The virus is not democratic: the Covid-19 pandemic as an event and the dispute over speeches

Written by: Jorge Osvaldo Romano, Thais Ponciano Bittencourt, Paulo Augusto André Balthazar, Liza Uema, Eduardo Britos Santos, Annagesse de Carvalho Feitosa, Renan Alfenas de Mattos, Paulo Petersen, Juanita Cuellar Benavídez, Ana Carolina Aguiar Simões Castilho, Caroline Boletta de Oliveira Aguiar, Érika Toth Souza, Larissa Rodrigues Ferreira, Myriam Martinez dos Santos, Vanessa Barroso Barreto.[1]

This text inaugurates a series of articles containing the political analysis of key speeches about the Covid-19 pandemic: the “negationist” and the “scientific” in the national and international debate, a work by the Research Group “Discourse, Social Networks and Socio-Political Identities(DISCURSO) ”.
In this initial article, we propose addressing the Covid-19 pandemic as an event. This approach allows to highlight the unequal impacts of the pandemic, as well as to consider a suspension of hegemony and the opportunities for political dispute that this suspension opens. Next, we explain the methodological tools of the proposal, based on the political analysis of the speeches and on the approach to interpretative frameworks. With this tool, we seek to succinctly reconstruct the discursive field, the discourses under debate and the main spokespersons of the negationist and scientific discourses.

The Covid-19 pandemic in just a few months has already reached almost every country on the planet. It threatens health and transforms the quotidian lives of billions of people. It is frequently presented to common sense as a "natural disaster", the result of "destiny" and for which they would be unresponsible. But is that it? What is the meaning of this interpretation? What does it conceal? When one takes into account the complexity of the society in which we live in, there is nothing that is exclusively “natural” and disconnected from cultural practices, relations of domination and political decisions that articulate the links between humans and between them and nature.

Trying to overcome an interpretation that diminishes human responsibility for the phenomenon, different perspectives have been built, ranging from the reduction of the pandemic to a health crisis to others that - recalling Mauss - understand the pandemic as a "total social fact". That is, by highlighting a structural Durkheimian dimension, the pandemic would impact the set of social relations, changing the dimensions of everyday life, undermining actors, disrupting institutions and interfering in the universe of values[2].

The Covid-19 pandemic as an event

Without denying the importance and breadth of the pandemic impacts, but placing less emphasis on what is understood as structural and more on the procedural discontinuities of the event, according to Byung-Chul Han[3]'s thought, we invite the reader to look at the pandemic as an event. The philosopher Han, recovering Nietzsche, Deleuze and Foucault, highlights that the event opens a fissure in the dominant certainty[4]. Despite being as unpredictable and sudden as a natural event, it articulates with the social and political (Han, 2018)[5]. The event is what opens the door to the unforeseen, breaks with regularities, standards and uniformities involved in the ability to design and manage the world. More than chance, Han identifies in the event the potential to break with the statistical will, which for Foucault guides the biopolitical management of bodies and populations, with the psychopolitical management that Han finds in the algorithmic manipulation of desires, the individual and collective psyche in connected societies, submitted to correlation of data by using Big Data. Han realizes that biopolitics and psychopolitics rely on normal, recurrent and predictions to tame the future and reproduce more of it, while the event is related to the singular, the deviation and the imponderable that breaks with politics as management and opens up doors for the politic[6] as a collective creation of the new[7].

We should not go back to normal because normal was the problem
Normal was the problem

In order to understand the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic as an event, it is important to visualize the emergency context of this pandemic, which, like others that have marked the history of mankind, brings potential disruptions. Every event has a story. Between chance and necessity, there are canyons that, according to the place or distance of the observer, reveal chasms or paths. If at the beginning of June 2020 there were 6.5 million people infected, being 2.2 million in Europe and 3 million in America, with almost 400 thousand dead in more than 188 countries, according to WHO, it was on November 17, 2019 that the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province in China. These data pointed out the center of the pandemic in that economic power that since 2008 has sustained globalized production and consumption levels within a pattern of intensive exploitation of human labor and natural resources. A model that for scientists, philosophers and an increasing part of society is considered suicidal and unsustainable, in a direct relation with viral outbreaks and pathologies caused by the ecosystem imbalance of disruptive interactions between man/nature.

The characteristics of Covid-19 differ from other epidemiological outbreaks that have not attained pandemic proportions, that is, the ability to affect and make all people vulnerable, everywhere and at the same time, just like neoliberal globalization. A pandemic that placed ¼ of the world population in confinement (about 1.7 billion people) to expose the contradictions of a model in crisis for at least 12 years, where the logic of Just in Time, of resource optimization, of automation, outsourcing, privatization and unregulated and expanded mercantilization have generated host substrates where pathological agents find friendly and receptive ecosystems for their reproduction. A contamination that, at least in its initial moments, collapsed the center and not the periphery of this globalized economic model. An example is the neoliberal public health standard - just focus on the two Anglo-Saxon speaking countries, mentors of the current economic model as an example: the UK's neoliberal state management in 2018 transferred health services contracts valued at £9.2 billion to private initiative, while reducing the NHS (National Public Health Service) budget by £1 billion - these numbers may explain the impacts of Covid-19 in England.

In the USA, on the other hand, the number of beds in hospitals is continuously decreasing. Since the Reagan Administration, between the 1980s and 2000s, there has been a 40% reduction in hospital beds. The reason would be to achieve optimization: improving bed occupancy rate throughout the year, with fewer doctors and nurses, less cost and more profit with health. In the same period, fifteen of the largest American pharmaceutical companies stopped investing in the development of antibiotics and antivirals, on the other hand, medicines for cardiovascular disease, antidepressants and supplements for men’s reproductive health are more profitable, deserving more investments[8]. In fact, after thirty years of privatization and reduction of the state, all the countries that supported neoliberal globalization were unprepared to act in a public health emergency such as Covid-19[9].

In the economic dimension that welcomes the Covid-19 pandemic event, it can be said in summary that it establishes the pandemonium of a crisis within another crisis. A crisis of neoliberal globalization was already underway, sustained by financialization, with infinite expansion of speculative and fictitious capital, the growing expansion of credit and indebtedness of people, organizations and states. The global economy was already in recession before the pandemic: Japan was in recession, and the eurozone was about to enter it, American growth was slowing, Mexico, Argentina and South Africa were shrinking and natural resources exporting countries, such as Brazil, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Ecuador have all been experiencing huge revenue losses. At the same time that societies deal with the ghost of a new crisis generated by the corporate indebtedness that exploded after 2008, impacting today from minor companies to large corporations.[10] When China became the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic, the engine that has rescued the global economy since 2008 was lost: social isolation and suspension of economic activities made China shrink 6.8% in the first quarter of 2020. Today, China works with an annual growth forecast of 2.5%, which is very little to leverage the global economy, as it did while it had growth rates close to 10%. In 2019, the Chinese economy was still growing by almost 7%.[11]

In turn, the social and political dimensions that host the pandemic event are no less critical. Today, in various parts of the world, discontent proliferates between workers and self-employed professionals of a generation whose parents supported whole families and raised their children with their wages, but who are now outsourced, precarious or unemployed and impoverished by neoliberal globalization. This discontent is capitalized mainly by reactionary and even neo fascist political leaders and movements that replace debate as a place of politics with a policy without a debate place and founded on myths like ethno-racial supremacy, patriarchy, xenophobic nationalisms or religious fundamentalisms. After 2008, the 40 years of there is no alternative by Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan produced a movement similar to the one that spawned Nazism, when impoverished and humiliated workers were converted into white Aryan warriors. In the Mediterranean, before the anesthetized eyes of most of the European population, a daily holocaust affects refugees from Africa and the Middle East, while Trump constructs a wall to separate the United States from the rest of Latin America. It is in this globality that the Covid-19 pandemic takes place, both among these reactionary movements and also among progressive demonstrations and insurgencies that in the moment immediately before the forced isolation multiplied from Santiago to Beirut. And it is in this globalized context that the impact of this pandemic as an event also reproduces scenarios of massive inequalities.

The unequal impacts of the pandemic as an event

In recent estimates, UNDP predicts that as a result of the pandemic, the human development index (measured from the combination of living standards, health and education) will be decreasing for the first time since it was conceived in 1990. With its impacts in health, education and income, Covid-19 makes room to an unprecedented step backwards, not merely reveals the deficiencies of each society, but deepens inequalities, in expansion in all countries even before this event. International agencies recognize Covid-19 is clearly unveiling the gaps between those who have and those who do not, within and between countries.[12] The internal and external inequalities in each country involve the lack of access to water, sanitation and basic hygiene, health and medicines, which facilitates the spread of the virus and affects vulnerable and already at risk groups, such as people who depend on the informal economy, low-paid workers, women, youth, the elderly, people with disabilities, refugees and displaced persons, black people, indigenous communities and other traditional communities.[13]

Inequality is reinforced by the fulfillment of Covid-19's main health recommendation: social distance. For many low-income workers, staying at home is not an option. It is a privilege for the wealthier classes, which shows how these people not only just maintain greater security and professional and income stability, but also possess vaster capacity to access health systems, in addition to enjoying sanitary conditions, food, and housing that enable a lower rate of illness. And adding to that, the wealthier classes adopted social distancing before the poorest, which represented an advantage over Covid-19's highly transmissible standard.

The virus is not democratic, on the contrary, it is going direct to the cracks in our society. According to Ashwin Vasan[14], the pandemic exposes the structural disadvantages experienced by the most impoverished population in terms of income generation and unequal access to health services.

The Covid-19 pandemic exposes and worsens structural racism and gender inequalities

Philosopher Djamila Ribeiro[15] recalls that the most vulnerable will always be most affected and that this does not depend on a pandemic, as these represent structural issues. The explosion of anti-racist demonstrations in the United States, Brazil and the world in late May and early June brought up debates and discussions about structural racism and globalized privileges.[16]

Amongst Brazilians, Black women and black men, as well as Americans, have less access to health, education and work, being the biggest victims of police violence and incarceration[17], in addition to being underrepresented in politics and culture. With the pandemic advance, it is the black population that makes up the largest number in the official statistics of deaths and contagions in both countries. Among the people who died from Covid-19 in Brazil, 57% were black, while whites represented 41% of the total deaths[18]. In the period from 11 to 26 April 2020, the number of black people killed as a result of the disease has increased fivefold. According to the study carried out by researchers from Fiocruz[19], Abrasco[20] and the Federal University of Bahia, in the USA, the lethality rate among the black population more than doubles compared to that perceived among whites, and Afro-Americans are less referred to tests when they attend the clinic with signs of infection.[21]

In Brazil, most deaths and infections prevail in impoverished neighborhoods of large cities, where the majority of residents are black people and historically marked by the absence or precarious access to basic sanitation services, drinking water and health equipment, being most exposed to risk factors.[22]

Coronavirus pandemic in Brazil
Sao Luiz, in Sao Paulo. (Credits: Lalo de Almeida/ Folhapress )

In São Paulo’s capital, the city with the most elevated number of deaths in the country, for each death in Moema, an upscale neighborhood in the south, there are four in Brasilândia, a ghetto neighborhood in the north, where half the population is black and has the largest number absolute number of deaths across the municipality. In the city of Rio de Janeiro, the neighborhood of Campo Grande, also with more than half of black residents, leads in the number of deaths. In Manaus, the first Brazilian city to register the collapse of the public health system, for every death among whites, more than 13 black patients die as a result of the disease.[23]

In addition, as mentioned earlier, these indicators point out that social isolation - the main preventive measure for Covid-19 oriented by WHO - represent a challenge for a significant part of the most impoverished and predominantly black Brazilian population, since they occupy a significant part of poorly-paid jobs and sectors considered essential during the pandemic, such as household, cleaning and food, with emphasis on drivers via delivery applications, a job that has grown considerably in large cities over the past few years.[24]

As in large urban centers, the black rural population has equally been strongly affected by the pandemic: 97% of the quilombola territories in the country are located in municipalities whose population needs to travel to access basic health care, in addition to the recurrent lack of access to water experienced by these black communities. Another problem encountered is the difficulty of accessing the emergency payment. Until June 10, the survey carried out by the National Coordination of Articulation of Black Rural Quilombola Communities - CONAQ, registered 65 deaths and 388 confirmed cases in Brazilian quilombola territories.[25]

These indicators highlight the historical racial inequality that has persisted for centuries in the United States, and also in Brazil. The Covid-19 pandemic certainly exacerbates racial inequalities, however, it is necessary to go beyond this number illustration. Experiencing the urgent need to reveal the structural problem of racism in Brazil founded on the myth of racial democracy, which is the root of all social inequalities, rooted and built by slave and colonial systems, which are still persistent today. In this sense, the interpretation of racial inequalities in the context of the pandemic needs to be made based on the logic of structural racism and the debate about privileges that over time have determined people's social places according to race or ethnicity.

As well as ethnic and racial inequalities, gender inequality in Brazil needs to be understood in light of the structural problems established by the slave, colonial and patriarchal systems. The first person to die from Covid-19 in the state of Rio de Janeiro - which today ranks second in the ranking of deaths and infections across the country, was Cleonice Gonçalves, a black woman, domestic worker[26], elderly, diabetic and infected at the workplace by her employer, a Leblon resident, the neighborhood with the most expensive square meter in the capital of Rio de Janeiro, that returned from a trip to Italy[27]. The Miguel Otavio case, a 5-year-old boy, son of Mirtes Renata de Souza[28], a domestic worker, is one of the countless tragedies that reveal structural inequalities in Brazil, a fact impossible to be understood in isolation.

In any and all epidemic situations, the work of health professionals, especially community agents, nursing teams, caregivers and domestic activities are essential in the prevention and treatment of diseases. Traditionally, this type of work is predominantly performed by women and, in general, it is considered to be of lesser prestige or even invisible and, in the case of unpaid household chores and without economic value[29]. The event of the Covid-19 pandemic not only increases the demand for these activities, it also shows how much this crisis affects men and women, blacks and blacks differently.

Observing the profile of health professionals in the country, directly exposed to the virus infection and who, even before the pandemic, were already subjected to precarious conditions and work overload, women, primarily black women, continue to occupy subordinate positions in working teams: more than half of the medical staff is composed of men and 77% of them are white. Among nursing workers and women, women make up 85% and black women represent more than half of the total of professionals (53%)[30].

As well as nurses and housekeepers, the demand for care professionals has increased significantly in Brazil: between 2004 and 2017, the number of professionals grew by 690%, and among these, women represent 85%[31]. Considering the elderly and people with chronic diseases are part of the risk group for Covid-19, it appears that the increasing demand has caused situations of abuse, such as not being dismissed by employers, work overload, execution of other domestic activities and exposure to informality[32].

In addition to accentuating the imbalance in the performance of tasks between men and women, social isolation has increased domestic violence against girls and women. In 12 Brazilian states, between March and April, there was an increase of 22.2% in cases of femicide, with 143 women killed by facts related to their condition as women. In the state of São Paulo, cases of femicide grew 41.4% in the same period. The number of women victims of homicide grew by 6% and the Women's Service Center recorded a 34% increase in complaints compared to the same period in 2019. On the other hand, there is a reduction of complaints registered in police precincts of willful injury causing bodily injury, resulting from domestic violence and rapes, which indicates that, with isolation, women victims of violence have found it more difficult to register complaints[33].

The Covid-19 pandemic exposes and exacerbates the inequality of deep and originary Brazil.

We are presently in what is called the third phase of the Covid-19 pandemic in Brazil: the internalization of the virus in minor towns and rural regions in the interior of the country. The first phase started in the wealthy and middle class neighborhoods of the big cities that imported the virus from international trips, followed by community transmission and displacement of the disease to poorer suburbs and neighborhoods.

The hierarchy between cities regions of influence and the structure of the urban and fluvial network explain the interiorization of the virus. Medium-sized cities function as regional hubs and attract the population of smaller municipalities in search of health infrastructure, for example. Researchers also warn of the risk of population displacement flow from large cities to medium and small interior cities, motivated by the unemployment crisis and even the presence of family members who need care, such as risk groups. Such mobility can serve as a vector of contamination, taking Covid-19 to places that are yet unaffected, and that has less or no infrastructure, equipment and health professionals for highly complex treatments.

The vulnerability of the interior regions is calculated by the characteristics of its population (elderly, pre-existing comorbidities, registration in CADUNICO[34], for example), its local economy, the investment capacity of the municipalities and the health system structure. According to these factors, the interior of the North and Northeast regions are more vulnerable because, although these regions have low population density, the structure and organization of the health system is still inefficient[35].

This explains the pandemic explosion in the Amazon and the collapse of the health system in the state of Amazonas, the largest state in territorial proportions in the country, but which only has ICU beds available in Manaus, the capital. Amazonas has one of the highest displacement averages for highly complex health treatment in the country, reaching 462 km[36].