How coronavirus is affecting Brazil

8 January 2021

Brazil volunteers distributing food to favelas

Volunteers get ready to give out food to families in São Paulo, Brazil.

Brazil is the largest country in Latin America, rich in diversity and natural resources.

However, it is also one of the most unequal nations in the world and over 50 million Brazilians live in poverty. In recent years, the Brazilian government has made drastic cuts to health, education and housing that are affecting the poorest most of all.

Now, legal protection of human rights and the environment are being further undone while Brazil suffers from the coronavirus crisis. Brazil has now recorded over eight million confirmed cases of coronavirus, and over 200,000 people have died from the virus, making it one of the worst affected places in the world.

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What was the situation in Brazil before coronavirus hit?

Housing and rights to land are key issues in Brazil for the poor and indigenous communities we work with.

Over 450 landless families in Brazil evicted during coronavirus pandemic

In urban favelas and shanty-towns, we have worked for many years with the local Church, community leaders and volunteers to fight for the right to safe homes for families. Having an address means you can get a regular job, send your children to school and access other government support.

In the Amazon, small-scale farmers and indigenous communities are at risk of losing their land. Mining, logging, cattle-ranching and soya production companies constantly invade protected rainforest and there are often violent clashes against the local population.

"There was already a healthcare emergency happening before coronavirus hit. Like elsewhere in Latin America, access to good healthcare in Brazil is based on wealth."

Clare Dixon, CAFOD's Head of Region for Latin America

There was already a healthcare emergency happening before coronavirus hit. Like elsewhere in Latin America, access to good healthcare in Brazil is based on wealth. Hospitals can be days away for indigenous communities, and visiting them can also be dangerous for this group, who often lack resistance to many common diseases.

How has the church responded?

At the start of the new year, The National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) made a statement saying: “The 'new' that we are looking for in 2021 requires the union of all citizens, to come together in good will, in face the COVID-19. A pandemic cannot be beaten in isolation. To eradicate COVID-19, it is essential that everyone walk together, in solidarity. 

“It is necessary to recognize that the virus does not respect borders, social classes, and any other form of categorization that, so often, justify regrettable discrimination. Justice, solidarity, and inclusion are the main criteria to be followed in facing this pandemic. 

“The figures show that the pandemic is becoming more serious in Brazil. There are already about 200,000 dead. These lost lives cannot simply compose statistical tables. It is mourning and pain in the hearts of families. These are stories interrupted by an agile, dangerous, and invisible, yet real, threat. 

“Brazilian society demands prompt union and action by government officials, in different spheres of power, guided by science and serious indications from epidemiologists, so that vaccination begins urgently, because, every day, lives are lost to the pandemic, and economic and social impacts worsen." 

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“The vaccine [must be] for everyone. Special attention must be paid to the most vulnerable and poor. It is unacceptable and unwise for the vaccine to reach some more quickly, leaving most of the population uncovered. 

“Pope Francis, in his Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti, teaches that the word solidarity expresses much more than sporadic gestures. “Solidarity, in its deepest sense, is a way of making history” (Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti, n. 116). 

“Humanity is sick with the pandemic and will only find a cure if it walks together. God, who made us free and co-responsible for the work of Creation, for the care of one another, help us to learn from the lessons of this pandemic, so that we can overcome it and move forward in building a healthier world, starting from fraternity and universal solidarity.” 

How has the government responded to coronavirus?

The President of Brazil has ignored quarantine measures enforced by many state governments and new laws have been brought in to encourage businesses to go and exploit the Amazon. In April of this year, there was almost twice as much environmental destruction and logging in the Amazon as there was in April last year.

Local lockdowns are in place, but these measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus present a real challenge to poor families, who need to work in order to eat.

What challenges are there to surviving lockdown and fighting coronavirus?

Of course, if you're living in an overcrowded favela, or if you're an indigenous community where everybody lives communally, you don't have your own space. You share that space, so it’s very difficult to maintain your distance or stay in a quarantine.

But at the same time, if you're poor and living in a city, you can't afford not to go out on the streets – your survival is dependent on earning some money daily, to buy food.

Regia lives in Fortaleza

Regia lives in Fortaleza

"It’s a difficult time because I don’t have a fixed income. During the pandemic, I haven’t received any orders. So the food basket came at a good time and it helped me a lot."

Regia, an event planner, received emergency food

The situation in the Amazon is critical. The survival of many cultures and communities is under threat. There are only hundreds of thousands of indigenous people in Brazil but the infection rate among their communities is far higher than the general population. Past epidemics have shown how devastating respiratory illnesses can be for these groups.

How has CAFOD responded to coronavirus in Brazil?

In São Paulo  and other cities we've been helping to give out essential food, facemasks and hygiene kits for vulnerable families living in favelas and shanty-towns. Our local experts in the community have negotiated with local authorities so that they can send volunteers to deliver food to families in need and help them survive the lockdown. We’ve also given advice to these volunteers on social distancing, to keep them safe.

In the Amazon and in north-east Brazil, the local Church and community organisations have been supporting farmers to get their food to families on the edges of cities, so that urban families don't go hungry.

"Solidarity is something that is in the heart of the poorest and most vulnerable as well," Cecilia, from our Brazil team told me: "These people are donating the only source of income they have. So they may not have money to pay the bills, but they still can eat. And then they want to share this gift of nature with other people."

Delivering food and hygiene kits

Delivering food and hygiene kits to indigenous communities.

With the indigenous Amazon communities, we have provided:

  • food supplies
  • prevention information in local languages
  • personal protective equipment (PPE).

We are also monitoring coronavirus cases and working with health officials to get people tested and treated where possible in their communities, reducing travel to a central hospital where risk of infection is high.

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What gives you hope?

There’s so much to give us hope for a better world after coronavirus.

The people of Brazil are showing tremendous creativity in facing this challenge and continue to show inspiring community solidarity and support to one another.

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