#18 Miniseries on COVID-19 and Inequality: The Topology of Inequality in Brazil

“It is quite clear that, as the outbreak spreads over the territory, it follows a spatial pattern on which social inequality has already been imprinted,” says Carlos Fausto, professor in anthropology at the National Museum at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, in this interview with GRIP on the COVID-19 pandemic and global inequality.

“It is quite clear that, as the outbreak spreads over the territory, it follows a spatial pattern on which social inequality has already been imprinted,” says Carlos Fausto, professor in anthropology at the National Museum at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, in this interview with GRIP on the COVID-19 pandemic and global inequality.

The port of a riverside community along the Xingu River with a school boat moored. Xingu River, Pará, Brazil, 2014. Photo: Carlos Fausto

We are already seeing how the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are unevenly distributed depending on where you live, your job situation, age, class position, gender, ethnicity, the availability of health services, and a range of other factors. In this series, we provide short interviews with scholars and relevant organisations that share their insights and views on how the pandemic might exacerbate or alter existing inequalities across six key dimensions: social, economic, cultural, knowledge, environmental and political inequalities.


Photo: Carlos Fausto

Carlos Fausto is Professor of Anthropology at the Museu Nacional, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) and a Global Scholar at Princeton University. He has been conducting research among Amazonian indigenous peoples since 1988. He is the author of numerous books including Warfare and Shamanism in Amazonia (2012) and Art Effects: Image, Agency and Ritual in Amazonia (2020). For a decade, he was actively engaged in the training of indigenous people in video production. Fausto co-directed the feature film The Hyperwomen (2011) with Takumã Kuikuro and Leonardo Sette. As a photographer, he has exhibited his work at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris and the Affirmation Arts Gallery in New York.


To what extent could we now see inequalities both between and within countries becoming accentuated as a result of the corona outbreak?


It is still early to evaluate the pandemic’s long-term effects on inequality on a global scale. This is just the beginning of the process. There are more stages ahead, of which we still have poor knowledge. In any case, one thing is clear: politics and policies did make a difference everywhere in these first six months. If we think in terms of countries, the main variable in determining the number of cases and deaths has been the governmental response. Although the virus is global, respecting no frontiers, the responses have been mostly country-based, and they have had a great impact on the final results. How can one explain the startling difference in the relative number of cases between the UK and Greece, Brazil and Paraguay, or the US and Vietnam, to cite some obvious examples? We can recognize a pattern: the virus is showing a predilection for right-wing, populist and denialist regimes. It is also becoming quite clear that the effectiveness of the response depends on previous circumstances, particularly on the solidity and universality of the country’s public health system. Treating the populations’ health as a commodity has been, literally, lethal.


When we turn our eyes to differences within each country and not between them, then we start to see how inequality impacts on and is impacted by the pandemic. In the case of Brazil, the COVID-19 respiratory syndrome started as an upper-class disease, since the first people to get ill were those who travelled in January and February to Europe, the US or Asia. In Rio de Janeiro, for instance, the hardest hit areas in March were the fancy neighborhoods by the beach, whereas Rio’s many poor communities (favelas) were still shielded from the virus. The curve has reversed rapidly since then. The reason is obvious; rich and middle-class people have the means to socially isolate themselves (ourselves). Apartments are generally monofamiliar, with good water and wastewater systems. People have cars and money to buy food (food delivery is a booming business in these areas), as well as internet access and computers, which allow them (us) to work remotely from home. None of these “blessings” can be taken for granted in poorer areas. Consequently, people “respect” the quarantine less, and the number of cases soar. In Rio, this is not expressed in terms of a center-periphery topology, since the favelas are interspersed with richer neighborhoods. However, in São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil, we have witnessed a center to periphery movement of COVID-19 cases, accompanying thus the topology of inequality. So, it is quite clear that, as the outbreak spreads over the territory, it follows a spatial pattern on which social inequality has already been imprinted. Moreover, inequality does not only have an impact on the number of cases, but also on the percentage of deaths, which is higher in poorer areas. At the end of the day, we do not run the same risks.


How are the responses to the corona outbreak revealing the reverberations of colonial and postcolonial histories in terms of how pandemics are thought about or engaged with?


As an anthropologist who has been working with indigenous peoples for the last 30 years, my main concern is with the impact of the pandemic on this population (which amounts to about 0.5% of the total Brazilian population). For indigenous peoples, the pandemic adds insult to injury. At the current juncture of Brazilian history, in which the far-right is in power and the government promotes a not-so-disguised genocide policy against indigenous peoples, ghosts are all the time creeping out from the colonial wardrobe. So, it is difficult to disentangle what is part of this political conjuncture from what is the result of the pandemic per se. The legacies of colonial and postcolonial atrocities already reverberated in the policies and actions of those in power and were felt by indigenous persons as a constant menace against their lives and territories.


Most indigenous communities are trying to isolate themselves from national society in order to prevent the spread of the virus within their villages. This movement is reminiscent of the population flights that occurred during the uncountable epidemics that ravaged indigenous peoples in colonial and post-colonial history. Here, the reverberations are painstakingly concrete. And, as in the case of the epidemics of the past, the isolation strategy tends to fail in the majority of cases for many reasons: proximity of towns, dependency on industrial goods and money, invasion by gold miners, loggers and cattle ranchers, lack of an effective policy on the part of the government health agencies, etc. As of June 1st, more than 70 of the 200 different indigenous peoples in Brazil have already confirmed cases of COVID-19. And this is just the beginning. Again, we are not all running the same risks.


In what ways is the global outbreak of the virus also revealing the underlying political, economic or other drivers of heightening inequalities?


Many taken for granted neoliberal postulates and policies are being drastically laid bare by the pandemic. This is happening in all areas, not only in regards to the health system. It is becoming more and more evident that we need some form of universal basic income, that the market will not fix the planet, and that if we want to continue to be earth beings, we have to promote deep changes. To be honest, I am not confident that deep changes will take place, no matter how reasonable they seem to be. But I hope that the pandemic marks, at least, the end of the neoliberal age inaugurated by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Again, one never knows. I had expected this to occur in the wake of the 2008 crisis, but then the past repeated itself as a farce with the election of Donald Trump.


We should also consider another dystopian possibility, which I think will gain ground as neoliberal policies are exposed by the pandemic; namely, that an authoritarian managerial capitalism, China-style, expands through vast stretches of Asia and spills over to other continents. As Branko Milanovic recently said, this is China’s sputnik moment, and it is difficult to predict if the US will manage to have its Apollo 11 moment in the near future. The US response to the pandemic is so erratic and wrong-headed that, even if we rightly blame a far-right incompetent president, it will certainly undermine liberal democracy as we have known it since the end of World War II.


Can we dream about the return of the Welfare State with its unstable combination of equality and freedom? This is what part of the world expect from Europe: to lead a new deal in which an alternative in-between US liberal capitalism and China’s managerial capitalism becomes a real possibility. Will the European Union rise to this challenge? Again, I have my doubts since this cannot be implemented at the expense of the Third World. It will not work if democracy and sustainability are a luxury for the Global North, whereas authoritarian regimes guarantee the exploitation of the Global South. In any case, there is no easy way out of the trouble, as Haraway says. There is no bright future ahead, no redemption. All we can do (and this will already be a lot) is to keep carving a future by creatively imagining partial solutions founded on three basic tenets: equality, liberty and sustainability – the three conditions for a good life with a future.


What might a global and equitable response to the outbreak look like?


Let me quote a passage from Howard Norman’s introduction to The Wishing Bone Cycle, a book that reunites narratives from the Swampy Cree. He writes: “The Swampy Cree have a conceptual term which I’ve heard used to describe the thinking of a porcupine as he backs into a rock crevice: Usà puyew usu wapiw! ‘He goes backward, looks forward.’ The porcupine consciously goes backward in order to speculate safely on the future, allowing him to look out at his enemy or the new day. To the Cree, it’s an instructive act of self-preservation.” I think this is what we should do as a species: go backward and look forward. We have to adopt the porcupine strategy. Let us think as porcupines, let us be porcupines. This is what the global stop – the quarantine – should mean for all of us:  an opportunity to think as a porcupine, and stop behaving like those suicidal rats infected with Toxoplasma gondii, who become fatally attracted to cat’s urine. What kind of microbe has infected humanity making us behave in a such a suicidal way? The great leap forward is one into the abysm.


Ursula Le Guin, the great American writer, said in a 1982 talk (from where I learned about Norman’s porcupine story): “It seems that the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism and industrialism and the human population, in a one-way future consisting only of growth.” Growth cannot be our sole parameter of existence, not even growth with some level of inter-human equality. We need more than that. We need less human exceptionalism driving our policies, we need more equality between species. The current pandemic offers us the opportunity for reimagining our common future on this planet in more equitable terms.


Are there experiences from Brazil or Latin America that global stakeholders or researchers concerned with inequality should be mindful of?


The present government has clearly failed Brazilian citizens. Its unreliable and irresponsible response wreaked havoc on the whole country (I hope one day that those responsible for it will be held legally accountable). Anyway, Brazil is one of the most unequal countries in the world. According to the latest UNDP and the World Inequality reports, it ranked seventh, only surpassed by countries in Africa. In terms of the concentration of wealth, it was only beaten by Qatar (with a very small margin). In Brazil, 10% of the population hold about 55% of the income (when all forms of income are considered), and 1% almost 30%! This is social obscenity at its highest level. Poverty is a hereditary disease in Brazil; the result of five centuries of patrimonialism and exploitation. Just imagine then what happens when a neoliberal project is sown in this soil. Try to conceive of what occurs when neoliberal capitalism interbreeds with plantation-style patrimonialism. Is my depiction too gloomy? Well, I bet this is how most Brazilians feel now. But, we also know that the country has already showed a creative force for reinventing itself in certain moments of its history. Consider Brazil’s leadership in controlling the AIDS epidemic, the implementation of a universal health system and the demarcation of indigenous territories in the 1990s; also consider the implementation of one of the largest cash transfer programs in the world, the adoption of affirmative action policies, and the rapid decrease in deforestation in the 2000s. When I think about this recent past, I get a glimpse of a way out of our current nightmare.