Brazil’s Covid-19 socialite superspreaders

. Mar 31, 2020
Brazil's Covid-19 socialite superspreaders High-society marriage turns into Coronapalloza. Photo: Instagram

The first Covid-19 death in the state of Rio de Janeiro was 63-year-old Cleonice Gonçalves, a maid who worked for a wealthy family in the upmarket Rio neighborhood of Leblon. State officials say Ms. Gonçalves contracted the virus from her employer, who had been holidaying in Italy and fell ill on return but allegedly refused to inform her housekeeper of the risk of contamination.

On Monday, March 16, Ms. Gonçalves began showing Covid-19 symptoms while at work. She then took a two-hour taxi back to her home in Miguel Pereira — a countryside town

north of Rio de Janeiro. Diabetic and with a history of high blood pressure, Ms. Gonçalves died the following afternoon.</p> <p>Beyond illustrating the unequal and often servile relationship between Brazil&#8217;s socioeconomic classes, the case of Ms. Gonçalves also serves to highlight that the main vectors of the coronavirus in Brazil — which originated in China and quickly found a new epicenter in Italy — is the country&#8217;s well-traveled high society.</p> <h2>Socialite superspreaders</h2> <p>Speaking to newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, a member of the exclusive Rio de Janeiro Country Club mused that the novel coronavirus was brought to Brazil by the &#8220;jet-set elite.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;It came from abroad and spread very quickly around our circles,&#8221; said the country club member who has tested positive for the coronavirus, along with 59 other club patrons in the last two weeks.</p> <p>Since the Covid-19 outbreak has taken hold, there has been no shortage of reports of the virus being transmitted <em>en masse</em> during gatherings of the <em>crème de la crème </em>of Brazil&#8217;s high society.</p> <p>The first case to rock social media was on March 12, when 33-year-old Instagram influencer Gabriela Pugliesi <a href="">broke the news</a> to her followers that she had tested positive for coronavirus. That weekend, Ms. Pugliesi, a fitness guru, had attended the wedding reception of her sister and fellow socialite Marcella Minelli in the idyllic beach town of Itacaré, in the northeastern state of Bahia.</p> <p>Ms. Pugliesi explained that she had felt ill after the party, but believed it to have been a hangover. Her symptoms persisted and she sought a test for Covid-19.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="630" height="877" src="" alt="spread" class="wp-image-34537" srcset=" 630w, 216w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 630px) 100vw, 630px" /><figcaption>Jet-set spread. Influencer Gabriela Pugliesi says why she will be &#8220;off&#8221; for a while.</figcaption></figure> <p>Several of the 500 guests then themselves tested positive, including actress Fernanda Paes Leme and singer Preta Gil. Despite Brazilian embassies abroad advising citizens abroad to return home as soon as possible, the happy couple decided to see out a no-doubt grueling three-week quarantine in the Maldives, only returning to Brazil on Monday.</p> <p>Ms. Pugliesi was then panned for a social media post during her quarantine, praising the coronavirus as &#8220;something invisible that came along and put everything in the right place.&#8221; In a gushing declaration that almost seemed to evoke the naïve and oblivious Ms. Park character from the 2019 Oscar-winning film &#8220;Parasite,&#8221; Ms. Pugliesi claimed that Covid-19 showed us &#8220;we are all in the same boat, rich and poor.&#8221; Perhaps noting the irony, she deleted the post the following day.</p> <h2>The &#8216;haves&#8217; and the &#8216;have-nots&#8217;</h2> <p>The early spread of the coronavirus in Brazil has laid bare the rich-poor cleavage in the country&#8217;s society. While the &#8220;<a href="">haves</a>&#8221; are able to get their hands on tests and be treated in top-notch medical facilities — where, in one prestigious São Paulo hospital, staff are being advised not to wear protective gear in order not to &#8220;panic&#8221; the wealthy patients — the &#8220;have-nots&#8221; are left to resort to the thinly spread public health system, while fearing for their livelihoods due to being off work.</p> <p>Meanwhile, it is the &#8220;haves&#8221; who are leading the push — along with President Jair Bolsonaro — to <a href="">loosen isolation rules</a> around the country. Mr. Bolsonaro has frequently belittled the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic, calling it a &#8220;sniffle&#8221; and &#8220;media hysteria&#8221; on several occasions. He claims Brazil cannot come to a halt and urges people — the &#8220;have-nots&#8221; — to get back to work.</p> <p>This charge has been endorsed by a number of leading business owners around the country, who want isolation to be restricted to those aged 60 and over, or with pre-existing medical conditions. This &#8220;vertical&#8221; approach to isolation goes <a href="">against the directives of the Brazilian Health Ministry</a> and the World Health Organization (WHO) to contain the spread.</p> <p>Last week, supporters of Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s proposal took to the roads of several cities around Brazil leading motorcades in favor of the country &#8220;getting back to work.&#8221; While anti-Bolsonaro protests — consisting of outraged citizens banging pots and pans from their windowsills — are suspected to be a middle-class manifestation of dissatisfaction, there can be no doubt about the socio-economic demographics involved in last week&#8217;s motorcades.</p> <p>Footage of the protest showed lines of imported, expensive cars crawling through towns, beeping their horns and waving Brazilian flags. If they do get their way and the country does &#8220;go back to work,&#8221; these protesters will not be the ones <a href="">forced to take hours-long commutes in public transport</a>, risking contracting and spreading Covid-19, as was the daily routine of the late Cleonice Gonçalves and millions of &#8220;have-nots&#8221; across Brazil.

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Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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