How Jair Bolsonaro and the Coronavirus Put Brazil’s Systemic Racism on Display

Several months before the coronavirus first arrived in Brazil, this spring, a series of man-made tragedies befell Maria Marques Martins dos Santos. On November 12th, dos Santos, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of three, whose five-foot frame is crowned by curly brown hair, was at her home, in Favela do Amor, in São Paulo. Just after midnight, her fourteen-year-old son, Lucas, went out to buy soda and cookies and never returned. Three days later, his drowned body was found in a nearby lake, after what witnesses said was an encounter with military police. Four days later, when dos Santos went to the police station to try to identify which officers had attacked her son, the police detained her, telling her that there was an outstanding warrant for her arrest. Eleven days later, on November 30th, in handcuffs and jail clothes, she looked on in pain as her son’s decayed body was buried in a sealed coffin.

Over the next four months, with dos Santos in jail, the coronavirus arrived in Brazil, first afflicting the wealthy and then spreading to poorer neighborhoods and prisons. São Paulo’s penitentiaries, which hold about forty per cent of Brazil’s total incarcerated population, are notorious for their lack of health care. Dos Santos’s family feared that she had effectively been given a death sentence. All over the world, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed and exacerbated class and racial inequalities. In Brazil, where the six richest men hold the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the population, the crisis’s disproportionate burden on poor Black and brown people has challenged the country’s popular, deep-seated illusion of being an equal, raceless society. Largely by incarcerating Black and brown people, Brazil has, in the past decade, become home to the world’s third-largest prison and jail population, overtaking Russia. In that time, the country’s prison population has doubled. Brazil’s prisons are breeding grounds for sickness: water is rationed; a lack of on-site medical care means that sick people are constantly shuttled back and forth between public hospitals and prisons; and overcrowding is endemic—on average, prisons in Brazil exceed their capacity by sixty-six per cent. For dos Santos and Brazil’s seven hundred thousand other inmates, social isolation is impossible.

Amazingly, a full thirty per cent of the people incarcerated in Brazil have not been convicted of a crime. About a third of the country’s prisoners are behind bars on drug charges, and the majority of them are Black mothers like dos Santos. Recognizing the threat of the pandemic, the National Justice Council, a government judicial-oversight board, recommended in March that judges release prisoners who have not committed violent crimes and who are members of at-risk groups: pregnant women, nursing mothers, and mothers or legal guardians of children up to twelve years old. “In São Paulo alone, there are 11,284 people with no history of criminality that have a right to reduced sentences under this guidance,” Marcelo Novaes, dos Santos’s lawyer, told me. But judges, who are the only officials who can lower sentences, have been reluctant to do so: under the guidelines issued by the National Justice Council, thirty-five thousand prisoners are eligible for release, and of the twenty-five thousand who have applied for it judges have released only seven hundred thus far. As the coronavirus has spread in Brazil, the country has experienced the second-highest number of infections and deaths of any nation in the world, behind only the United States. In its jails and prisons, some inmates are preëmptively writing goodbye letters to their families.

“What we are trying to avoid is a massacre,” Luciana Zaffalon, a Brazilian criminal-justice-reform advocate, told me. Zaffalon leads the Brazilian Platform for Drug Policy, one of several groups pressing judges to release vulnerable prisoners. In 2006, a law passed that allowed leniency toward users and instituted harsher measures on dealers. In response, prosecutors and judges shifted to charging people with small amounts of cocaine or crack as dealers, which carry sentences of between five and fifteen years. Advocates for criminal-justice reform say that judges also began charging poor, often Black women as dealers, because few of them can afford costly private defense lawyers and are therefore easier to convict than wealthy defendants. As a result, between 2000 and 2016, the population of women in prison rose nearly seven hundred per cent, to roughly forty-four thousand inmates. Zaffalon, who is the former ombudsman general of São Paulo state’s public defender’s office, blamed the government’s resistance to releasing people on a tough-on-crime mentality among judges which has disproportionately affected poor Black and brown people. “Almost all criminal cases are from Black and poor people who don’t have money to hire a private lawyer to appeal their cases,” she said.

Corruption has long plagued Brazil’s court system. Most of the judiciary budget goes to the salaries of judges, many of whom are older, white men who graduated from the country’s élite universities. The Justa Project, an organization fighting for increased judicial transparency, found that a hundred per cent of those who become judges end up in the top 0.08-per-cent wealthiest segment of the population, which the group contends is a clear sign of systemic racism and corruption.

Since March, a visitation ban at prisons has prevented families from bringing food to the incarcerated—a common practice in a country where many inmates, owing to the gross underfunding of the prison system, are underfed. Andrelina Amélia Ferreira, who leads the movement Mães do Cárcere (Mothers of the Incarcerated), told me that she has heard stories of inmates eating toothpaste out of desperation and hunger. “Even if they get sick,” Ferreira said, “it is their right to die with their family and not alone in prison.” For the past eighteen years, Ferreira has used her home as her headquarters, and counselled twenty to thirty women a day there. She told me she fears for the lives of prisoners in a way that she never has before. “I am a woman who grew up in a simple community, inside the periphery, and I can say that I have never been so afraid as I am right now,” she told me. “We do not know who will stay alive, who won’t.”

On Tuesday, after mocking the risk of coronavirus infection for months, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro announced that he had tested positive for the virus. Since the arrival of the pandemic in Brazil, Bolsonaro has single-handedly created chaos: he has belittled its severity, despite overwhelming evidence of its danger; publicly defied social-isolation measures by walking among crowds and shaking hands, and encouraging others to do so; fought with and fired a health minister, and undermined the efforts of the rest of the country’s leaders. Asked about the rising number of cases in São Paulo, in an interview on March 27th, Bolsonaro replied, “I’m sorry—some people will die. They will die. That’s life. You can’t stop a car factory because of traffic deaths.”

As infection rates have risen in Brazil, a clearer picture has emerged of whose lives the President apparently deems disposable. In the beginning of the outbreak, the largest number of cases were in wealthy neighborhoods—the only places with access to tests. Over time, workers at the Vila Formosa necropolis, the largest cemetery in Latin America, noticed an acceleration in deaths among people on the peripheries of the city. Now the rate in favelas and peripheries is officially ten times higher than the average in the rest of the country. More than half of Brazil’s cases are in its southeastern region, where roughly ten million people live in homes not connected to sewerage networks, and about seven million have no access to running water. The inequality in Brazil’s health system is extreme, as well. Sixty per cent of the I.C.U. beds in the state of São Paulo are in three of its wealthiest regions, and only twenty-five per cent of the population nationally has private health insurance or can afford it. The resulting disparity by race in coronavirus-related death rates is glaring: Blacks in São Paulo are sixty-two per cent more likely to die from covid-19 than whites.

Raquel Rolnik, a professor of urban planning at the University of São Paulo and a former U.N. special rapporteur on adequate housing, told me that the impact of the pandemic has been exacerbated because “the virus arrived to a dismantled country.” Since the nineteen-sixties, the cost of housing in Brazil has been beyond the means of the average worker. “The mantra should be ‘stay home,’ ” Rolnik said, but, “in the case of Brazil, in order to stay home, you have to have a home to begin with.” When he took office, Bolsonaro disbanded the Ministry of Cities, which had invested seven hundred and eighty billion reals in housing over a decade, much of it public housing for low-income Brazilians. “Now it is wilderness again,” Rolnik said.

“It is complex, because the President is walking in the streets denying the disease and sneezing on people and holding hands,” Ferreira told me. “So, for the people living in the favelas, it gives the message to do the same thing.” São Paulo’s governor, João Doria, told the Associated Press, “We’re fighting against the coronavirus and against the Bolsonaro-virus.”

Doria and his counterpart in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Wilson Witzel, have been lauded for standing up to Bolsonaro on the coronavirus, but they have been criticized for standing idly by as police have killed hundreds of Black and poor people. Rio saw a twenty-three-per-cent increase in police-involved killings during the first five months of 2019, and recent research from the Institute for Applied Economic Research shows that between 2007 and 2017 the murder of Black people in Brazil increased ten times faster than the rest of the population. In São Paulo, killings by military police are increasing, according to Globo, a leading Brazilian news organization, despite a decrease in the crime rate associated with the pandemic. Witzel’s devastating policing policy in Rio, which authorizes officers to fire rockets into communities from helicopters, killed about eighteen hundred people last year, the largest number on record in the state.

Past pandemics, such as the 1918 flu, also saw a lack of state aid to help poor and Black people. What is unique in Brazil’s history, though, is “having a President who is against science,” Lilia Schwarcz, a Brazilian historian and Princeton University professor, told me, citing the belief among Bolsonaro’s inner circle that the earth is flat. Bolsonaro’s reluctance to push for isolation and his willingness to let the vulnerable die, Rolnik added, is emblematic of his larger, “absolutely pro-death philosophy and practice of necropolitics,” a reference to the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe, who argued that states affirm their sovereignty by imposing pain and death on populations considered the other.

In her book “Brazil: A Biography,” which she co-wrote with Heloisa M. Starling, Schwarcz contends, “The experience of violence and pain repeated, dispersed, and persists in modern Brazilian society.” This is a reference to the long history of slavery in Brazil, which received just under half the enslaved people taken to the Americas and, in 1888, was the last nation in the region to abolish it. Brazilian historians have long described it as a “false abolition,” because it kept the country’s slavery-based economic, political, and social structures in place. A century passed until a new constitution, in 1988, led to the implementation of affirmative-action programs and other government efforts to increase equity. Bolsonaro dismisses the existence of systemic racism in Brazil, and since his election he has tried to reverse government programs designed to aid marginalized groups. Schwarcz argues that a lack of desire from the government to intervene on behalf of poor Black favela residents and indigenous people is a continuation of a previous era in the country’s history. Many of Bolsonaro’s followers believe that the gains of the past thirty years for Black Brazilians, such as a quota system designed to give more Black students access to education, are depriving other Brazilians of opportunities they are entitled to. His followers profess, Schwarcz told me, a “nostalgia for a history and past that never existed.”

Recently, dos Santos was released from the Santana Women’s Penitentiary, after a judge ruled that her sentencing was unlawful. Owing to practically no testing in the facility, and to the general categorization of some prison deaths as being caused by “acute respiratory infections,” it is hard to tell how many inmates in Santana have actually died from covid-19. Eleven guards at the penitentiary have tested positive, and one has died. Being low-income residents of the periphery themselves, the guards are also victims of the inequality in access to testing and health care.

Throughout her imprisonment and since her release, dos Santos has had no access to tests. She told me that she doesn’t think she has the virus, but she does feel “something in her nose, like a flu.” Before her incarceration, she worked ten to twelve hours a day, alongside her sister, collecting and delivering urine samples to hospitals for testing. She earned three hundred and twenty reals—roughly sixty dollars—a month. Now her only source of income is money from mutual-aid societies. “Due to donations, we are surviving,” she told me.

According to the official government tally, only sixty-three inmates in Brazilian prisons have died of the coronavirus, and another 5,359 prisoners have tested positive. The numbers are likely much higher, given the extremely low rate of testing behind bars. Novaes, dos Santos’s lawyer, said that the nation’s criminal laws and policing system are two of the tools that wealthy Brazilians use to maintain the country’s inequality. Growing numbers of Brazil’s most vulnerable are being ensnared in a system of mass incarceration, which advocates of reform say leads to even more poverty and inequality.

When I asked dos Santos what it felt like to be a Brazilian citizen in these times, she said that she felt both abandoned by the state and wronged by it. The police had taken away “my happiness, my son, and my life.” She blamed the judiciary system for trying to silence her. As for Bolsonaro, dos Santos doesn’t want him to die, but she hopes that he feels “the effects of covid-19, for it is not a ‘little flu,’ as he said before.” She told me that she is determined to do everything she can to find justice for her son and prevent him from becoming “another dead-Black-kid statistic.”

Anakwa Dwamena