and accessibly imagery that featured Black people. All of these actions were done in collaboration with the state coordination of the National Homeless Movement in Bahia or the Corra Pro Abraço Program. Like the society in general, this segment that has historically been marked by invisibility has a right to health before, during, and after the pandemic. –Dr. Joilda Nery, Public Health Institute, Federal University of Bahia

  1. Reaja ou Será morto (React or Die) is a movement challenging state violence in Brazil. It has organized several national and international anti-genocide marches.
  2. Brazil’s Federal Decree number 6.040 of 2007 defined traditional communities and peoples as “culturally differentiated groups.”
  3. Silvio Almeida.  O que é racismo estrutural? Belo Horizonte: Letramento, 2018.
  4. CONAQ launched an online observatory on Covid-19 in quilombos called “Quilombo sem Covid-19” on May 28, 2020.
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Kia Lilly Caldwell

Kia Lilly Caldwell is a Professor of African, African American, and Diaspora studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her research specifically focuses upon racism and health inequities in Brazil. Follow her on Twitter @KiaLCaldwell.