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].

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]

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].

Boy from the riverside community of Educandos, Manaus (AM) (Credits: Michael Dantas / AFP)

According to a research group headed by sociologist Arilson Favareto, the scenario is even more frightening, since the places where the pandemic has manifested itself in a more concentrated way are not the most vulnerable municipalities. And that should dictate the country’s epidemic curve in the upcoming weeks, with the Covid-19 advance in the national territory in locations with more urgent needs.

The internalization of the virus circulation in Brazil also warns of the impacts of the pandemic on traditional communities in the country, especially among indigenous peoples. Most cases of Covid-19 recorded among indigenous people occur in the states of the Amazon. In the state of Amazonas, the regions of the Solimões River and Alto Rio Negro are areas that concentrate the largest number of indigenous populations and also of contamination (614 cases) and indigenous deaths (28)[37]. Irregular river transport has been identified as one of the principal causes of dissemination in the interior of the state, as well as travel to neighbouring cities that already have cases, for purchases of foodstuffs and fuel.

The Special Indigenous Sanitary Districts (DSEIs/Sesai) of the state of Pará and Roraima also register a considerable number of contaminated people and deaths. There are reports that some entire communities have left their villages and entered the interior of indigenous lands in order to better protect themselves. In the Xingu Indigenous Park (MT), which is under pressure like deforestation, illegal fishing and large soybean plantations in its surroundings, several villages must cancel the traditional Kuarup ceremony after the confirmation of the first two cases of Covid-19.

Early in the pandemic, researchers warned of the need for actions to prevent contamination among native communities[38]. The increase of contamination in these populations may represent another genocide committed against the indigenous peoples of Latin America. Historical records show the devastating impact of infectious diseases, such as influenza, measles, tuberculosis and smallpox on indigenous peoples, which have decimated entire ethnic groups.

In order to prioritize actions, studies and researches have advanced in the elaboration of rates of Indigenous Lands vulnerability to Covid-19[39], considering variables such as percentage of elderly and risk factors, average number of residents per household, situation of Indigenous Land regularization and proximity to municipalities with bed and ICU availability, for example. The primary strategy for prevention would be to restrict the entry and circulation of people contaminated by the disease in their territories, given that community practices and forms of indigenous social organization, like sharing of objects of personal use and extreme community life in large villages, hinder social isolation.

However, the variable of invasions and illegal activities practiced by miners, land grabbers and loggers who don’t work from home[40], makes the situation even more dramatic: the cattle are passing, like the death of 5 warriors of the Munduruku people of the Tapajós region in just one month, deaths related to the presence of illegal mining in that region[41].

The pandemic literally becomes a smokescreen for the advancement of deforestation in the Amazon, which registered an increase of 51% in relation to the same period in the previous year, according to a report from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

Indigenous organizations also warn against underreporting cases of contamination and deaths by the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (Sesai), linked to the Health Ministry. According to Sesai, there are 85 deaths of indigenous people by Covid-19 confirmed across the country[42] while data from indigenous organizations, consolidated by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), indicate 236 deaths and 93 ethnic groups affected[43]. Such divergence reveals the discrimination and the invisibility of indigenous identity in an urban context, since the assistance to those who live in cities is done outside the indigenous health system, local authorities only account cases registered in indigenous villagers, reinforcing the prevailing colonialist idea that those who live in the urban area aren't indigenous.

In Brazil, indigenous communities are more vulnerable from an epidemiological point of view, aggravated by the economic, social and health disadvantages compared to non-indigenous people, even those who live in similar locations. Thus, there is a previous inequality in relation to their living and health conditions that affects these communities even more sharply.

Painting by Feliciano Pimentel Lana, of the Desana ethnic group, who died in May (12) due to Covid-19.

The event, suspension of hegemony and political dispute

Changing the normality established by the dominant power relations, the Covid-19 pandemic as an event, exposes and exacerbates inequalities. It overshadows the redemptive role of the market in the hegemonic imagination. It makes room for the importance of solidarity in society. Resurrects demands and expectations about the State. It puts hegemony in suspense, creating spaces for the political dispute of discourses at national and international level.

Any kind of social order is the result of hegemonic practices. There is no final foundation. To speak of hegemony means to recognize a social order is a contingent articulation of power relations that lacks an ultimate rationale. In this manner, every society is always the product of a series of hegemonic practices that create a certain order in a contingent context. Things could always have been different. An order implies the exclusion of other possibilities. An order is always political, not “natural” (Mouffe, 2014)[44]. As Mouffe recalls, it is stated that the order established by neoliberal globalization is a destination that has to be accepted, since there would be no more alternatives. But the current state of globalization, far from being natural, is the result of a neoliberal hegemony and structured through specific power relations. It can be challenged and transformed and, for that, there are alternatives available or that may be created in the dispute process. It is possible to transform things politically when one can intervene in power relations to transform them (Mouffe, 2014)[45].

It is worth remembering that moments of crisis in hegemonic models provide or develop conditions for the emergence of populisms, which can be reactionary or progressive, as Mouffe reminds us[46]. Populism is a mean of political articulation that manifests itself in a social situation in which the demands of the population tend to regroup because they have not been satisfied[47]. But this precondition is not enough. There is only populism if a set of political-discursive practices build a popular subject (the people), from the delimitation of an internal frontier that divides social space into two antagonistic fields: they (the dominant, the elites) and the we (the dominated, the people). The logic of this division is established by the creation of a chain of equivalence among a series of social demands in which the equivalent moment prevails over the differential nature of the demands. This chain of equivalence is not the result of a purely fortuitous coincidence. It must be consolidated through the emergence of an element - the empty signifier[48], which gives coherence to the chain by meaning it as a totality (Laclau, 2009: 64)[49]. The reactionary or progressive meaning, the impacts on society and the state of populism (as a political articulation) depend on the way in which the opposition they/we is established and the capacity to mobilize these identities [50] on the correlations of strength and socioeconomic structures.

Thus, the Covid-19 pandemic as an event, by breaking with regularities and the order of things already established and accepted as “normal”, also puts the hegemony in suspension and opens the door to political discourse dispute - many of them activated by populist articulations - and in this way, this already established order loses its aura of immutable truth and destiny, and reveals itself as what it is: only one among other possible alternatives for designing and managing the world.

Political analysis of speeches and interpretative frameworks of the pandemic

Event, inequality, hegemony, populism and discourse dispute: with these concepts and theoretical frameworks, we propose an approach to the Covid-19 pandemic that is expressed in a broader work[51], which methodologically articulates the principles of political discourse analysis and the approach of interpretative milestones.

The political discourse analysis is based on the views of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, political scientists who renewed thinking about democracy and politics, for which the disputes of narratives present in the democratic context refer to a confrontation between different practices and antagonistic projects. Antagonism is inherent in the political and reveals the radical positions of society, in which the social meaning to some extent is always contested and cannot be completely stabilized. Political issues constantly involve choices between often opposing alternatives for society. These options encounter situations that go beyond the normality of public policies and their technical/administrative components, resulting in disrupted situations and options, like those associated with pandemics, inserted in the field of conflict and antagonistic disputes.[52]

At the same time, according to Stuart Hall, we consider that in today's world, there are a plurality of positions occupied by subjects. These identities are multiple, decentralized, displaced and fragmented. They are in the process of reconstruction and open to different articulations, always partial and not definitive[53]. The political discourse present in the disputed narratives has the virtue - and the power - to articulate these multiple and contingent identities of the subjects.

In turn, the frame analysis developed by authors like Lakoff, Snow, Benford and Galván considers, in the same perspective, the political discourse as an articulated set of frames of interpretation of the reality that works structuring thought, speech and individual and collective actions[54]. Landmarks are mental structures that make up our way of looking at the world. As a result, forming the goals we set, the plans we make, the way we act and what counts as a result, good or bad, of our actions. In politics, our milestones shape public policies and the institutions we create to carry out those policies. Landmarks cannot be seen or heard. They are part of what cognitive scientists call the "cognitive unconscious", mental structures that we cannot consciously access, but which we become aware of for their consequences: our reasoning patterns that structure what we designate common sense. We also identify landmarks through language. All words are defined in relation to conceptual frameworks. When you hear a word, your frame (or collection of frames) is activated in the brain. Changing the milestone is changing the way people see the world. It is to change what is understood by common sense (Lakoff, 2007: 4). Thus, the political discursive practice, which includes speeches, texts, performances/significant actions of the subjects, and the frameworks for interpreting the reality they express, are one of the primary means in which the hegemonic dispute manifests itself, providing the articulation of the multiple identities of the subjects.

It is with this methodological tool that in the context of the pandemic event, we seek to reconstruct the discursive field about Covid-19 with the main discourses in dispute: the “negationist” and the “scientific”.

Reconstructing the discursive field, the speeches under debate and the principal spokespersons

The discursive field about the pandemic at national level and its international influences is reconstructed mainly from discursive practices expressed in speeches, documents, performances and decisions by national and state authorities; leaders of key foreign countries in the geopolitical context; representatives of national and international institutions related to the field of health and economics; civil-society entities; church representatives, particularly Catholic and evangelical; in news, positions and testimonies carried by traditional media and social media; and in interviews and articles that make up the intellectual debate, mainly about measures taken to fight the pandemic and future systemic impacts.

In this discursive field, two master speeches could be delimited, in which two thematic poles oscillate and articulate with different emphasis: the sustainability of life and the sustainability of the economy. On the one hand, we have the “negationist” discourse, defended by some authorities and economic and religious leaders, traditional and social media, which minimizes or does not recognize the breadth and importance of the pandemic -it is a little flu - prioritising the sustainability of the economy, encouraging getting back to presential work and the end of restrictive measures from horizontal quarantine and lockdown.

On the other hand, the “scientific” discourse, defended by health doctors with the support of international organizations, media, governors and many foreign governments, wich privilege health care and the sustainability of life, defending social isolation with the horizontal quarantine and even lockdown as the best way to guarantee life and also ultimate success in terms of economic sustainability.

Both master discourses in dispute - “negationist” and “scientific” - are reconstructed from the discursive practices of the various key actors. These practices are at the origin of the speeches, but they also reproduce or update the master speeches, conforming several variants according to the policy issues of each specific context. It is worth remembering that discursive practices develop on the ontic plane of politics - that is, on the diversity of daily practices and institutions, while the discourse that organizes these practices is situated on the political ontological plane, that is, on the process of institution or conformation of the social.[55]

Among the few spokesmen at the international level of “negationist” discourse and its variants, we have identified presidents and prime ministers of countries such as the USA (Trump) and Great Britain (Johnson before being infected by Covid-19), as well as authoritarian leaders from countries like Belarus (Lukashenko), Tajikistan (Berdymukhamedov), Tanzania (Magufuli) and Nicaragua (Ortega). At the national level, we find the president of Brazil, ministers and members of the second echelon, parliamentarians of the so-called “new center”, businessmen, agribusiness leaders, members of the armed forces, the military police and firefighters (retired and active), leaders of Pentecostal churches and bloggers and producers of fake news on social media. From this set of actors in our research, we will highlight the president of the USA, and at the national level, the country’s president and leaders of Pentecostal churches, in addition to social media.

Among the various spokespersons for “scientific” discourse and its variants, at international level, we have the World Health Organization, the Pope, presidents and prime ministers of Argentina, New Zealand, Russia, China, Chile, France, Germany among others. At the national level, we encounter a diverse spectrum of spokespersons: Fiocruz, the governors of the Northeast, of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Goiás; the Northeast Scientific Committee; former ministers of health, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, parliamentarians, former presidents of the Republic, businessmen, leaders of the Catholic Church, members of social movements, networks, NGOs and other civil society entities, and the main traditional media[56]. Among those, we will highlight the World Health Organization, the Pope and the presidents and prime ministers of Argentina (Fernández), New Zealand (Ardern), Russia (Putin), China (Xi Jinping), Chile (Piñeira), Fiocruz, the governors of the states of Maranhão, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Goiás, the Scientific Committee of the Northeast and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Maia), in addition to the traditional media.

To recapitulate

As was pointed out at the beginning of this article, we invite the reader to observe the Covid-19 pandemic, which has put a quarter of the world's population facing isolation measures, as an event. Through this view, we seek to highlight the unequal impacts of the pandemic, considering the suspension of hegemony and the opportunity for political dispute that this suspension opens. We also explain the research methodological tools, based on the political analysis of the speeches and the approach to interpretative frameworks. With this tool, we seek to succinctly reconstruct the discursive field and discourses in debate to finally identify the main spokespersons for the negationist and scientific discourses.

Using these elements as a basis and reference, in the series next article, we will address the “negationist” discourse. Starting from a succinct characterization of its main spokespersons, the analysis will present the diagnosis that this discourse outlines about the problem, the predominant tone of its discursive practices, the demands and the groups that articulate themselves in antagonistic political identities - the "they" and the “we” - with antagonisms at the national and/or international level that are reproduced or created in the dispute and the proposals to face and overcome the pandemic.

Originally published on Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil.

[1] Researchers and students of the Research Group “Discourse, Social Networks and Socio-Political Identities (DISCURSO)” linked to the Graduate Program in Social Sciences in Agriculture and Society Development and to the International Relations Course at DDAS / ICHS from the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, registered with CNPq and with the support of ActionAid Brasil.

[2]Ramonet, Ignacio: The pandemic and the world system. Le Monde Diplomatique in SPANISH, 25 April 2020.

[3] Han, Byung-Chul. La Emergência viral e el mundo de mañana, in:

[4] Deleuze saw in the event something like a noise in the flow between the order of language and the disorder of the world, which breaks the chain of senses and produces the new in language, subjectivities and, also, in the world (Zourabichvili, François. O Vocabulário de Deleuze. Rio de Janeiro: Relume Dumará Sinergia Ediouro 2009)

[5] Han, Byung-Chul. Psicopolítica. Belo Horizonte: Ayne 2018.

[6] The politic has to do with the ontological level, as a dimension of the constitutive antagonism of human societies. Politics has to do with the ontic level, while the set of practices and institutions through which a given order is created, organizing human coexistence in the context of the collectivity derived from the political (Mouffe, Chantal: En torno a lo político. Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2011: pp. 15-16)

[7] Idem footnote 5.

[8] Roberts, Michel, in

[9] Mazzucato, Mariana e Quaggioto, Giulio in

[10] Roberts, Michel, in

[11] Roberts, Michel, in

[12] The report “Shared responsibility, global solidarity: responding to the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19”, released on March 31, 2020 by the World Health Organization (WHO), suggests a series of social policies to be developed by national governments, as well as multilateral actions to tackle the problem that has become global, as well as humanitarian financing to assist countries and peoples of greater social and economic vulnerability.

[13] According to the World Bank, the virus could lead 40 to 60 million people to extreme poverty in 2020. The International Labor Organization estimates that half the active population could lose their jobs and the World Food Program predicts that 265 million people suffer a food crisis. With the closure of schools and inequalities in distance learning, UNDP estimates that 80% of children of primary education age in countries with a low level of human development are without access to education and more than half of the world population lacks services essential health issues (UNDP, 2020). Available in:

[14] Ashwin Vasan is a physician and professor of public health at Columbia University.

[15] Djamila Ribeiro is a philosopher, academic, writer and organizer of the Plural Feminisms Collection. Awarded by Prince Claus Laureate and on the BBC's list of the 100 most influential and inspiring women in the world, she is a columnist for Folha de São Paulo and Revista Elle. The cited article is available at:

[16] It should be noted that more than half of the Brazilian population is black (56%), while in the United States it represents 13%.

[17] An alarming data is the number of infected prisoners in the Papuda Penitentiary Complex, in Brasília, which represents 5.7% of the total number of infected people across the Federal District. Source:

[18] Available at:

[19]Brazilian governmental institution for research and development in health sciences.

[20] Brazilian Association of Public Health.

[21] GOES, Emanuelle F.; RAMOS, Dandara O.; FERREIRA, Andrea J. F. Desigualdades raciais em saúde e a pandemia da Covid-19. Trabalho, Educação e Saúde, Rio de Janeiro, v. 18, n. 3, 2020, e00278110. DOI: 10.1590/1981-7746-sol00278. Available at:

[22] According to IBGE, in 2018, there was a greater proportion of the black or brown population living in households without garbage collection (12.5%, against 6% of the white population), without water supply through the general network (17, 9%, against 11.5% of the white population) and without sanitation (42.8%, against 26.5% of the white population). Available at: liv101681_informativo.pdf

[23] The data about the cities of São Paulo and Manaus refer to the dates of April 29 and 30, respectively, and the data for the city of Rio de Janeiro refer to the date of May 5, 2020. Available at: https: //

[24] According to a survey conducted by the Brazilian Association of the Bicycle Sector Aliança Bike, between 2018 and 2019, the number of cyclist deliverers per application increased by 5.4. Most of these informal workers live in the ghetto, are black (71%), men and young people (50% are up to 22 years old), have completed high school (53%) and were unemployed (59%), working every day of the week , with a daily workload of 9.2 hours, daily cycling an average of 60 km and with monthly remuneration below one minimum wage. Available at:

[25] Available at:

[26] Outlining a brief profile of paid domestic work in Brazil, 95% are women, mostly poor, with low education, residents of ghetto areas and users of public transport. Half of them are solely responsible for the families. Of the total number of female workers, 63% are black. At the beginning of the pandemic, the National Federation of Domestic Workers (Fenatrad) initiated the Care for Those Who Care for You campaign to pressure the Public Ministry of Labor to prevent states from including domestic service as essential during the pandemic. Available at: and


[28] About this discussion, access the interview with the historian and professor at the Federal University of Recôncavo da Bahia Luciana da Cruz Brito available at:

[29] In Brazil, in 2019, women devoted 10.4 hours per week more than men to household chores or the care of people, especially young children. The highest rate of performance of these activities occurred among black women (94.1%, 91.5% among whites and 92.3% among pardos). Regardless of color or race, the rate of carrying out household chores is always higher among women than men. Source: IBGE. Available at: -week-to-more-than-men-to-do-household-or-to-care-for-people

[30] CoVida Network. The health of health workers in coping with the Covid-19 pandemic. CoVida Bulletin: Covid-19 Pandemic. Edition 05. May 18 of 2020. Available at:

[31] This growth does not occur on an equal basis, since it is necessary to consider that the demand for care has also increased for the poorest women, who form the large contingent of domestic workers and who also need public care services and equipment for their children and daughters and / or sick, elderly and / or disabled people.

[32] It is worth remembering that in July 2019, Bolsonaro vetoed Bill No. 11 of 2016, which creates and regulates the professions of Elderly Caregiver, Child Caregiver, Caregiver of Disabled Person and Caregiver of Person with Rare Disease and gives others measures. On December 11, 2012, when he was serving as a Federal Deputy for the PP-RJ, the current President of the Republic was the only parliamentarian to vote against the PEC das Domésticas (PEC 66/2012).

[33] Brazilian Public Security Forum. Domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic. Technical Note. Ed.2. May 29 2020. Available at:

[34] CADUNICO is a set of information about Brazilian families in poverty and extreme poverty.

[35] Arilson Favareto, along with other researchers, highlights the vulnerability index of the municipalities initiated by the Votorantim Institute.

[36] Data from the “Cities Influence Regions Research - travel information for health services - Technical Notes”, IBGE, 2020.

[37] Data from the Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health - SESAI, obtained on June 10, 2020.

[38] Letter “Covid-19 and indigenous peoples - the urgent need for action” written by researchers from Fiocruz addressed to the institution's Deliberative Council (CD) on April 15, 2020 about COVID-19 and indigenous peoples in Brazil, attached to the report “ Risk of spreading COVID-19 among indigenous populations: preliminary considerations on geographic and sociodemographic vulnerability ”. Available at: -ensp-covid-19-report4_20200419-indigenas.pdf

[39] “Analysis of the Demographic and Infrastructure Vulnerability of Indigenous Lands to Covid-19 - Inputbook”, Unicamp, 2020.

[40] Comment by Paulo Moutinho, IPAM scientist, on the reduction of environmental inspection during the pandemic.

[41] Among the victims are Professor Amâncio Ikon Munduruku and the chief of the Sai Gray village, Vicente Saw Munduruku, both important leaders in the demarcation of territories in the upper Tapajós.

[42] The information is obtained from the 34 Special Indigenous Sanitary Districts (DSEI), last updated on June 10, 2020, available on the Sesai website.

[43] Data updated on June 10, 2020 and available on the platform

[44] MOUFFE, Chantal, Agonística. Pensar el mundo politicamente. Buenos Aires, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2014, p, 130- 131

[45] ibid

[46] MOUFFE, Chantal: Controversy over left-wing populism. Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil, May 2020.

[47] Laclau and Mouffe are intellectuals who have faced the issue of populism without prejudice. It is worth bringing a comment made by Laclau after thirty years of research and reflection on the topic: .... we can now return to the question of populism. We started our reflection by enumerating the discursive strategies by which populism was now discarded, now underestimated; as a political phenomenon, however, it was never thought of its specificity as a legitimate means, among other means of structuring the political link. And we can already maintain a strong suspicion that the reason for the dismissal of populism is not totally disconnected from those invoked in what I called the disqualification of the masses. In both cases, we are faced with the same accusations of marginality, transience, pure rhetoric, vagueness, manipulation and so on. There is also another suspicion that is simmering in our minds: that in both cases, disposal is linked to an identical procedure, that is, the repudiation of the undifferentiated medium that is the crowd or the people in the name of social structuring and institutionalization. LACLAU, E. A Razão Populista Ed. Três Estrelas, São Paulo, 2013, p. 111 (translated by DISCURSO)

[48] For the Essex School political discourse theory, the notion of empty signifier refers to the moment when words or elements of a political discourse lose their original uniqueness to mean the whole set of demands. It occurs when a discourse universalizes its contents to the point that it is impossible to be meaning exactly. It is an empty signifier due to its polysemic nature that makes it empty its specific contents. It is a very common practice in populist political discourses.

[49] LACLAU, Ernesto. Populismo: qué nos dice el nombre?. In: Paniza, Francisco (org.). El populismo como espejo de la democracia. Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2009.

[50] Identity as a product of antagonistic relationships, that is, it is built through difference. There is the creation of a "we", which only exists by the demarcation of a "them". In addition, it is known that the same social subject can have different identities, triggered according to the context in which it is inserted.

[51]Beyond the article “The dispute of speeches about the pandemic” that was published in Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil, edition 155, June 2020, pag. 11-13, the results of this broader research will be published in sequence in this space of Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil online. In the first part, the works comprise the reconstruction of the discursive field, the analysis of the disputed speeches (negative and scientific), the means of disseminating and reproducing the speeches, the resulting political reconfiguration and the visions of the post-pandemic future. In the second part, we will share the specific analyzes of the narrative practices of the main spokespeople of the negationist and scientific discourses at national and international level.

[52] Laclau, E. Los fundamentos retóricos de la sociedad. Buenos Aires: FCE, 2014; Mouffe, Ch., Agonística. Pensar el mundo politicamente. Buenos Aires, FCE, 2014

[53] Hall, S. Cultural Identity in Post-Modernity. Rio de Janeiro: DP&A Ed., 8th ed., 2003

[54] Lakoff, George. No pienses en un elefante. Lenguaje y debate político. Editorial Complutense, Madrid, 2007; Snow, D. e Benford, R. “Ideology, Frame Resonance and Participant Mobilization” in B. Klandermans, H. Kriesi y S. Tarrow (eds.) From Structure to Action: Comparing Social Movement Research across Cultures. Greenwich: JAI Press, 1988; Galván, I. La lucha por la hegemonía durante el primer gobierno del MAS en Bolivia (2006-2009): un análisis discursivo. Madrid: Universidad Complutense, tesis de doctorado, 2012.

[55] Mouffe, Chantal: En torno a lo político. Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2011: pp. 15-16

[56] It is worth highlighting limits in the identification of spokespersons for “scientific” discourse due to the media choices, which makes leaders with clear positions - such as several governors in the Northeast or leaders of left-wing parties - be neglected or made invisible, not gaining space in the debates. served publicly. The absence or diluted presence of the “market” voice, which in other contexts is permanently activated, is also symptomatic.

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