A new tomorrow? Brazil needs civil society, but not Bolsonaro

The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated lockdowns in the main cities of the country meant that millions of Brazilians had to quickly adapt to a new reality. Social isolation is the main tool for minimizing the effects of Covid-19 and reducing the spread of the virus. However, this isolation has enormous consequences: a decrease in economic activities, an increase in unemployment and the risk of a global recession. Can health and safety be protected without the economy collapsing? Brazil is not alone in this dilemma. The whole world is currently grappling with the necessity of acting responsibly now to save lives while simultaneously reinventing the future.

The impact of Covid-19 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second largest metropolis, has thrown two main challenges. First, the crisis is making the enormous inequality in Rio’s urban areas even more visible. Some neighbourhoods are coping well, as they have access to infrastructure and services that guarantee the well-being of residents, but those living in slums and on the peripheries of the city often live in small, makeshift homes that have little or no ventilation and which lack access to water and basic sanitation. The second challenge is the enormous population of informal workers who have lost their income because of lockdown and who, as a result, are left in an extremely vulnerable position without money to buy food, adding to the numbers of people in Rio who were already unemployed or in need of assistance. 

In these circumstances, Casa Fluminense’s response to Covid-19 has been on two fronts: disseminating information on the effects of the lockdown, and mobilizing partners to work together around a coordinated response. In terms of the information we have been sharing, we started a Covid-19 Inequality Infographics Series, whose aim is to present data and information that sparks discussions on the impact of Covid-19 on those living in poverty in the Rio metropolis. In terms of mobilizing partners, we have been collaborating with local organizations – particularly in the West Zone, Baixada Fluminense and São Gonçalo – which are working to sensitize the population about the importance of social isolation, establish solidarity networks and demand action from local authorities. One of these collaborations resulted in the campaign #CoronaNaBaixada, which involved an open letter to local authorities, demanding protection for the most vulnerable.

Also on the mobilization front, Casa Fluminense joined the Rio Contra Corona initiative – led by the Instituto Ekloos, Instituto Phi, Banco da Previdência and the União Rio movement – which is distributing food parcels and hygiene kits to socially and economically vulnerable families. In a few weeks, the initiative brought together 48 organizations working in 134 communities, and, through this network,  we distributed more than 300 tons of food. In the Rio Contra Corona, Casa Fluminense  donated resources and encouraged other donors to support the initiative, and suggested additional organizations in Baixada and the West Zone as members of the network. For Casa Fluminense being part of Rio Contra Corona is particularly important because now, perhaps more than ever, we need to collaborate and avoid duplicating efforts – working together allows us to better serve those most in need.

What will the future look like?

The short answer is that nobody has the answers. During this period of lockdown, several online discussion spaces have emerged to discuss and reimagine a new tomorrow. I have participated in a few of these, and while much is still unknown, three points seem clear. 

The first is the importance of the Unified Health System. In recent years, debates about the inefficiency of the public sector and the need to reduce the role of the state, have increased in Brazil. However, in times of crisis, it is the state that has the responsibility and capacity to respond to all members of society. The Unified Health System is based on the principle of universality, and is intended to offer free services to all – with states and municipalities having different and complementary responsibilities to ensure that the system functions effectively. In 2017, the federal government took the decision to freeze investments into the health system for the next 20 years, though due to the current state of emergency, it has decided that such investments will start again. But will the government freeze health resources again at the end of the crisis? Or is it possible for us to use the crisis as an opportunity, and to improve the Unified Health System by dedicating more resources to it now?

The second point is the importance of Brazilian civil society, which has been prominent during the pandemic. Countless initiatives led by NGOs, community organizations, philanthropic institutions, etc have emerged and are doing everything in their power to minimize the impacts of the crisis (particularly for the most vulnerable). The Rio Contra Corona initiative mentioned above was made possible by the work of hundreds of community organizations, collectives, NGOs and social leaders who understand the reality of their neighbourhoods and the favelas, and who are able to rapidly develop and implement actions to overcome local problems, while still holding the government to account. However, despite the vital role that these organizations are playing in their communities, they are vulnerable themselves, with constant anxieties about their own financial sustainability. Therefore, for Casa Fluminense, continuing to support and strengthen the work of essential community organizations in Rio is of the utmost importance, both during and after the crisis.

The third point that comes out clearly for me is the complete irresponsibility of President Jair Bolsonaro during the crisis. The President has continually denied the seriousness of this pandemic that has already killed hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. He goes against the advice of the World Health Organization, the Ministry of Health, scientists and world leaders, baulking at guidance around social isolation. Rather than coordinating national action with governors, mayors and the national congress, he has instead created chaos and sown confusion, leading to tension and inaction across government bodies. It is abundantly clear that everyone is concerned about the economy and livelihoods, but we need to tackle one problem at a time and the priority right now must be people’s health and lives. In parallel, measures should be developed so that the economy can reopen in a safe and responsible manner. But this all requires the capacity for dialogue and political coordination – everything that Bolsonaro does not have and does not want to have. He is not a leader who will unite the country. Quite the opposite, he seems intent on creating division. This is not news for many people, but for others the reality is now sinking in.

Henrique Silveira is Executive Coordinator of Casa Fluminense. Casa Fluminense is member of the Brazilian Philanthropy Network for Social Justice.

A version of this post was first published by the Global Fund for Community Foundations. The original post can be viewed here.