Covid-19 first hit Brazil’s white upper classes, who brought it back from abroad.
Now the virus is scything through the country’s poorer suburbs, favelas and low-income towns such as São João de Meriti – where 63% of the population self-declared as black or mixed race in Brazil’s last census in 2010, compared to 48% in nearby Rio de Janeiro. As of 8 June Brazil had almost 700,000 confirmed cases and 37,000 deaths.
The virus is not as democratic as it initially seemed.
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And a new study added to evidence that the virus is killing proportionally more black Brazilians than whites, exposing, in sharp relief, the country’s staggering inequalities.Dos Santos and his wife Élida launched the Inclusion Project in 2014 to educate teenagers away from drugs and crime. It now helps to feed poorer families who lost jobs or income as shops and businesses across Rio state closed for quarantine. He explains, he “really feels” racism in Brazil. “It’s hidden, not as loud as it used to be.”
“In our country white people have the advantage in everything, in the pandemic or outside of it,” says Rosana de Souza, 43, a school bus driver whose son Fabricio takes part in the project. “People of colour are treated differently.”
Researchers, doctors and health specialists believe factors including poverty, poor access to health services, overcrowded housing and high rates of health issues such as hypertension are some of the reasons Covid-19 kills proportionally more black Brazilians.
“There is clearly a difference in lethality for whites and non-whites,” says Fernando Bozza, a researcher in infectious diseases at the government research institute Fiocruz, who co-authored the analysis of deaths by race published by the Nucleus of Health Operations and Intelligence.
The researchers studied health service data on 30,000 patients diagnosed with Covid-19, who had either recovered or died by 18 May. It found that 55% of the black and mixed-race patients died, compared to 38% of white patients. It noted that a black patient who could not read had nearly four times more chance of dying than a white university graduate, “confirming the enormous disparities in access and quality of treatment in Brazil”.
A report by the Pública investigative media outlet showed more Covid-19 deaths in neighbourhoods in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo with majority black populations.
According to health ministry figures reviewed by the Guardian, from 26 April to 23 May, the numbers of deaths of black and mixed-race Brazilians who died of Covid-19 after testing positive (where race was listed) increased 7.2 times, and white Brazilians 4.5 times.“The majority of black people in our country are more vulnerable to contamination and more vulnerable in terms of access to treatment and health,” says Rita Borret, a black doctor working in Jacarezinho, one of Rio’s poorest favelas, who heads the black health study group at the Brazilian Society of Family and Community Medicine. “The pandemic has exposed these inequalities.”
80% of black Brazilians do not have health plans according to health ministry research. They depend on Brazil’s overstretched public health system, which saw beds fill up quickly in the pandemic, rather than the private hospitals that middle-class, white Brazilians turn to – which in many places still have beds.
As of last year, 43% of Brazilians self-declared as white, 9% as black and 47% as mixed race – the latter two groups earned less than 60% of the salaries of white Brazilians in the first quarter of 2020. While white Brazilians isolate in apartment buildings in middle-class neighbourhoods, black Brazilians make deliveries, work in pharmacies and supermarkets, drive buses, and clean apartments – exposing them to more risk.
Another study suggested that poverty makes black Brazilians more at risk. The technical note by Brazil’s Institute of Health Policy Studies, a thinktank, found 12% more under-60s who hadn’t completed high school had a Covid-19 “risk factor” such as hypertension than those who finished school. Of those who didn’t complete school, 64% were non-white, says one of its authors, Letícia Nunes. In Brazil, 34% of the population live in housing that lacks basic sanitation – and 66% of people included in this figure are non-white.
“That contributes to the dissemination of the virus and makes isolation more difficult,” says Nunes.“The poor can’t afford to pay for health plans so we run to the health centre, and it is very badly prepared to receive someone who’s sick. The staff work well, but they don’t have the structure,” fast-food retailer Sandra Gonçalves says. “These hospitals are very precarious … They’re not ready for this.” Of the president Bolsonaro no lockdown policies she says, “He’s right. If we don’t work, we go hungry, if we get sick we don’t have money to buy medicine.” Bolsonaro’s message was reinforced by evangelical pastors – many of whom support the far-right populist,
Lívia Nogueira cleans a restaurant and thinks Bolsonaro’s rhetoric has been “totally wrong” and knows five people who have died. “I work with fear, scared all the time,” she says.