Race matters in the Covid-19 fight

. May 10, 2020
race black brazilians covid 19 Photo: Pedro Conforte/Plantão Enfoco

“Is the coronavirus democratic? It is, in the sense that everyone is the same for the virus. But when you look at the socio-political aspect of the pandemic, there’s nothing democratic about it. Some people can afford to stay home and work remotely. Some can’t. Some will be able to treat themselves. Some won’t,” said philosopher Luiz Felipe Pondé, during a panel discussion on CNN Brasil late in April.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the coronavirus was initially described as this era’s “great equalizer,” for the universal impact it could have across social classes, gender, and race. But in many countries, Brazil included, there is nothing “equalizing” about the virus. Race matters. That is made clear by the progression of the pandemic in Brazil.

</p> <p>As editor Euan Marshall explained late in March, the coronavirus did not come to Brazil from China, but rather from Europe — brought by&nbsp;<a rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank" href="">members of upper classes</a>&nbsp;(who tend to be mostly white) who were traveling abroad. As soon as the virus set foot on Brazilian soil, however, the profiles of the victims began to change.&nbsp;</p> <p>The first person to die of the disease in Rio de Janeiro was a&nbsp;<a rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank" href="">63-year-old black domestic worker</a>&nbsp;who contracted the novel coronavirus from her employer — who neglected to disclose her condition to the maid. Brazilian social relations continue to be defined by race, with the majority of those living below the poverty line being black and brown. In contrast, those at the top of the social order are significantly whiter.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Race could be an additional vulnerability</h2> <p>Last month, the Brazilian&nbsp;<a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer noopener">Black Coalition for Civil Rights</a>&nbsp;— composed of over 150 organizations — filed a lawsuit based on the Freedom of Information Act, requesting more details on Covid-19 victims in the country. As a result of that, the Health Ministry has broken down data according to race, gender, and ethnicity since April 10. But after President Jair Bolsonaro swapped Health ministers, three weeks ago, the&nbsp;<a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer noopener">Covid-19 bulletins</a>&nbsp;became a weekly rather than daily occurrence.&nbsp;</p> <p>The Health Ministry’s reports have shown that throughout April, the share of afro-descendant Brazilians who died of the virus grew by 10.6 percent, while the absolute number of deaths among blacks increased by five times in 25 days. It indicates that the virus is now being transmitted among Brazil’s most vulnerable communities.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/2335022" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <p>The case of São Paulo — Brazil’s most populated city and the country’s Covid-19 epicenter — is an excellent example of how black Brazilians are more vulnerable to the coronavirus. Eight of the city’s top 10 neighborhoods with most Covid-19 deaths have a higher rate of black residents than the city’s average (37 percent) — also bein lower-income areas. The region of Brasilândia — where half of the population is black — recorded 103 cases. </p> <p>In comparison, Moema (with only 6 percent of black residents) sits in the least-affected São Paulo neighborhood — only 26 casualties.s are the majority of the population in poorly-urbanized areas — where social distancing is nearly impossible. While in the Paraisópolis favela 44 percent of households have 2-plus people per room, the rate drops to only 2 percent in the affluent Itaim Bibi business district.</p> <p>As our own Lucas Berti reported, many peripheral communities in Brazil and Latin America are&nbsp;<a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer noopener">banding together to address the pandemic</a>&nbsp;by themselves. Off their own backs, the Paraisópolis residents’ association has hired a full medical team and 24-hour ambulance service to care for the local community.</p> <h2>Inequality increases Covid-19 mortality</h2> <p>The race issue amidst the pandemic is not exclusive to Brazil. Last month, a Pro Publica report from April 3 shows “African Americans have <a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer noopener">contracted and died of coronavirus at an alarming rate</a>.” </p> <p>Even in countries with universal healthcare systems, race plays a significant part in how people are treated for Covid-19. In Canada, the government is&nbsp;<a rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank" href="">struggling to make the healthcare system as accessible</a>&nbsp;to racial minorities as it is to more affluent populations. In Brazil, where&nbsp;<a rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank" href="">80 percent</a>&nbsp;of those who rely on the public health system identify as black, hospital beds are predominantly serving white patients — who make up for over 60 percent of admittances. Meanwhile,&nbsp;<a rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank" href="">one in three</a>&nbsp;Brazilian Covid-19 victims is black.&nbsp;</p> <p>“This 10-point percentage difference between blacks under medical care and those who die of Covid-19 has called out attention,” Denize Ornelas, director of the Brazilian Society of Family and Community Medicine, told Folha de S.Paulo. Deaths for acute respiratory distress syndrome also show a racial component. Among Afro-Brazilians, the death rate is one death for every 3.1 hospitalizations. Among whites, it drops to one death for every 4.4 admissions.</p> <p>To add to this, low-income communities’ ability to protect themselves from Covid-19 is severely restricted, as&nbsp;<a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer noopener">money is needed to support social distancing</a>, pay bills, buy food supplies, and hand sanitizer. Blacks, however, amount to 76 percent of all Brazilians who live under the poverty line.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Essential black workers</h2> <p>Data regarding Afro-Brazilians has been historically overlooked. An investigative report by <a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer noopener">Agência Pública</a> shows that a large share of workers in the so-called “essential activities” identify as black. </p> <p>They continue performing their duties, exposing themselves more than those who can work from home. And the lion’s share of the&nbsp;<a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer noopener">18.5 million</a>&nbsp;Brazilians who have qualified for the three-month BRL 600 emergency salary is also non-white, with many of them living in at-risk neighborhoods and taking informal jobs.&nbsp;</p> <p>But no example is as perfect as Belém, in northern Brazil. Mayor Zenaldo Coutinho classified maids and housekeepers as “<a href="">essential workers</a>,” allowing employers to demand their domestic workers continue their activities, while the city went on lockdown. Mr. Coutinho justified his move by saying that some people “need to have someone at home.”&nbsp;</p> <p>That someone who must expose themselves to the virus is a population made up, you guessed it right, a black woman.

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Augusta Saraiva

Augusta is a Brazilian journalism student at Northwestern University

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