Brazil is going to eat you up! {part 3}: coronavirus in Brazil, indigenous health, fake politics and a way out

Brazil is going to eat you up! {part 3}: coronavirus in Brazil, indigenous health, fake politics and a way out

by Ana Letícia Schweig, Caio Flores-Coelho e Maria Paula Prates – Laboratório de Alteridades UFCSPA/CNPq* 

Image: Pedro Ladeira/Folhapress
Image: Pedro Ladeira/Folhapress

Since the COVID-19 pandemic was announced by WHO, we wondered what could happen if this outbreak arrived in Brazil. Now, we already know that it has arrived and many Brazilians discredit that the new coronavirus can be a big deal. Among them, Brazilian President Salbonabo (We will not use his real name so the bots have more difficulty finding this article. As we did before), who said this outbreak seems to be a “fantasy created by the media”, and also has endorsed a public manifestation in support of his government last Sunday (15 March 20). Salbonabo has been quarantined since one of his closest Secretaries was tested positive for coronavirus after a diplomatic trip to the USA for meetings with Trump and other officials. Nevertheless, Salbonabo went out of his residence in Brasilia to shake hands of supporters: he ignored the advice done by the Health Ministry, Mr. Mandetta, a member of his own government, addressed to all Brazilians a week ago to self-quarantine.

Despite the president’s behaviour and his discredit in regards to the coronavirus pandemic, as many other Brazilians, it is worth saying that Brazil has one of the most extensive health public systems in the world. And we also could say that at this moment there are many excellent health professionals working daily to care for people in need. These professionals are concerned with the lack of funding for basic stuff, which they are already used to, but that now it seems the situation appears to be worsening. A pandemic means one more challenge to face in a country with a high rate of hospitalization due to firearms, automobile accidents, dengue fever, zika, etc1. 

Shall we consider that these common worries are one of the reasons to discredit the coronavirus consequences? Taking into account that many people in Brazil are wondering: “Why should I be concerned about a disease if I can die for something else in a shorter time?”. We are in the middle of a global crisis which is happening under our eyes and through our bodies. 

Image: José Cruz/Agência Brasil
Image: José Cruz/Agência Brasil

And what about the indigenous people?

Everybody has the right to be assisted by SUS – Sistema Único de Saúde (Unit Health System). That means that if you are a foreign and became ill in Brazil during your holiday, for example, you can have access to a medical appointment or surgery. All the basic vaccinations are also available by SUS and it is that system which is responsible for all sanitation. It was created in 1988, just after the process of re-democratization, after a long-term dictatorship, that culminated with a new Federal Constitution. In 1999 was created a subsystem focused on indigenous health. At the present it is the Secretaria Especial de Saúde Indígena (SESAI) that is responsible for health care towards indigenous people in Brazil. 

We are really concerned about indigenous people at this moment. They are one of the most vulnerable in this scenario as usually they already have a low level immunity system. In Southern Brazil the main cause of death among the indigenous community is breathing problems and the winter is just coming here. Also, the majority of them don’t have adequate access to a drinking water supply and are living in a precarious situation. Mainly the Guarani-Mbyá, in Southern Brazil, a people that do not have their territory officially recognized and that have been living on the board of many roads. What is the State doing in regards to indigenous existence at this moment? 

Salbonabo was elected with a strong narrative against native people. The government has proposed to not recognize any traditional territory and has been cutting all the financial sources of Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI), which is supposed to assist the indigenous community in huge levels of support. Only by 18 March 20, was published an action plan to avoid the spread of coronavirus among the indigenous community. It was done through a SESAI announcement and it is towards its local administration. We really don’t know how the health professionals will be able to face this terrible situation and what kind of support they are receiving to make these actions effective.

A great diversity of indigenous groups and its different ways to establish relation with the non-indigenous people can be a challenge. Each one of the around 300 indigenous groups play out a different mode of relation with the Brancos (white people) and this should be taken in account. The sociocultural meanings and practices deserve a special notice and an “universal” approach in this case could be a big mistake. What draws this situation yet more worrying is to know that Brazil’s isolated indigenous groups have been targeted by Salbonabo governments. Since he was elected, all the technic team from the “Isolated Indigenous Coordination” (Coordenação de Índios Isolados – FUNAI) was fired. The well experienced team of anthropologists was changed by ideological persons allied with the government proposal. It means that most of the Funai’s coordination are currently under army and evangelist religious leaders. What could we expect from this? 

Protest with a “trail of blood” in Brasilia, 2019.
Protest with a “trail of blood” in Brasilia, 2019.

Wednesday (18 March 20), Salbonabo went still far: the Brazilian government allowed the local FUNAI coordination to decide who could or could not be close to the isolated indigenous people territory. It means that currently there are some people “close” to these isolated groups? Until Salbonado became president, the policies towards contact with the isolated indigenous were basically to not make any contact with them. It is due to the highly risk implicated on this action and it could end up in a genocide. As it has been happening since Salbonabo was elected, the official speech done or the news published through official media are constantly denied just after criticism. Here you can see that FUNAI has denied what many anthropologists have notice as criminal in its official decree.

Recommendations have been circulating among indigenous leaders and NGOs so that indigenous people do not leave their landscapes. However, this cannot be a single guideline, given that there are a number of landscapes in or near urban centers, as we already mentioned, the Mbyá-Guarani.

The guidelines for preventing coronavirus consist of some universal hygiene measures, such as washing hands for twenty seconds, not sharing cutlery and glasses, cleaning items with alcohol gel, changing clothes and isolation, can be more difficult to be carried out in indigenous lands. First, as many people have pointed out, the coronavirus is not democratic. It is the poorest sectors of the population that will be the most affected, since they live with a lack of water, without basic sanitation, with limited resources – which tend to decrease – and without the possibility of isolation. Some indigenous people share these conditions.

Second, when it comes to quarantine and isolation, this is very difficult – if not impossible – from a landscape perspective. If a person becomes infected with coronavirus and goes to the landscape, the disease can spread quickly. Not only because of the physical proximity of people, but we have to consider that there are other ontologies and ways of thinking about the world, in which people are collective and not individual. To do persons and human beings implicate in sharing food, relation and caring one another. In this sense, we don’t have only 300 indigenous groups playing out a different mode of relation with the Brancos, but 300 indigenous groups having different experiences with health.

Thinking about the Guarani-Mbyá people, for example, it is impossible to conceive an everyday life without sharing things and places. They are used to move among their communities. Exchange of modes of healing, such as visiting specialist healing that live in a place elsewhere, make to circulate grains and seeds, and kinship relations that matter in the case of healing a kin are very important actions as well. All these situations are encompassed by their conceptions of life, health, disease. And it is important because it is the way to remain alive. We are not talking about a personhood centred in an individual. We are talking about persons and their relation as vital for a healthy collective. In addition, the Guarani-Mbyá are used to smoke tobacco in a recipe called petynguá (made out of clay). It is an important tool to keep healthy not only the communication among human beings but also with their divinities. Furthermore they also use the mate (or chimarrão), which is a hot drink made out by Ilex paraguariensis (scientific name). It is a practice also present among Southern South America, in countries like Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Southern Brazil, and it is an heritage that came from the Guarani culture. 

After all, probably we have more to learn with them than to teach them how to face an epidemic scenario. How many epidemics have been they living after the Brancos arrived in their lands? We count on the exchange of knowledge between the biomedical rationale and the indigenous epistemologies of healing. To mobilize their knowledge and their own ways to keep this covid-19 under control (at least, trying to keep…) it is crucial. They know what to do and they need support, not a lesson about how to keep alive. However, the best action ever should have been to avoid the spread of covid-19. To avoid the spread of the novel coronavirus – which is coming down above our lives – the Brazilian government should have acted before, mainly thinking about indigenous people. It was not the case. And such was not the case even before the covid-19 arrived in Brazil. Once we have been governed by politicians without any commitment with the indigenous people, it looks to be a prelude to a genocide. 

We have been in touch with many local indigenous leaders from Southern Brazil in the last days and our hope is that they could organize themselves within the support of many NGOs and engaged health professionals. We are not sure that the Brazilian Government could play a great role in this situation. And many indigenous groups are mobilized for that. On 13 March, a podcast was launched by the collective Copiô, Parente, for example. It is a very interesting platform interaction coordinated by the NGO Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) and local indigenous leaders that seeks to discuss contemporary issues among indigenous people in Brazil. This kind of auto-organization seems to be the good choice at this moment but of course it is not enough. How about the hospital’s transfer if it is necessary? How about the health professional protection and their healthy condition as they could be the main vector for contaging indigenous people? 

So many questions at this moment and a lot of fear about the future onwards. One of the Guarani-Mbyá that is our friend, Yva, told us a few days ago: don’t worry. Be happy. It is important to be happy now!

Self-quarantine efforts and flat earthers

While we are writing this text, the number of coronavirus in Brazil has doubled in two days. The first five deaths were confirmed yesterday (19, March of 2020). What we have so far is not a chaos scenario in Brazil, but in two weeks it will be. It’s funny, but cultural and identity ties matter in how a society sees itself. Stories coming to us from Italy made more impact than news from China. China seems really far, but Italy seems close because we have a huge population of Italian descent from 19th Century migrations. We saw ourselves in the context of Italy more than we saw ourselves in the one from China. As of now, in spite of government intentions, people are starting to mobilize to pressure for a stop at presencial meetings. From the three places where one of us teach, none remains functioning presencially. They halted all presencial activities of March to reacess it in April.

One of the themes in this situation is the impact of misinformation. The current government in Brazil uses fake news as its main way to mislead people so they can establish narratives of media persecution against the government. One bizarre example of this was the situation when the son of President Salbonabo said to FoxNews that his father had contracted the virus. Only to then go to the Brazilian press and contradict this initial statement, accusing Fox of persecution. It is not clear if Salbonabo contracted the coronavirus from his recent trip to the US, but it was informed that some members of his cabinet had contracted, between them we have by now confirmation of the President of the Senate, the Minister of Communications and a General (oh yes, we have a bunch of Ministers that are or were part of the Armed Forces serving in this government) who is Minister of Institutional Security.

As seen in the image at the start of this text, after this trip Salbonabo refused at the first moment to use masks and self-quarantine. He made public statements saying that the situation was not so serious and went to some “meet and greet” reunions with his “fans” (unfortunately this is a common practice of his as a good populist). After a couple days, the situation changed and he appeared in some social media lives and public statements trying to use a mask as the public outcry backfired to his political image.

On the night of 18 March, we could only see the start of a new shift in the relation between the Brazilian public and its current government. Panelaços are starting to occur. Panelaços are a form of protest that gained traction in the crisis and eventual fall (by a Parliamentary Coup) of former Brazilian President Dilma Roussef (2011-2016). Panelaços consists of going to the window of your home and banging a pan at a specific time of the night so everybody can hear “your indignation”. 

For us, this is a new phenomena, as it echoes the indignation protests of the former government, the same indignation that elected Salbonabo. Populists tend to forget that they lack a simple aspect on their political persona: common sense, good common sense. A buffoonish persona (like that of Boris Johnson, Trump and also Salbonabo) works to be relatable because the public finds it funny, but this persona only works as long as the way more serious political discourse has some public enemy to whom they can direct the public attention. For Salbonabo, this is the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, the party of Dilma Roussef) and the media.

When public priorities shift to an actual common “enemy” (like the coronavirus) or, to be more accurate, when the public priorities shift towards an inexorable reality and the need to become seriously engaged in resolving the problem, the populist finds himself screwed. Usually because he doesn’t have the qualities needed to resolve the problem. He was not made for this, he was made to distract.

The perks of a flat Earth is that it has edges  (image: @memeriagourmet)
The perks of a flat Earth is that it has edges  (image: @memeriagourmet)

During the last elections here in Brazil, one phrase stated by the opposition that really caught attention was that we “were waltzing at the edge of a cliff”. This analogy is good because it really expresses in a simple way a picture of the end of the world. When it was feasible to think we would need to quarantine entire countries to slow down the spread of a disease we have no cure for? The last time the world has seen something like that was the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918-19.

We think that ignorance is one of the main aspects of the anthropocene, as is the “blessing of not caring” and the government efforts around the world to misinform and mislead the public. But maybe, just maybe the insurgence of a pandemic can be the landscape needed to insure we don’t forget what truly matters. Community.

Thinking collectively

Three weeks after the first confirmed case of the Covid-19 in Brazil, measures to contain the coronavirus effectively began this week. Despite examples of restraint and isolation from other countries, the Brazilian government hasn’t issued guidelines yet, as mentioned above. Recommendations on conducting examinations, as well as quarantine, have been taken independently by health institutions, states and municipalities, and universities have also closed their doors and advised the people to stay at home. 

Most cultural events are being canceled and transferred. In social media, several hygiene and prevention recommendations have been shared by people. There is a concern and appeal to stay at home to reduce the case curve and, then, not exceed the capacity of hospital beds in SUS. On the other hand, there are still many people to WHO recommendations is still individual, depending on employers choosing what type of conduct they will have. In a country “without” a government how to play out all these health mesure? In countries like England, for example, where a strong neoliberal moral economy is deeply enmeshed in people’s lives, it seems to be quite foreseeable that their Prime Minister has been managing “freedom” and avoiding economic problems (that has been attacked and it seems that Boris Johnson is changing the recommendations). However in Brazil it doesn’t look the case. It looks that there is not someone leading anything from Salbonabo office, and that all the policies and decrees that have been published in the last weeks came from institutions and agencies partially separate from the central government. 

There was a case, in which a party house chose to keep their anniversary celebration. There were many comments pressing the house to cancel the event. While other people agreed to continue their activities normally, due to the maintenance of the economy. In this case, there seems to be a tension between more individualizing thoughts from a collective perspective, which understands that people’s bodies extend beyond themselves.

The impact can be larger when these issues are transferred to health institutions. In conversations with health workers, people have reported that each hospital and basic health unit (Unidades Básicas de Saúde – UBS) has tried to follow, in their own way, WHO recommendations. The lack of guidelines for conduct generates confusion and fear, such as the lack of materials for care, causing dilemmas for workers.

Salbonabo minimizes the global pandemic and insists on not changing his agenda by putting others at risk. By disseminating false information, or making use of post-truth or self-truth in his speeches, he propagates and reinforces anti-collective thinking, transferring the responsibility for containment and prevention measures to local institutions, companies, universities, schools, etc. 

Many indigenous people, when asked about end-of-the-world narratives, respond that they have been there before. They have a long experience with invasions, violence, disease and wars against them – which aren’t over yet. One of the things that they teach us is that whatever the solutions to such problems may be, they come from the collective – very different from what the Brazilian authorities have done so far. This perspective of collective thinking that involves all beings on the planet, human and non-human, is developed by Ailton Krenak. Krenak is one of the most recognized indigenous leaders in the world. In his book, Ideas to postpone the end of the world, he gives us a hint on how to go through moments like this that we face: the end of the world is perhaps a brief interruption of a state of ecstatic pleasure that we do not want to lose (Krenak. 2019, 60).


KRENAK, Ailton (2019). Ideias para adiar o fim do mundo. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.

PS1: Brazilian government has declined to follow WHO recommendations. That means a high number of deaths caused by covid-19 could be under reported.

PS2: We apologise for possible grammar problems on the post, we will happily take critiques on this since we are not native speakers.

PS3: This is a text written collectively, so the authors are named by alphabetical order. 

* Laboratório de Alteridades is a Research Group from Federal University of Health Sciences of Porto Alegre – UFCSPA/CNPq, Brazil. Its main lines of research are Anthropology of Minority Collectives; Sciences and Power and Governmentality; Corporeality and modes of caring; and Ethnographic Theory and Engaged Anthropology. The common thread of this four lines is focused on ensembles anthropological knowledge and health sciences expertise in a transdisciplinar way.