In the global context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brazil is gaining notoriety for the government’s disastrous management of the health crisis, with emphasis on president Jair Bolsonaro’s actions. Through social media, personal actions, and political decisions, Bolsonaro is leading the charge by denying the lethality of the coronavirus, encouraging the public to disregard social distancing, actively joining rallies against safety measures, and mocking the country’s rising rates of contagion and deaths. Thereby delegitimizing his own government’s technical staff, he has caused two health ministers to resign in less than one month.
Parallel to Bolsonaro’s negationist histrionics, other sectors of the government have been adopting measures that leave the most vulnerable exposed to contagion and the economic effects of the pandemic.
Since local governments started adopting restrictions of movement and shutting down non-essential economic activities there has been a layoff boom, affecting thousands of workers. In response, the federal government gave patrons full authority to stipulate working and leave arrangements for three months, allowing employers to negotiate agreements on proportional 25 percent, 50 percent or 70 percent reductions of salary and working hours, pushing thousands of families deeper into poverty. Trade unions were completely excluded from the negotiations.
Indigenous peoples and traditional populations are another sector severely affected, as their territories are systematically invaded with practical impunity for illegal mining and logging (in the first trimester of 2020, deforestation in the Amazon region surged to break all records, with a 51 percent increase compared to the same period in 2019). Indigenous people are extremely vulnerable to “white man’s diseases”, which in the past have killed thousands, bringing entire ethnic groups to the verge of extinction. Nonetheless, new government regulation, created in April, has authorized occupation and selling of indigenous non-homologated land, while the Ministry of Environment is criticizing and reducing surveillance of disputed areas. By the end of May, around 20 percent of the 300 indigenous groups of Brazil had already been hit by contagion and deaths.
The spread of COVID-19 across one of the world’s most unequal countries, as could be expected, is not at all “democratic”. Poor areas of the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo have fatality rates ten times higher than those recorded in rich neighbourhoods. According to São Paulo authorities, black people are 62 percent more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. In the city outskirts and favelas, possibilities of social distancing are almost non-existent. In many places, there is not even water to wash hands as required by minimum hygiene standards. There is no money to buy soap, masks, or hand sanitizer, while the number of families starving in urban, rural, and indigenous areas is growing at alarming rates. That is why more than 100 grassroots organizations, including many Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung project partners in the region, are taking action.
As soon as the effects of the pandemic were felt in vulnerable areas, the two main fronts coordinating popular movements in the country, Frente Brasil Popular (headed by Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra/Landless Workers Movement) and Frente do Povo sem Medo (led by Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto/Homeless Workers Movement/), launched a common initiative, “Vamos precisar de todo mundo”, converging newsfeeds and general information on solidarity campaigns, publicizing live debates, online donation and participation tools and calls to action from all across the national territory. Leaving their differences aside, the two frentes were able to build an aid network uniting peasants’, indigenous, quilombola and black people’s organizations, women’s organizations, migrants’ groups, and trade unions. Thus, many organizations, both individually and coordinated through this national initiative, have taken solidarity action as their main political task against the pandemic in Brazil.
The Landless Workers’ Movement, founded in 1984, is the main organization in the struggle for land reform in Brazil and is active in almost every part of the national territory.Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the MST has donated more than 1,500 tons of food—most of it produced by the movement’s settlement farms. In practically every state, the movement’s militants have been collecting food produce to assemble “land reform food baskets”, organizing transportation and distribution to vulnerable families in urban and rural areas. Along with these actions, the movement promotes debates on the importance of agroecological food, peasant production, and basic income as an universal right, also sharing information on personal hygiene care. In large urban centres such as São Paulo, Curitiba, and Recife, the MST has distributed more than 50,000 packaged meals to homeless people.
Sempreviva Organização Feminista (Sempreviva Feminist Organization) is an NGO connected to the World March of Women. It is active in many parts of the country, focused on women in urban and rural areas, carrying out training and political formation initiatives on the topics of agroecology, culture, feminist economics, public policy, and more.
During the pandemic, SOF has helped RAMA—Rede Agroecológica de Mulheres Agricultoras (Women Farmers’ Agroecology Network) to keep marketing products from their farms in upstate São Paulo to consumers and agroecological businesses in the capital. In a joint effort with consumer groups, they were able to receive and distribute the products while maintaining social distancing protocols. SOF also made agroecological food donations to philanthropic associations, to Guarani indigenous communities on the outskirts of São Paulo, and to low-income (and some no-income) families. Part of the donations was made to AMESOL (Associação de Mulheres da Economia Solidária de São Paulo), a women’s solidarity economy association whose members were left with no income as all fairs and events where they sell their projects have been suspended. In support of AMESOL members, SOF also organized an online campaign with the goal of donating 300 Brazilian reals to 50 women for two months. Another part of this collaboration is supporting the production of face masks to be donated and sold, and marketing AMESOL products on social media.
PACS—Instituto de Políticas Alternativas para o Cone Sul (Institute of Alternative Policies for the Southern Cone) works on political formation, supporting the mobilization and organization of women workers in agriculture in peri-urban and peripheral areas, mostly in Rio de Janeiro but also with partner groups in Recife, Belo Horizonte, and Salvador. The Institute promotes the dissemination of backyard food gardens in favelas and peripheries as means to strengthen food security and food sovereignty, training in agroecology, expansion of organic farmers markets, mutual aid networks, and grassroots feminism
In Rio, as street markets (the main source of income for these women) have been suspended because of the pandemic, PACS is taking advocacy action along with PSOL (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade/Socialism and Freedom Party) members of parliament to approve the use of resources from the municipal emergency funds to purchase women’s food products and donate them to urban areas most affected by famine.
PACS also supports organizing the distribution of organic food baskets to consumers in central areas of the city. In partnership with urban agriculture movements, the Institute works with self-employed women workers to raise awareness about backyard food gardens as a way to alleviate famine for families and communities. Lastly, PACS is organizing a solidarity network connecting women from the four states where their projects take place. In the purpose of strengthening bonds and cultivating hope, these women send one another short comforting self-care videos with ideas on how to make life better: taking care of the body, recipes, hair care, how to use medicinal plants, etc.
Missão Paz (Peace Mission) is a philanthropic institution working for the support and reception of migrants and refugees. The institution coordinates the Casa do Migrante (House of the Migrant), a reception centre for up to 110 people offering meals, documentation services, language courses, physical and mental health care, and legal and job placement support, among other initiatives. The situation of immigrants and refugees is aggravated during the pandemic, as there are serious difficulties in reorganizing people’s lives in times of restrictions on movement and social distancing. In response, Missão Paz organized a collective quarantine of all foreigners residents at Casa do Migrante in São Paulo, while creating a fundraising a campaign to provide food and personal hygiene items.
In politics, Missão Paz is active in the defence of immigrants’ rights against setbacks, putting pressure on the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies to stop the processing of any old or new projects not strictly related to COVID-19. Their statements also demand that, in case of any urgent projects related to the pandemic, civil society and social collectives must be heard through online hearings.
Conselho Indigenista Missionário (Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples) is a social organization of the Catholic Church, active across Brazil in defence of indigenous peoples, supporting diverse groups in their political and legal struggle for their land, resisting attacks on their constitutional rights, and denouncing aggressions perpetrated against them (murders, land grabbing, death threats, political attacks) to the national and international public.During the pandemic, given the extreme vulnerability of indigenous communities to contagious diseases, CIMI produced a vast amount of material about the protocols of protection and solidarity campaigns, while monitoring and reporting the cases of contagion and deaths on a hot site. In almost every state, CIMI is leading strategies for fundraising and distributing food and face masks to communities. In the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where the rates of conflict and violence against indigenous communities are high, CIMI is seeking international support to buy water tanks for the villages and camps. They have also been building capacity among young indigenous people to take over the work of producing communication pieces for information and prevention of the contagion. Along with other indigenous people’s organizations, CIMI is also taking action against government projects aimed to allow the invasion and sale of indigenous land by big landowners and others.
Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (Homeless Workers’ Movement) is an organization campaigning for urban reform and the right to decent housing, counting among its many members Guilherme Boulos, the former presidential candidate from PSOL. During the first two months of the pandemic, the MTST was able to distribute 100 tons of food, hygiene and cleaning items, sanitizer gel and medical supplies, reaching about 12,000 families in the peripheries of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Rio Grande do Sul, Alagoas, Pernambuco, Sergipe, Ceará, Roraima, Goiás, and Distrito Federal. In a campaign launched online, the movement has raised 900 reals to buy and distribute this products. Now, in a second stage of the campaign, the movement expects to raise more than one million reals. Among other initiatives, the MTST also organizes community based catering and legal support to help people in vulnerable areas get access to emergency social programs.
O Movimento Sem Teto da Bahia (Homeless Movement of Bahia) is an organization fighting for the right to housing, mainly in the city of Salvador. The movement works along with the poor, black people living in peripheral areas, occupying large vacant lots where they build camps and small agroecological gardens. The MSTB also works on political formation and culture, in projects such as Territórios do Bem Viver and Theatre of the Oppressed. During the pandemic, their first action was a massive campaign to collect and distribute food to movement member families and others in situations of great vulnerability. As most of the shacks in the camps lack running water, MSTB has installed sinks at the entrance of all camps so people in the community can wash their hands. The women in the movement got organized to produce face masks for adults and special ones, colorful and attractive, for the children, to make it easier for them to keep protected. To prevent the rise of domestic violence during confinement, the movement has prepared the community for blowing whistles to call attention and helping women in case of aggression, also carrying on pedagogic or repressive measures towards the aggressors.
UNEAFRO is a network promoting political articulation and education for young people and adults in urban peripheries across Brazil, offering pre-university preparatory courses, labour market training, anti-drug programs, legal development training, and political formation on gender, sexual diversity, anti-racist politics, and more. During the pandemic, in partnership with Coalizão Negra por Direitos (Black Coalition for Rights, bringing together black people and black women’s movements organizations at the national level), UNEAFRO is doing advocacy to call attention to the immediate need for protecting the black population, demanding the inclusion of racial disparity indicators in the official statistics of contagion, deaths, treatments received by infected patients, medical and welfare care.
UNEAFRO has also advocated for the approval of an emergency universal basic income policy (in the amount of 600 reals, directed to informal sector workers) and led the debate organized by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights along with the CEBRAP (Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning) Education and Research Group for Gender, Race and Racial Justice assessing what data is needed to build deeper race and gender analysis during the pandemic. Thus, UNEAFRO has been active in mapping the COVID-19 emergency measures in partnership with Grande ABC University (in a region nearby São Paulo) and the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.
The network is also offering support to people who lost their income sources, providing food and hygiene items so they can keep following the protocol of social distancing. More than 80 percent of UNEAFRO militants (teachers, students and coordinators) have lost their source of income and are depending on this initiative. About 4,000 families have been reached (more than 15,000 people) in 39 locations, where 45 tons of food products where distributed.
Given the rapid spread of the contagion in low-income urban peripheries, and because it is known that hospitals will not be able to provide enough beds, UNEAFRO is also developing direct actions in healthcare, holding online training for healthcare workers attending to moderate cases of the illness (in between mild and severe cases, which require hospital beds) taught by doctors of different specialties. This initiative includes the production of communiqués and booklets aimed at healthcare workers and a campaign to raise awareness about institutional racism in hospitals, both to educate healthcare professionals and encourage the denouncing of racial discrimination in healthcare units, thereby ensuring the quality of health service.
Diálogos Insubmissos de Mulheres Negras
Diálogos Insubmissos de Mulheres Negras (Black Women’s Unsubmissive Dialogues)is a literary platform connecting black women writers based in Salvador, Bahia. For three years the platform has been creating its own activities focused on black women’s artwork, in line with other forms of artistic expression, as well as joining literary national and international events. Diálogos’s main activities in 2020 were planned to take place during the largest literary event in Brazil, the International Literary Festival of Paraty (FLIP), in a space called Casa Insubmissa de Mulheres Negras, but were cancelled because of the pandemic. Nonetheless, the platform is preparing an online educational and entertainment programme to encourage reading focused on black women’s literary production. This initiative includes thematic podcast debates on literature topics, featuring black female writers and researchers and an online course on the work, lives, and critical studies of black Brazilian women writers, as well as generating interactive content on social media.
Marcha de Mulheres Negras de São Paulo
Marcha das Mulheres Negras de São Paulo (Black Women’s March of São Paulo), a body bringing together diverse collectives and organizations, has launched a fundraising campaign called Fundo Solidário (Solidarity Fund) aimed mainly at supporting black women whose position of social vulnerability is aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In light of the social distancing protocol, the Black Women’s March is investing in online communication initiatives such as a new website and a new work plan for producing and posting content.
Federação de Órgãos para Assistência Social e Educacional (Federation of Organs for Social and Educational Assistance) is one of the oldest NGOs in Brazil active in six Brazilian states, promoting issues such as the right to the city, food sovereignty and agroecology, environmental justice, defence of the commons, land rights and women’s organizing. During the pandemic FASE is collecting and distributing food and hygiene items for donation. In the state of Pernambuco, for example, the NGO has coordinated the creation of an emergency fund supporting about 850 families. In the state of Pará, in the Amazon region, FASE is producing videos, WhatsApp audio messages and cards to contribute with the diffusion of information and mobilizing communities to fight the pandemic. In this region, Fase also participates in efforts to donate food baskets, face masks, hygiene, and cleaning kits to families in communities along the lower Amazon and Tocantins rivers. To help boost family incomes, the masks are bought from women producing them in the same communities.
Núcleo Piratininga de Comunicação (Piratininga Media Center) has been working in popular and labour media since 1997. During the pandemic, NPC joined popular media projects in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, encouraging their network of media creators to constantly generate news on the pandemic among poor communities, solidarity campaigns, and self-care procedures.
Brigadas Populares (Popular Brigades) are a militant organization taking action in urban peripheries, supporting urban occupations for the right to housing, urban agroecology initiatives, organizing Comuna groups, political formation, and more. The Brigades are also politically active in PSOL, having elected two representatives in the state of Minas Gerais. Like many national social movements, during the pandemic the Brigadas Populares carried out large fundraising campaigns to distribute food and hygiene items to the communities they work with, mainly in the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, and Ceará. In Rio, the Brigades created the campaign “Even Though Distanced, I’m By Your Side”. Besides fundraising and creating information material, the campaign organized an “awareness funk dance” at Favela da Rocinha. Inspired by the performances of musicians and artists on balconies seen in Europe and high-class neighbourhoods of Rio, the baile funk dance took place in the favela in a decentralized way—on the rooftops. From each rooftop people could follow the performances and political speeches happening on their neighbours’ housetops.
As the coronavirus crisis deepens in Brazil, Bolsonaro’s government sees the pandemic’s forced restrictions as an opportunity—not only to openly declare its extremist positions, but to attack the National Congress and the judicial institutions as well.
Meanwhile, popular movements face aggravated degradation of institutional democracy along with the imperative of social distancing. Taking to the streets in a massive way, one of their main instruments in the struggle—as well as other forms of the collective political process—are now practically impossible.
Given this scenario, solidarity actions gained a connective character, becoming a powerful tool for strengthening grassroots bonds: there has been a paradigm shift in the political imagination of peripheral communities, by which the responsibility of care is seen less as a responsibility of institutions towards individuals and more as responsibility of collectives towards collectivity.
There is also a growing trend of “territorialization” of social movements, in the sense that, in both rural and urban areas, territory and struggle for land are gaining a deeper meaning: being on a territory, inhabiting that territory and building alternatives from there is becoming a prevailing field of concrete actions.
This by no means implies that social struggle and political action stricto sensu have gone numb. Although the moment is favourable to introspection and self-education for social movements, the virtual pressure of misgovernment grows and has shown its effects on many occasions, especially in the National Congress. Nonetheless, the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that one should not belittle the healing and political power of a warm meal, experienced by the people who grow the food, by those who collect, prepare, and distribute it, as much as by those who receive it