Being Black in Brazil in the time of pandemic

Living as a person of colour in a country struggling with racism and inequality is always a risky business, but stakes are even higher during a pandemic.

A protester wearing a face mask that reads "Black Lives Matter" looks on at Paulista Avenue during a protest amidst the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on June 14, 2020 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. [Miguel Schincariol/Getty Images]

These days, I get a knot in my stomach every time I reach out to one of my friends. I dread calling or texting them because I know that if they do not answer, they may well be dead.

I do not work in a high-risk industry, or live in a war zone, but my fears about the wellbeing of those closest to me are not irrational or baseless.

I am a Black man living in Brazil, and many of my friends are also Black.

Living as a person of colour in a country struggling with racism, inequality and racialised police brutality is always a risky business. But stakes are even higher when that country is in the middle of a pandemic and is being led by a far-right authoritarian who dismisses the deadly virus as “a little flu”.

Since the start of the pandemic early last year, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been working tirelessly to undermine efforts to stem the spread of the virus. He repeatedly showed up at social gatherings without a mask, shaking hands, hugging people, and encouraging them to “return to normal”. Even when he contracted the virus himself, he did everything he could to undermine the severity of the risks the Brazilian people are facing. After announcing his positive COVID-19 test result to the media, for example, he casually removed his mask before continuing to speak. Last year, at the height of the first coronavirus wave in Brazil, Bolsonaro sacked not one but two health ministers in a matter of a few months, because they wanted to implement physical distancing measures that the president deemed “unnecessary”.

As a result of the federal government’s reluctance to take action, Brazil swiftly became one of the countries worst affected by the pandemic.

More than 200,000 Brazilians have already lost their lives to COVID-19, and with case numbers rapidly increasing across the country, hospitals are struggling to cope with admissions.

Like elsewhere in the world, such as the United States and Britain, people of colour are bearing the brunt of this crisis in Brazil, for multiple reasons.

Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, but in the following decades, the country did not take any constructive action to integrate millions of Brazilians of colour into society. Instead, they opted to deny the existence of racism and racial inequalities, baselessly declaring Brazil a “racial democracy” where everyone is colourblind and living in harmony. As a result, Afro-Brazilians largely remained an underclass – to this day, they suffer the worst of police violence, have limited access to education, make up a disproportionate percentage of the unemployed, have limited representation in decision-making bodies and are almost three times as likely to be victims of homicide.

Some Afro-Brazilian families managed to move into the middle classes between the early 1990s and the mid-2010s when Brazil was actually a democratic country and social mobility was a real possibility.

I am lucky that I come from a middle-class family. I live in a gentrified neighbourhood, have access to decent healthcare, and have a job that allows me to work from home during the pandemic.

But many of my friends are not as lucky. Like most Afro-Brazilians, they come from poor backgrounds and live in urban shantytowns we call “favelas”.

In favelas across the country, many Brazilians of colour live in small, poorly constructed homes with limited infrastructure alongside dozens of other members of their families. Open sewers and rotten piles of garbage are common sights in these hectic neighbourhoods where federal authorities have almost no control.

As you can imagine, for people living in these areas, practising physical distancing or taking extra hygiene precautions to keep the virus at bay is almost impossible. For most people living in favelas, who work low-income manual labour jobs, working from home or avoiding crowded places is also not an option.

On Monday, authorities in São Paulo finally administered Brazil’s first COVID-19 vaccine, giving us some hope that the crisis decimating our country may one day be over.

But, things will likely continue to get worse before they start getting better.

As I write this article, I still have not heard from several friends who I know are in dire situations. They are not only living with the fear of losing loved ones, or their own lives, to COVID-19, but also facing the very real possibility of losing their livelihoods amid a rapidly deteriorating economy.

Even though I and my family are safe, at least for the time being, I have struggled with insomnia and depression since the beginning of this crisis. I am scared and angry because I live in a country where people are left to fend for themselves in the face of a deadly global public health emergency. I am terrified because I live in a country led by a president who thinks the crisis is not real, and the lives of millions of Brazilians of colour, like me and my friends, do not matter.

In November, Bolsonaro, in line with his many past homophobic statements, said Brazil needs to “stop being a country of f*gs” in dealing with COVID-19 and “face-up to the crisis and fight”.

Sadly, as I think of chaotic, overcrowded hospital wards, thousands of grieving families and my friends in favelas trying to survive in conditions that would be unbearable to many, I can’t help but think Brazil already lost its fight against this virus.

Some Brazilians are still enjoying the summer as if nothing is amiss, meeting their friends in large groups in pubs and on beaches. They perhaps believe the president’s lies about the pandemic or assume that, with their social and economic privileges, they do not need to worry about the crumbling health service or the reports of the increasing number of deaths.

But as an Afro-Brazilian, even though I’m in a better place than most, I cannot afford to ignore the crisis my country is engulfed in. Black and brown Brazilians are dying lonely, painful deaths every single day, and there is a very real possibility that a friend, a relative or even myself, could be the next in line.

Brazil was once known as the “país do futuro” (country of the future) – today, that future looks uncertain, especially for us Black Brazilians.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.