Options in an environment of fear: How the coronavirus brings race and class differences in Brazil to the forefront

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Note from BW of Brazil: Of course with the wordwide hysteria surrounding covid-19, the issues of class and race are probably the furthest things from anyone’s minds. Right now, folks just want to be sure that they are taking care of themselves and protecting their own lives as well as the lives of those in their immediate social circles. Personally, I take issue with some of the ways that the media is covering this whole thing. My question is, is the press only trying to do the right thing by attempting to share vital information, or is the focus primarily sensationalism, attracting more viewers and contributing to a growing panic? This is a whole topic that I don’t have the time to address here, so I will focus on the the topic that I introduced in the very first line. 

How do the fear, reactions, privileges and penalties play out in relation to this latest global health threat? One of the first examples of how differences of race and class play out in this environment in Brazil is the situation of the 72-year-old businessman from Rio de Janeiro who had contracted coronavirus. The man’s wife, 68, also ended up being confirmed with the virus. And what was the couple’s reaction to the diagnosis as well as the preventive measures they were told to take? They quarantined themselves but still obligated their maid to work in their apartment wearing an apron, gloves and a mask. 

This case smacks of race and class privilege in which persons of the more privileged classes, with their expensive cars and ability to work remotely, have the ability and options to take more precautions in an environment of fear. For years, I’ve heard of elite Brazilians refer so affectionately to their domestic employees as being “like one of the family” but them showing with their actions how they really see their employees. Remember some years ago that it was this same middle class that expressed outraged with the new law that granted certain rights and protections to domestic workers. Such attitudes and behaviors give us insight into a society that is still very much rooted in the near four centuries of human bondage that only ended in 1888. No wonder so many Brazilians seem to have a certain nostalgia about slavery

It didn’t seem like that story from Rio had even been out a week before the story of Globo TV actress Isis Valverde was exposed. On Monday, the actress posted a video stressing how important it was in this environment for people to stay home and take care of themselves. OK, so what’s the problem with that? She’s right, isn’t she? Of course, but that’s not what caught people’s attention. What people DID note was that while she was recording that video, her Claudia was seen in the background, dressed in white and washing dishes. The actress had been on lock down since the last novela (soap opera) she appeared in was paused indefinitely because of the virus. 

Isis Valverde - maid (E)
After actress Isis Valverde advised people to stay home during the crisis in a video, people took issue with her maid still working at her home

Via Twitter, one of the actress’s followers called her out: “Isis Valverde making speeches for people to stay at home because of the pandemic and her black maid behind her cooking”.

Coincidentally, on that same day, the president of the Union of Domestic Workers of the Municipality of Rio de Janeiro requested that people who use the services of domestics give these workers release from work but not to suspend their salaries.

The actress immediately attempted to defend herself against criticism.

“The employee who appeared in the video has been working with me for 10 years, we are practically family. Claudia has no living parents, she’s not married, has no children. In the midst of all this madness I had to dismiss everyone who works here at home and Claudia decided to stay with us in this quarantine, to help me with Rael (her son) and here at the house, because the house is big and everyone helps each other, cooking, tidying up. Claudia freely and spontaneously decided not to go home and stay with me. She saw that I would be very helpless, I have no family here in Rio, it’s just me, my husband and my son, and she stayed to help me. There are good people in the world,” said the actress.

Further detailing the situation, the actress continued: 

“With viruses or not, we stay at home. We will try to cook for the family, a glass of wine because we also deserve to relax. Go cook and watch a movie, stay with out son. Be aware, think about others, go wash some rice,” and in the following story she showed the result of her culinary adventure: “A carpaccio salmon, a gigantic salad that I made,” she proudly showed off.

To be fair, in defense of the actress, this could all be true. Maybe her maid did say that she didn’t mind staying on and working during this crisis. But the privilege of having a maid serving her in her home is something that her maid Claudia doesn’t have. I don’t know so I won’t say, but I DO wonder how the actress would feel if Claudia decided it was best that she remain in her own home but that she should still receive her salary. 

I wonder…

Anyway, in the text below, University of São Paulo professor Dennis de Oliveira analyzes the myriad of ways in which the black and poor population is more vulnerable than others in times like these. 

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Coronavirus and race and class inequalities

By Dennis de Oliveira

The epidemic of the coronavirus in the world is showing social inequalities, although apparently the virus contaminates everyone and, in this first moment, people from the middle and upper classes who traveled abroad. In fact, what stands out in the eyes of the epidemic is the fact that it has taken on a much larger dimension in news coverage than other epidemics that still victimize more people today, such as dengue and measles.

At first glance, this is precisely because of class: as the current epicenter of the coronavirus is Europe and not the African or Latin American continent, the visibility of this epidemic is much greater. A logic that was also present when hegemonic media around the world, including Brazil, mobilized feelings of consternation in the attack by an Islamic terrorist group on Paris, France, in 2015. The Boko Haram group carried out even more violent terrorist attacks in 2019 in Nigeria without the same repercussions.

But classism and racism are also in this case of the coronavirus. This alert is important because there are ideas among some people in the periphery that it is a “disease of rich people” and, therefore, should not be the object of concern for the population of the quebrada (poor communities). If we don’t pay attention, there may soon be a shift from the epicenter of the disease to the periphery and, because of that, without the same visibility as now.

Regarding some measures to contain the virus, the order is to leave home little, try to work in the home office, transfer the didactic activities of schools and universities to the online modality, suspend international travel, among other things. It’s noted that those affected by these protective measures are those who are not in most of the precarious and informal work. If classes were suspended at universities and some adopted the distance learning system, how will it be for outsourced operational employees? Evidently they will continue to work.

There is the case reported by columnist Lauro Jardim, from the O Globo newspaper, the businessman and his wife who contracted the virus on a trip, were quarantined in their apartment but forced the maid to continue going to work regardless of the high risk of her becoming contaminated.

With this, at first, it is observed that such measures, while aiming to protect a certain segment of society, leave the other completely unprotected. These precarious and operational workers travel, to their homes via public transportation, a potentially explosive environment for massive contamination.

This situation is aggravated by two cyclical reasons: the first is the deregulation of work imposed by the right across the world and applied in Brazil with greater intensity last year. The logic of this proposal is the gain depends on how much you work and not how much is necessary to survive. Domestic workers, cleaning women, application workers, street vendors, car parking attendants, motorcycle couriers, bicycle couriers, among others, would have to choose between running out of money or taking to the streets in search of work.

Even though these workers contract the virus and become ill, the tendency is for them to continue working, as there is no protection in the informal market. Imagine this scenario of people with the covid-19 on the streets delivering food, driving Uber, motorcycles, selling things, cleaning houses … Imagine these people walking on crowded trains, buses, subways. The virus goes to the periphery, but comes back with everything because these people serve precisely those who would think they are protected. The risk is to intensify fascist, racist, xenophobic behaviors.

The second reason is the dismantling of the public health system, which is weakened for the massive confrontation of this epidemic. This is the moment that SUS (Sistema Único de Saúde/Unified Health System) and its service, prevention, family medicine framework, among other things, is most needed. In addition to the structure of public research laboratories at universities and institutes such as Fiocruz, Manguinhos, FURP and public universities.

Just to remember: 47.3% of black workers are in the informal market, 80% of SUS users define themselves as black. In other words, we are talking about situations that mostly affect the black population.

It is therefore a unique moment to resume the political and social agreement of the Constituent Assembly of 1988 and to halt the neoliberal changes that have been made since the coup of 2016. It is necessary to revoke the constitutional amendment of the spending ceiling, strengthen the SUS and the public laboratories, and focus the State policy not on the “fiscal balance to obtain the confidence of the markets”, but on the capacity of massive social assistance to ensure the welfare of all citizens.

* Dennis de Oliveira is a researcher at the Institute for Advanced Studies (IEA-USP), associate professor at the Department of Journalism and Publishing (CJE) of the School of Communications and Arts (ECA-USP), scientific coordinator of the Center for Latin American Studies on Culture and Communication (CELACC) and coordinator of GT CLACSO – Decolonial epistemologies, territorialities and culture.

Source: Revista Fórum, with information courtesy of Notícia Preta

About Marques Travae 3386 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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