President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil during a broadcast on the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Isac Nobrega/Brazilian Presidency, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

After watching the president for so many days, I finally understood that happiness is a matter of choice.

The New York Times
Sep. 10, 2020

by Vanessa Barbara
Contributing Opinion Op-ed Writer

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — On Aug. 29, my country crossed the threshold of 120,000 people killed by Covid-19. With around 900 new deaths a day, we’re yet to see a downward trend in the outbreak. I wanted to understand why many Brazilians seem unperturbed by this, so I decided to take a desperate measure: I started watching President Jair Bolsonaro’s weekly live broadcasts on YouTube and Facebook.

Yes, I know it sounds pointless, foolish and masochistic, and it kind of is. But after watching three months’ worth of broadcasts — totaling 11 strenuous hours in front of the computer — I can now say that everything has changed. At last!

It was just a matter of perspective, after all. I shouldn’t have relied on traditional media outlets to get information, because they “don’t have anything good to say about Brazil,” according to Mr. Bolsonaro. He singles out a prime-time news program that mostly shows deaths — “funeral TV,” he calls it — as something nobody can enjoy. He is right. The presidential live broadcasts, by contrast, are always uplifting, even if this is mostly accomplished by disputing any negative news about his government.

Just weeks before his inauguration in 2019, Mr. Bolsonaro promised that he would deliver to his supporters a weekly live broadcast accounting for the government’s actions. He explained that the mainstream media often misrepresents the facts. “There is no misrepresentation here,” he said. “You get the news straight, as it is supposed to be given.”

If only I had known this before. I would have learned, for example, that the World Health Organization is actually “shoddy” and that it “lost credibility.” I shouldn’t have worried about its epidemiological reports. According to Mr. Bolsonaro, the organization is “leaving a lot to be desired.” It failed to recognize the miraculous effect of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that cured of Covid-19 some 200 government employees at the presidential building. “Nobody was hospitalized,” he guaranteed. Enough with randomized controlled trials!

After watching the president for so many days, I finally understood that happiness is a matter of choice. Everything that slips from his grasp of reality is beside the point. Mr. Bolsonaro accuses the W.H.O. of being “contradictory” and “one of the least scientific” things in the world. One can infer that the most scientific things are the president’s opinions, which he likes to spread out in endless declarations, always using the same arguments. “Many doctors are already saying that masks do not protect anything,” he recently said. “This is another farce we’re going to see.”

He mentioned hydroxychloroquine in 13 of 14 live broadcasts; many times he even displayed a box of pills on the table. On all the broadcasts I watched — from June to September — he failed to mention the drug only once, on June 25, the same day he claimed, “Nobody protects the environment more than us.”

Well, this is a relief. It turns out that the Amazon rainforest is not really burning, because “it cannot catch fire.” Mr. Bolsonaro claims the devastating fires in the Amazon are a fake news story created by Brazilian newspapers — something that foreign media have propagated. When he does admit that there are some fire outbreaks in the region, he blames not agribusiness but Indigenous people, “caboclos”(people of mixed Indian and white origin), and riverside dwellers. “It’s their culture,” he says. To back up his assertions, he refers to statistics from unknown sources. “I don’t know who said this, but ….”

It’s a delight to see someone so meticulous about facts and figures. Many readers will assume that my brain has turned to mush after binge-watching Mr. Bolsonaro’s broadcasts, but these are totally unsubstantiated claims — as opposed to the president’s relentless accuracy.

During a broadcast in August, he said of something he’d heard, “I don’t know if it’s true or not … Yes, it’s true!” And then, in the same broadcast, “It came to our attention, I won’t say it was from reliable sources.” On another occasion, he abandoned all scruples and just asked us to trust him: “We have real news that hospitals have a surplus of beds.” (In any case, and just to be sure, he encouraged his supporters to “find a way to get inside” public hospitals to film them, showing that they have not been overwhelmed with patients.)

The problem with journalists is that they often “act with mischief,” as I learned. One of them asked on Aug. 23, during the president’s visit to a cathedral, why Mr. Bolsonaro’s wife received 89,000 reais (over $16,500) from Fabrício Queiroz, a former legislative aide alleged to have links to Rio de Janeiro’s militias, clandestine paramilitary groups that function as a kind of mafia. The president answered by telling the reporter, “I feel like punching you in the mouth, OK?” The question remains unanswered.

“It’s not that I run away from the press,” he explained during a July broadcast. The proof is that he makes an exception for three radio journalists who demonstrate “absolute impartiality” by reporting “what’s really going on in Brazil.” Sometimes they get to ask the president questions during the broadcast. One of them once asked why we don’t hear news of corruption in the infrastructure sector anymore; the other demanded to know about the president’s health. Neither got a verbal punch in the mouth.

We can’t get enough of science, strictness and impartiality, clearly.

But just as I was about to finish my cheerful marathon viewing, I had a nightmare. I dreamed that Mr. Bolsonaro was burning a pile of papers that proved his negligence in the handling of the pandemic in Brazil. I couldn’t stop him, but I tried to rummage through the ashes in the hope of saving something. Soon the police came and arrested me. I felt helpless again.

When I woke up, we had reached 127,000 deaths.


Vanessa Barbara is the editor of the literary website A Hortaliça, the author of two novels and two nonfiction books in Portuguese, and a contributing opinion writer. 

A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 14, 2020, Section A, Page 23 of the New York edition with the headline: I Watched Bolsonaro’s Broadcasts.

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil in Brasilia on July 25, after he tested negative for Covid-19. Credit: Sergio Lima/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

I was too busy cooking and cleaning and caring for my daughter

The New York Times
Aug. 11, 2020

by Vanessa Barbara
Contributing Opinion Op-ed Writer

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — I have a subscription to a monthly magazine called Piauí. In July, I spent so many days without opening the front door that I could only wonder whether the magazine had arrived. When I finally went to check, there was nothing there.

That’s what I wrote to my mother, when she asked about July’s issue — that I opened the door and “there was nothing out there.” She misunderstood and reacted with pity. “Oh dear, there is a world out there,” she replied. “Isolation is really taking a toll on you.”

That wasn’t exactly what I meant, but it turns out to be truer than I’d like. Many Brazilian families, like mine, are trapped in a ruthless quarantine with no end in sight. With schools closed, parents need to take care of children (in my case, a 2-year-old) while working from home, cooking, cleaning and staying reasonably sane.

It’s often so heavy a burden that I get the impression that the world outside doesn’t exist anymore. Life has shrunk to a daily round of cooking rice, refilling the clay filter, changing diapers, cutting tiny toenails, picking toys up off the floor. It’s almost as if I’ve become a 1950s housewife.

While some people have decided to limit news consumption during quarantine, others have been forcibly cut off from the rest of the world. Today, five months into quarantine, I can read the news only after my daughter has gone to sleep. So it wasn’t until the evening of July 7 — half a day after his diagnosis — that I learned our president had the coronavirus.

It didn’t come as a surprise, given that President Jair Bolsonaro has publicly defied social-distancing rules since the beginning of the pandemic. He has attended several rallies in support of himself and against lockdown measures, and has repeatedly gathered small crowds in bakeries and drugstores whenever he’s gone on an errand. His blatant disregard of the pandemic eventually brought results: He managed both to get infected and to plunge the country into catastrophe.

Brazil is now the second-worst-affected country behind the United States, with three million cases and over 100,000 deaths. (The true figures are likely to be higher, because our testing system is far from excellent.) Since early June, we’ve been consistently reporting the world’s highest number of daily Covid-19 deaths, hovering around 1,000. In five months, we haven’t seen a downward trend in Covid-19 deaths.

“Brazil is still very much in the middle of this fight,” the World Health Organization’s top emergency expert said on July 17. We don’t need to worry about a second wave, after all: We’re still stuck in the first one, a relentless flood that drowns a thousand people each day.

Throughout, Mr. Bolsonaro has been indifferent, even hostile, to people’s suffering. When a reporter confronted the president with the country’s staggering death toll months ago, he responded: “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?”

So it felt appropriate that he’d experience what so many have endured under his watch: a brush with the virus. Even so, the reaction among Brazilians was mixed. Some wished the president strength; others did the same for the virus. But it seemed most of us, in chronically despondent moods, were indifferent to the news. For nearly three weeks, Mr. Bolsonaro was quarantined in the presidential residence — a pretty dismal form of comeuppance, I felt, that left him still in power.

It’s not as if the president’s absence mattered much: Around the country, the number of cases and deaths continued to mount. Mr. Bolsonaro never even apologized for not wearing a mask or ignoring social-distancing measures in the days before he became symptomatic — acting as a major vector of transmission. He couldn’t care less. During his quarantine, he appeared in a photo offering hydroxychloroquine to an emu in his garden, as if everything was a joke.

On July 25, in the fourth test since he was infected, Mr. Bolsonaro tested negative. “I didn’t feel anything from the beginning,” he bragged to his supporters. He credited his recovery to the use of hydroxychloroquine, though scientists have found no evidence the drug works on Covid-19 patients. Days later, he felt weak and started taking antibiotics for a lung infection. Right now, he’s apparently fine. And that’s that. The experience hasn’t taught him anything or brought any consequences.

I missed all this. I was too busy cooking and cleaning and caring for my daughter. July was a big month for her: She peed for the first time on the potty and finally switched from bottle to cup. There were other developments to keep me occupied. My husband and I finally installed blackout curtains in the bedrooms to keep the cold air out (yes, it’s winter here, on top of everything) and took down Christmas lights from our balcony (no kidding). When I finally opened the door to pick up the magazine, my daughter tried to flee.

It’s hard to focus on the world outside. Instead, as days turn to months and exhaustion becomes the new normal, we cling to the promise of a vaccine. At least there’s a bright side to being so busy with unending chores and having the door always shut: We don’t have time to mourn anything. We just keep on going.


Vanessa Barbara is the editor of the literary website A Hortaliça, the author of two novels and two nonfiction books in Portuguese, and a contributing opinion writer. 

President Jair Bolsonaro during a press conference at Alvorada Palace, Brasília, Brazil, June 5, 2020. (Photo by Andressa Anholete/Getty Images)

New York Review of Books (Daily)
Jun. 10, 2020

by Vanessa Barbara

SÃO PAULO—“So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?”

So said Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, on April 28 when a reporter pointed out that the country’s toll from Covid-19 had just surpassed China’s—reaching the grim milestone of 5,000 deaths. By the end of May, Brazil had surpassed the half-million mark for coronavirus cases, becoming the world’s No. 2 hotspot for the disease, behind only the United States; it has now topped 38,000 deaths. On Saturday, Bolsonaro’s government stopped publishing official statistics about the country’s outbreak.

“So what?” might sum up why Brazil’s response to the pandemic has been so catastrophic: I’m talking not only about the scorn with which Bolsonaro greeted the news of thousands of deaths, but also about the fact that he appears to think there should be no response at all. “What do you want me to do?” he asks, as if he wasn’t the president of the country.

Well, at least he was conceding that something was really going on. At first, he simply denied the severity of the outbreak, saying that it was overblown and “a fantasy.” In a television interview on March 15, he suggested that we shouldn’t buy into this neurosis: “Other viruses have killed many more than this one and there wasn’t all this commotion. Surely there is an economic incentive to create all that hysteria,” he declared.

That month, he foolishly predicted that Covid-19 would kill fewer people in Brazil than the H1N1 flu did last year (under eight hundred). “People will soon see that they were tricked by governors and much of the media when it comes to the outbreak,” he said.

Later that month, twenty-three members of the presidential delegation Brazil sent to the US tested positive for the coronavirus. The sixty-five-year-old president himself tested negative, according to unattributed reports. Then, in a televised address to the nation on March 24, Bolsonaro said his “athletic background” meant that if he was infected by the virus, he wouldn’t have to worry. “I wouldn’t feel anything or at the very worst it would be like a little flu or a bit of a cold,” he said, an especially egregious statement amid many such embarrassments.

On that occasion, he also condemned governors and mayors who enforced social distancing measures. “Our lives have to continue,” he said. “We must, yes, get back to normal.” Ignoring all public health guidance—and against the advice of his own minister of health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta—Bolsonaro argued that keeping the economy open was more important than trying to contain the spread of the virus. In his opinion, 70 percent of the population would get infected anyway, so it might be wiser just to let things run their course. 

The president likes to broadcast his message by his actions also, openly defying social-distancing measures whenever possible. On March 29, when Brazil’s death toll reached 139 people, he went for an idle stroll around the suburbs of Brasília. He personally greeted street vendors and people at bakery shops and drugstores, without wearing a protective mask. When reporters confronted him with questions about the coronavirus, he replied: “That’s life. We will all die one day.”

*

Here in São Paulo, the hardest-hit state in Brazil, less than half of the population are adhering to social-distancing rules. (A rate of 70 percent is needed to stop the virus spread, according to the state’s government.) My husband, our two-year-old-daughter, and I have been following social-distancing measures for eighty-five days now; the only contact we ever have with the rest of the family is through video calls. We take sanitary precautions. We cut our own hair. We leave the house only once in a while for reasons of absolute necessity—to go to the supermarket or the drugstore.

On these rare occasions, though, we see lots of people gathered on the sidewalks, drinking beer, and chatting. Others run shop errands, ducking in and out under the half-closed stores’ shutters. According to media reports, many beauty parlors and barber’s shops are open throughout the city. An evangelical church downtown is not only holding services for thousands of people but also selling magic bean seeds that purportedly cure Covid-19.

While it’s true that some people don’t have any choice but to keep going to work, others just choose to imitate the president: they have responded to the pandemic with an emphatic shrug.

*

Bolsonaro supports “vertical interdiction,” which stipulates mandatory quarantine only for those people most vulnerable to the coronavirus: the elderly, people with chronic diseases, and the immuno-compromised. The rest can go on with their lives, according to this theory, eventually catching the virus and developing a mild infection, from which they would (also theoretically) recover and gain natural immunity. This, in turn, would benefit the society as a whole by entrenching so-called “herd immunity.”

The strategy has since been dismissed by health experts and, well, by reality. While Covid-19 has proven more lethal for the elderly, it can be fatal to younger, healthy people, too. In Brazil, 30 percent of those killed by the virus were under sixty. Thirty-five percent had no comorbidity. Hospitalization rates are very high even among younger patients, which is why the demand for critical care services rapidly overwhelms supply. Death rates of between 1 and 3 percent means that Brazil still runs the risk of suffering more than 1.5 million deaths, considering that up to 70 percent of the population could get infected. In that light, testing the “herd immunity” theory with a new, unpredictable virus is wildly irresponsible.

But in Bolsonaro’s Brazil, we have no use for facts and logic, since the president himself is very likely unsure what “vertical interdiction” even means. He has been endorsing the idea as if it was a magical solution that he alone was able to offer: locking away the most vulnerable among us while the rest resume their business. As a matter of fact, I think he is ready to accept as truth any proposition that ends with “… resume their business.” What comes before this hardly matters.

He views the situation as a simple tradeoff between saving lives of the elderly and preserving jobs for the young and healthy. This is an idea both hideous and wrong. Many economists agree that hasty moves to reopen the economy can only increase the risks for vulnerable workers without generating meaningful growth; in the end, that would serve to needlessly sacrifice tens of thousands of lives, at huge cost. Economic recession will happen anyway. We can only choose how long and lethal the health crisis will be.

In his drive to reopen the economy, Bolsonaro often doesn’t even pretend to be plausible: two months ago, for example, he brushed off the possibility that the country could face a situation as harsh as the United States by claiming Brazilians can “swim in raw sewage” and “they don’t catch a thing.” And now we’re resolutely following in the US’s footsteps.

Brazil’s president also followed his American counterpart in advocating for the widespread use of hydroxychloroquine (or chloroquine) as a treatment for Covid-19, although no study to date has proven the efficacy and safety of both drugs. Nothing can deter him from his unfounded resolve.

An anti-government protester using a megaphone bearing the slogan “Bolsonaro Out!” in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, June 7, 2020 (Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)

*

So far, during the coronavirus outbreak, Jair Bolsonaro has attended protests held by anti-shutdown supporters; he has ridden a jet ski on a lake; he has joined a pro-government rally on horseback; he has wiped his nose on his wrist before greeting an elderly woman. As the virus spread, he kept shaking hands and taking selfies with his supporters. “No one is going to curtail my freedom to come and go,” he said. Sometimes, he wears a mask down around his chin.

On April 12, when Brazil’s death toll reached 1,200 deaths, the president announced that “this issue of the virus” was “starting to go away.” A few days—and seven hundred deaths—later, on April 16, he fired health minister Mandetta, who had been arguing for a science-based strategy that comprised strict social distancing measures. “I know that life is priceless,” said the president. “But the economy and employment must return to normal.”

On April 24, Bolsonaro’s most popular cabinet member, justice minister Sergio Moro, resigned from his post, accusing the president of trying to replace the federal police chief in order to shield his sons from criminal investigations. (The Supreme Court has already opened an investigation into the president’s actions.) In response, Bolsonaro delivered a lengthy, embittered televised address in which he complained that Moro had ignored him once at an airport, some time before the presidential campaign. He went on to proclaim that he had turned off the heating in the presidential swimming pool in order to save public money and disclosed that his wife’s grandmother had once been arrested for drug trafficking. Yes, it was really that random.

He mentioned the coronavirus outbreak only once, and that tangentially. By then, Brazil had registered 3,704 deaths from the disease.

When, on April 29, the president finally expressed public regret for the deaths, he added: “We express our solidarity to those who have lost loved ones, many of whom were elderly. But that’s life, it could be me tomorrow.”

*

Jair Bolsonaro has once compared the coronavirus to the rain: “You will get wet, but you are not going to drown,” he said in a television interview last April. Rain is a natural phenomenon beyond human control; in Bolsonaro’s opinion, even a president is helpless in the face of force majeure. Let’s set aside the existence of umbrellas, roofs, and policies for flood mitigation. Let’s ignore that one can learn to predict the changes in weather and prepare for storms.

He added, in that same interview, that “in some cases, regretfully, there will be drowning”—but only if the person has another health problem or is somehow “weaker.” He further explained: “Sometimes a person may live in penury, so they are weak by nature, let’s put it this way, for the lack of adequate food. Those are the ones who suffer the most [from the virus].”

Coincidently or not, many of those people are the very ones for whom Bolsonaro has always shown most contempt. Among them, indigenous people, quilombolas (descendants of groups of escaped slaves), homeless people, riverside dwellers, inhabitants of favelas, migrants, and refugees. Rio’s favelas have recorded more deaths from the virus than fifteen Brazilian states. In the main cemetery of Manaus, in the Amazon region, bulldozers have begun to dig mass graves. The region is one of the most affected by the outbreak, as it is also one of the poorest. It has twelve of the twenty cities with the highest incidence of Covid-19 cases in the country, and five out of the ten municipalities with the highest mortality rate. By now, the disease has reached more than seventy indigenous communities, killing at least 147 people.

Not even children have been spared: at least forty-one babies and thirty-five children under nine years old have died. Most of them lived in the poorest North and Northeast regions of the country.

*

In the weeks following Bolsonaro’s interview, Brazil’s death rate rose to the highest levels in the world. On May 11, after the country topped 11,500 Covid-19 deaths, Bolsonaro issued a decree classifying gyms and hair salons as essential services that could stay open through the outbreak. A few days later, he signed another decree, this one exempting public officials—himself included—from any liability for their responses to the pandemic.

On May 15, Brazil’s newly appointed health minister Nelson Teich announced he was quitting, after less than a month on the job. He had been refusing to endorse the widespread use, advocated by the president, of anti-malarial drugs for patients with Covid-19.

Since then, Eduardo Pazuello, an active-duty army general with no medical background, has been serving as Brazil’s interim health minister. He promptly issued official guidelines expanding the prescription of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine for coronavirus patients, despite, again, the lack of scientific evidence of their efficacy.

Soon, Brazil overtook Russia as the country with the second-highest total number of coronavirus infections worldwide, lagging only behind the United States. On May 22, the confirmed case tally reached 330,890, with more than 21,000 deaths. As of June 9, the death tally reached 37,000. The true numbers are likely to be much higher, however, because the country has not carried out widespread testing. A study by the Federal University of Pelotas concluded that the country’s caseload could be seven times the official number.

As a consequence, both public and private hospitals have been pushed to the brink of collapse in many states. On top of that, more nurses have died here than anywhere else on the world; the death toll is also high among doctors.

And yet, Bolsonaro has been somewhat successful at shifting the blame away from himself. Despite rising rejection rates, he still maintains a stable support base of about a third of the population. More recently, the federal government have forged an alliance with powerful centrist parties, thus shielding Bolsonaro from impeachment attempts against him.

Experts believe that the coronavirus outbreak has not yet reached a peak here. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, the virus is predicted to have killed more than 125,000 people in the country by early August. Yet the president’s response is still the same shrug: “I regret each of the deaths, but that’s everyone’s destiny.”

For his handling of this crisis, Jair Bolsonaro will, at some point, surely face a reckoning of his own with destiny. That is our only hope.

Os sons que a cidade perdeu

Posted: 17th junho 2020 by Vanessa Barbara in Crônicas
Tags: , , ,

Itaú Cultural
Brechas Urbanas, jun. 2020

por Vanessa Barbara

No mês passado, a Biblioteca Pública de Nova York lançou um álbum on-line intitulado Missing Sounds of New York. A compilação, criada em parceria com uma agência de publicidade, consiste em oito faixas de ruídos urbanos que andam escassos neste período de isolamento social.

O disco começa, por exemplo, com a sequência de sons que ouvimos ao chegar a uma plataforma de metrô. O trem se aproxima ruidosamente, aciona os freios com um estrondo metálico, abre as portas e nós entramos no vagão. Então um grupo de dançarinos de hip-hop começa a se apresentar para ganhar uns trocados. A faixa termina com aplausos dos passageiros.

Outra sequência segue os passos de alguém andando pela rua durante a hora do rush: ouvimos buzinas, risadas, britadeiras, trechos de conversas, um pedido de “com licença”, uma melodia ao saxofone. A pessoa para, joga umas moedas ao músico de rua e torna a caminhar. Depois entra em um edifício, aciona o elevador e chegamos ao fim dessa pungente composição.

Há uma faixa ambientada em um parque e outra em um estádio de basebol. Um copo cai no chão durante o happy hour em um bar. O passo a passo de uma curta viagem de táxi é enaltecido em uma faixa intitulada “I’d Call a Cab to Anywhere” [Eu chamaria um táxi para qualquer lugar]. A coletânea termina com uma pessoa entrando na biblioteca, passando por um grupo de turistas e finalmente se sentando para ler. (O folhear dos livros é um dos últimos sons do disco.)

O resultado é inesperadamente nostálgico; há quem tenha chorado ao ouvir o barulho de crianças brincando na rua ou de uma multidão aplaudindo um lance esportivo. De minha parte, jamais pensei que fosse sentir falta do som de cachorros latindo, da bola batendo em uma tabela de basquete, de carros passando com o rádio alto, de trechos de uma conversa fútil ao celular.

Proponho lançar um álbum parecido no Brasil, com algumas alterações significativas. Os sons da rua se adensariam com a matraca do vendedor de biju, a flautinha do amolador de facas e a música do caminhão do gás. Pastores evangélicos pregariam a palavra em meio ao estardalhaço contínuo do escapamento de um Fusca velho, que passaria bem devagar. Bem devagar mesmo.

Com sete minutos e meio de duração, a faixa “Puro Creme do Milho Verde” seria uma homenagem aos feirantes, camelôs e locutores de carros de som. O anúncio esganiçado de “Olha a cândida, detergente, sabão e Ajax” seria remixado e casaria perfeitamente com o bordão “Moça bonita não paga, mas também não leva”. Nos cadernos de cultura, críticos fariam questão de realçar a participação de um vendedor que repete a tarde inteira: “Óptica, óptica, óptica”, tornando-se a certa altura um poeta concretista involuntário (Caótica Óptica).

 “Xingando o Juiz” traria uma seleção apurada de gritos de torcidas e autênticas rusgas de estádio, terminando com o tradicional poropopó na arquibancada. “Chiquita Bacana” acompanharia um bloco de Carnaval no centro do Rio, enquanto a faixa “Pancadão” seria autoexplicativa (convenhamos). “Dia de Protesto” teria como protagonista a polícia e suas bombas de efeito moral, além dos secos golpes de cassetete na espinha dos manifestantes. Haveria uma faixa só com os ruídos do interior do busão, incluindo o girar da catraca e os gritos de “próximo desce!”.

Fico emocionada só de pensar. O carteiro Joelison aceitaria fazer uma participação especial no disco, gritando: “Correeeeeio, tem que assinar!”. Eu também incluiria, se possível, uma briga de gatos no telhado, um panelaço contra o presidente e um alarme de automóvel que todo mundo ignora. “Atenção: este veículo está sendo roubado e é monitorado pela…”

O disco seria tocado nos elevadores para alegrar os condôminos que descem para levar o lixo. Eu mesma ouviria toda noite, antes de dormir, e assim me acalmaria com relação ao futuro. A Sinfonia Urbana Brasileira arrancaria suspiros de saudades até dos mais introvertidos, que afinal preferem se abrigar em meio ao burburinho das ruas e também têm estranhado tamanho silêncio.

É verdade que o desaparecimento de muitos de nossos sons urbanos trouxe certas vantagens: agora é possível ouvir o canto dos pássaros mesmo em bairros mais centrais da cidade. Minha filha de dois anos, vejam só, já sabe acusar a presença de um bem-te-vi nas imediações, sem que eu tenha precisado mostrar do que se trata no YouTube. Minha mãe, que mora na rota de aviões, consegue assistir a filmes dublados com mais sossego.

A única coisa que corta o silêncio ultimamente é o barulho (constante, trágico) das sirenes das ambulâncias, que não parecem descansar jamais.

Gravediggers work at the Vila Formosa cemetery in São Paulo, Brazil, in May. Credit: Victor Moriyama for The New York Times

Hospitals are on the brink of collapse, cemeteries are burying people in mass graves, and still, we refuse to take this virus seriously

The New York Times
Jun. 8, 2020

by Vanessa Barbara
Contributing Opinion Op-ed Writer

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — It’s been almost three months since my toddler left the apartment. We’ve been enduring as best as we can: We spend countless afternoons at the balcony watching the street and counting red cars; we open and close all the curtains; we pile up boxes of paper tissues and make mountains; we invent stories about our neighbors based on the smells of their cooking. Recently, she has started to play with her own shadow. This was a wise move, since both of her parents are exhausted.

Quarantining with a 2-year-old is a draining job. On top of that, my husband and I are both still working remotely — he is a tax inspector for city hall — even as we cook and clean and disinfect the doorknobs. Day after day, we try to stay strong. But while many of us are making sacrifices, there are others who couldn’t care less.

In the city of São Paulo, according to mobile location data, a little less than half the population is complying with social-distancing measures. It is true that some have no choice but to keep commuting to their jobs, as underpaid freelancers, essential workers or merely exploited employees. But many are simply counting on their immune system’s superpowers, denying the severity of the pandemic, or free-riding off the efforts of the rest of us.

Every afternoon I can see from my window a group of men chatting on the sidewalk and drinking beer, as if this were all a joyous vacation. The other day I went to the drugstore to pick up a prescription and saw a group of three women lingering over the nail polish — mask-free, of course. I recently heard about someone who had just decided to resume his Pilates classes, as though his health is more important than everybody else’s.

Late last month, Brazil passed a milestone: Our daily death toll has now surpassed that of the United States. We have a contagion rate that ensures more deaths are coming. We have had more than690,000 diagnosed cases of coronavirus and 36,000 deaths, and yet, the actual numbers are probably much higher — we’ve had such limited testing that we just don’t know. In other parts of the world, the growth curve for infections is flattening out or falling; here, it is actually spiking. Hospitals are on the brink of collapse; so are morgues and cemeteries. In the Amazonian city of Manaus, deaths have soared so much that the main cemetery has begun burying five coffins at a time in shared graves.

Given the grimness of our statistics, one might reasonably expect that the population would start strictly adhering to health and safety protocols. But this is not happening. As the cases spread, so does the contempt of certain people in the streets for social-distancing measures. And it’s easy to pinpoint one of the main reasons for this contempt: our president.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Jair Bolsonaro has shown disdain for everything that doesn’t suit his personal agenda — especially if it’s fact-based news or scientific recommendations. He said in the past that Covid-19 is a “measly cold” and that people would soon see that they’d been “tricked” by governors and media when it came to the outbreak. On April 12, when more than a thousand Brazilians had already died, he proclaimed that “the matter of the virus” was “starting to go away.” When this proved to be wrong, he spent his days fighting against state and municipal shutdowns, deeming them economically disastrous for the country.

He fired our health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, for supporting the isolation measures while resisting Mr. Bolsonaro’s attempts to promote chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as treatments for Covid-19. Along the way, the president has continued to attend pro-government street rallies, shaking the hands of his supporters and drawing large crowds just to appease his ego.

On April 23Brazil registered more than 3,300 deaths. Asked about the rising toll, the president replied: “I’m not a gravedigger.” Five days — and more than 1,700 deaths — later, he said: “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?

On the day Brazil reached 11,653 deaths, Mr. Bolsonaro issued an executive order classifying gyms, barbershops and beauty salons as essential businesses that could reopen. (Finally! Those women at the drugstore can get a decent manicure!) A few days later, the new health minister, Nelson Teich, resigned from his post, after less than a month on the job. The interim minister is an active-duty army general who has no experience in public health and immediately appointed nine other army officers to the ministry.

In the end, Mr. Bolsonaro is exactly like those fools, chatting idly on the sidewalk as doctors struggle to manage an influx of patients at already overcrowded hospitals. Those who follow him are choosing nail polish colors while many of us gasp for air. They are not only taking advantage of other people’s sacrifices — they are also rendering our efforts almost pointless.

Perhaps such blatant incompetence in dealing with the outbreak, combined with the various corruption investigations around Mr. Bolsonaro right now, will have political consequences for him, finally. (In the midst of the pandemic, he’s been accused of interfering in investigations by the federal police, in order to shield his sons.) Indeed, some have made this argument. But I’m not that optimistic.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s approval rating may be low — around 30 percent — but his radical base, which includes the agricultural caucus, the military and evangelicals, is still behind him, fueled by bigotry and fake news. The government has also managed to forge an alliance with the powerful centrist bloc in Congress, obtaining its support in return for political favors.

So I wouldn’t count on any changes soon. We’re just at the beginning of a long, painful, hopeless quarantine.


Vanessa Barbara is the editor of the literary website A Hortaliça, the author of two novels and two nonfiction books in Portuguese, and a contributing opinion writer. 

As locutoras de quarentena

Posted: 23rd maio 2020 by Vanessa Barbara in Crônicas
Tags: , , ,

Itaú Cultural
Brechas Urbanas, mai. 2020

por Vanessa Barbara

Tenho enorme admiração por esses tenores que cantam ópera nas janelas para entreter os vizinhos durante a quarentena. Há ainda aquelas pessoas que tocam instrumentos musicais (“Ode à Alegria”, de Beethoven, é uma opção comum), dão aulas de ginástica, projetam filmes nas fachadas, parabenizam coletivamente os aniversariantes e cantam bingo (aconteceu na Espanha).

Meus vizinhos – coitados – não têm tanta sorte. Só o que eles ouvem a tarde toda é minha voz sem graça narrando, da varanda, acontecimentos absolutamente prosaicos para minha filha, Mabel, de quase 2 anos. (É o que dá ser vizinho de escritora.)

Outro dia, por exemplo, devem ter acompanhado com desânimo minha arrastada descrição de uma moça de blusa azul descendo a escadaria da rua: “Ela vai descer devagarzinho, olha só, segurando no corrimão… Que cuidadosa! Ela está carregando uma sacola? Ou é uma bolsa? Para onde será que está indo?” Observamos em silêncio o percurso da mulher, que agora caminha pela calçada. “Ela vai trazer bolo para a Mabel”, responde a minha filha depois de pensar um pouco. Acho essa hipótese bastante digna. Desviamos a atenção para um senhor que passeia com os cachorros. “Olha! Acho que é o Francesco!”, eu grito, com excessiva alegria, referindo-me a um golden retriever do nosso prédio. Mabel não dá muita bola e começa a brincar de achatar o nariz no vidro.

Peço sinceras desculpas aos vizinhos, mas estamos fazendo o possível para nos entreter nesta quarentena. Conversar é o que há de mais prático em nosso limitado arsenal de distrações, sobretudo quando as respostas podem ser tão engraçadas. Minha expertise na função de cronista de varandas veio bem a calhar. Quando o tempo está bom, passamos um sem-número de horas nesse espaço exíguo observando o (pouco) movimento e nos alimentando de qualquer migalha de agitação registrada nas redondezas. Um ponto alto da nossa tocaia ocorreu duas semanas atrás, quando uma menina disparou a correr pela rua até alcançar uma amiga, que seguia bem à frente. “Corre muito!”, reparou minha filha, com verve de comentarista de olimpíada. Foi eletrizante o reencontro. “Será que elas vão pegar o trenzinho juntas?”, especulei, apontando para a estação de metrô. “O coronavírus está na cola dela”, disse Mabel, do nada. Passamos dias rememorando o episódio. Os vizinhos já devem ter ouvido dezenas de elegias ao ocorrido, todas caudalosas feito parágrafos proustianos sem sombra de ponto-final.

O vizinho da frente, aliás, continua acendendo as luzinhas de Natal toda noite. (Já passamos da Páscoa.) Nós fazemos o mesmo, naquilo que eu não sei mais se é uma competição acirrada ou um solidário meneio de cabeça. Outro vizinho acena de vez em quando para nós. Ele fica sentado na varanda por longos períodos e deve observar com curiosidade a nossa dupla sapateando, pulando e fazendo movimentos aleatórios de ioga. Às vezes, Mabel usa a minha barriga como tambor. Ou então ficamos brincando com as sombras, abrindo e fechando as cortinas, catando fios de cabelo no chão, contando quantos carros vermelhos passam na rua. Até os sinos da igreja servem de tópico para as nossas histórias.

Por uma dessas tristes ironias, moramos perto de um estacionamento de ambulâncias do Hospital Sancta Maggiore. Um de nossos passatempos mais recorrentes hoje em dia é acompanhar o movimento das ambulâncias subindo e descendo a ladeira do estacionamento. Ficamos imaginando que os veículos são amigos e trabalham o dia todo levando pessoas ao hospital, mas sempre voltam para descansar e compartilhar as novidades. As sirenes são seus gritos agudos, as luzes vermelhas são um recado de que vão voltar.

Um dia apareceu no chão da varanda um enorme besouro morto, já meio seco. Cantamos uma música para ele e ficamos conversando baixinho sobre a vida de aventuras que ele teria levado. Em outra ocasião, acompanhamos a saga de uma aranha tentando subir pela parede e caindo repetidas vezes. Juro que não fiz nenhuma analogia de autoajuda. O vento é outro fenômeno que serve de assunto para nossas infinitas confabulações: basta soprar uns balões e deixá-los na varanda para que comecem a dançar para lá e para cá.

Quando venta forte, temos assunto. Quando o ar está parado, idem. Comentamos o cheiro de sopa, de bife à milanesa e de pipoca que vem das outras janelas. Compramos ovos imaginários para os vizinhos e saímos distribuindo a todos os interessados. (Para Mabel, não há quem resista a um bom prato de ovos mexidos.)

E temos também a Lua, as estrelas e o planeta Vênus; a estação espacial internacional e os satélites Starlink; as nuvens carregadas e os pedaços de céu azul. Poucos. Mas suficientes.

Expedição à padaria

Posted: 1st maio 2020 by Vanessa Barbara in Crônicas
Tags: , ,

Itaú Cultural
Brechas Urbanas, abr. 2019

por Vanessa Barbara

Na segunda-feira dia 6 de abril, depois de 14 dias de total isolamento, saí de casa para comprar pão. Com o coração acelerado e o passo meio trôpego, percorri os 290 metros que separam minha residência da padaria da esquina. Pensei imediatamente em Charles Darwin singrando os mares a bordo do HMS Beagle, em James Cook mapeando terras desconhecidas, em Amelia Earhart com o vento no rosto enquanto sobrevoava o oceano e em Buzz Aldrin fazendo xixi na Lua. Quase chorei na fila do pão. Por pouco não pedi a quantia errada de bisnagas.

A expedição durou no máximo 15 minutos e me senti inspirada para compor uma versão estendida de Os Lusíadas em dodecassílabos parnasianos. Pensei também em fazer uma transmissão ao vivo para emocionar os amigos em suas respectivas quarentenas. Mas acabei desistindo porque achei que podia parecer ostentação. Antes de sair, botei o álcool em gel na bolsa e vesti uma máscara de tecido, mas quase sofri um bloqueio criativo quando fui escolher a roupa. Esqueci como a gente se vestia quando saía de casa. Parece que eu tinha um par de calças jeans. Onde mesmo que eu costumo guardar os sapatos?

Em meados do mês passado, entrei para os casos suspeitos da covid-19. Tive febre baixa, dor de garganta, perda de olfato, enjoo e uma dor de cabeça forte. Depois de um exame clínico que descartou infecção bacteriana, a médica me mandou para casa e estipulou o isolamento pelo período de duas semanas. (Ela marcou no meu atestado: “Z29.0”, o que me pareceu coisa de espião, mas era apenas a classificação da Organização Mundial de Saúde para isolamento em casos de doenças transmissíveis.)

Respeitei a prescrição médica e não saí nem para pegar as revistas deixadas no capacho. Meu marido fazia as compras semanais no mercado e ia buscar pão de vez em quando. Eu tentava me recuperar na medida do possível. Ao final dos 14 dias, e depois de receber o resultado negativo do exame da covid-19, eu me ofereci para singrar as calçadas rumo à padaria.

Foi mais bonito do que eu sonhava. O céu estava azul, havia pássaros nos postes e um fétido chorume emanando dos sacos de lixo empilhados no meio-fio. (O olfato parecia feliz em ter voltado.) Troquei enigmáticas elevações de sobrancelha com transeuntes que passavam do outro lado da rua e que também estavam parcialmente ocultos em suas máscaras. Tentei sorrir com os olhos para os atendentes da padaria, que perguntaram como estava a minha filha e comentaram que o dia estava lindo demais para ficar em casa. Respondi: “Paciência!” e tentei dizer algo engraçado. 

Descobri que boa parte da comunicação se dá por meio da expressão do rosto e de sorrisos, e que é muito difícil ser irônico atrás de uma máscara. Gesticulei amplamente, como se falasse uma língua estrangeira a dez metros de distância. Esquadrinhei a mesa de bolos caseiros como se estivesse diante de uma caverna de tesouros. Desisti de abraçar todo mundo. Botei as compras na minha sacola de pano, paguei a comanda e voltei para casa sob a nuvem diáfana do maravilhamento. “A Terra é azul. Como é maravilhosa. Ela é incrível!”, posso ter dito ao chegar em casa, parafraseando certo cosmonauta.

Em tempos de quarentena, a saudade de circular pela cidade chega a doer. Até descer com o lixo parece uma aventura extraordinária, que só efetuamos uma vez a cada três dias. Sair para ir à padaria, então, é um feito mais cobiçado que escalar os Sete Cumes. Não sei quando minha jornada se repetirá, já que o isolamento doméstico permanece – e deve se intensificar daqui para a frente. Só sei que agora toda breve saída é passível de se tornar uma epopeia em versos a ser narrada para a próxima geração: “Cesse tudo o que a Musa antiga canta,/ que outro valor mais alto se alevanta”, já dizia o velho Camões.

Minha filha, de 1 ano e 9 meses, não sai de casa há mais de 30 dias. Uma das nossas atividades favoritas agora é relembrar, juntas, todos os detalhes dos nossos piqueniques no parque, as tardes de Carnaval, os passeios de ônibus, as voltas no quarteirão e as viagens de metrô. Como se fossem épicas expedições a uma civilização que não deve ser esquecida.

Força, mamãe

Posted: 22nd abril 2020 by Vanessa Barbara in Crônicas, esquinas, Revista piauí, Revista Piauí
Tags: , ,
Ilustração: Andrés Sandoval

Revista piauí
N. 163 – abril 2020

por Vanessa Barbara

Estamos no sétimo dia de quarentena. Ao acordar, fico sabendo que há algum tipo de discórdia entre o dinossauro verde e o Senhor Cabeça de Batata. Não consegui obter muitos detalhes, mas tudo indica que houve empurrões e que alguém está chorando. É de se esperar que, com o confinamento, os ânimos de todos estejam à flor da pele. Tento promover uma reconciliação, mas os brinquedos da minha filha estão realmente nervosos. O Senhor Cabeça de Batata perde o nariz. O dinossauro verde tenta entrar numa caixa – certamente está em busca de um pouco de solidão –, mas não consegue e se desespera. “Calma!!”, grita Mabel, de 1 ano e 9 meses, sem parecer muito convincente. Ela desiste dos brinquedos e vai para a cozinha lamber uma pá de lixo. As coisas estão um tanto fora de controle.

Começamos nosso autoisolamento muito antes de entrar na moda. No dia 10 de março, uma terça-feira, Mabel acordou com febre. A professora da creche municipal já tinha alertado sobre uma forte virose que estava acometendo os alunos da sala 5 e provocou inúmeras ausências já na segunda-feira. Desmarquei duas vacinas que estavam agendadas para aquele dia (reforços contra varicela e hepatite A) e ficamos em casa.

Foram três dias inteiros de febre alta e mais outros tantos de uma tosse persistente que às vezes provocava vômitos. Nariz escorrendo, falta de apetite, prostração. Na sexta-feira, dia 13, levamos Mabel para uma consulta com a pediatra. Ela disse que os pulmões da paciente estavam limpos e que achava improvável ser coronavírus, mesmo porque a transmissão comunitária estava apenas começando em São Paulo. Foi a última vez que eu e Mabel saímos de casa.

*

Depois de passar muitas noites em claro, às voltas com incessantes inalações, banhos de emergência e gritos de “Tía a meletinha du naíz!” (Tira a melequinha do nariz), é claro que peguei o vírus também. Passamos a dividir o inalador. Resolvi que começaríamos nosso isolamento imediatamente, a fim de poupar os outros seres humanos dos nossos enigmáticos eflúvios virais. Minha mãe parou de vir ajudar. Suspendemos os passeios na rua. Deixamos de frequentar o ebuliente parquinho do prédio. Um a um, todos os nossos compromissos foram sendo cancelados. O mundo encolheu de repente e passou a medir os exatos 88 m2 do nosso apartamento, na Zona Norte de São Paulo.

No início da semana do dia 16, meu marido continuava trabalhando normalmente – ele é auditor fiscal da prefeitura –, e era ele quem nos trazia pão, soro fisiológico e notícias do mundo lá fora. Por causa do meu distúrbio de ritmo circadiano, continuamos a precisar da ajuda matutina da babá, Sheila, que passou a ir e voltar de Uber. (Pouco depois ela foi dispensada, obviamente com salário integral.) Alternei dias de febre baixa com gloriosos períodos em que me deitava no chão da sala e deixava minha filha me usar de tambor. A pediatra informou que algumas creches estavam registrando surtos de H1N1 e Influenza B, o que poderia ser o nosso caso. Acho que nunca vamos saber. Mabel estava aos poucos se recuperando, assim como as outras crianças da sala. Eu continuava em frangalhos, mas precisava seguir limpando, cozinhando, lavando, tossindo e desinfetando as maçanetas. No resto do tempo, tentava resolver as dúvidas de edição de um texto que escrevi para um jornal estrangeiro.

Parecia uma repetição catarrenta do alucinante puerpério (pós-parto), quando a mulher não dorme, não come, não sai na rua e não se expressa mais em frases coerentes. Só que, dessa vez, ninguém te manda docinhos.

No dia 19, meu marido foi liberado para trabalhar em casa. Ele participou de uma videoconferência confusa na qual Mabel gritou às autoridades presentes: “Péda a tuiúja!” (Pega a coruja). A coruja foi providenciada. No dia 20, ele passou o dia fora em uma reunião presencial. Chorei de dor de ouvido enquanto cuidava da Mabel, que corria em círculos e gritava: “Co-ona-viss! Co-ona-viss!” Aceitei uma nova encomenda de texto em inglês, que consegui escrever em parceria com Santo Expedito.

Conforme o resto da cidade ia aderindo ao autoisolamento, recebi relatos de mães que estavam aproveitando a oportunidade para desfraldar os filhos, tocar piano ou assar saborosos pães caseiros de mandioca.

*

Aqui em casa estamos em modo sobrevivência. Eu e Mabel passamos muito tempo sentadas na varanda acompanhando a movimentação da rua, pois é uma atividade estática que não faz a minha cabeça doer tanto. Já conversamos sobre quantas e quem são as pessoas que trabalham dentro dos ônibus, qual a diferença entre avião e helicóptero, por que os operários usam capacete e o que o vizinho está fazendo há horas com a luz do banheiro acesa (“xixizão” foi a nossa aposta). Ela também gosta de se dedicar à tradicional arte de abrir e fechar ralinhos.

No fim de semana, finalmente as ruas esvaziaram. Expliquei que as pessoas estavam em casa, algumas doentes, e ela anunciou na varanda: “Mabel vai fazê remedinho!” (Espero que isso não gere expectativas desmedidas no bairro.) Ela agora tem uma “maleta” de enfermeira com um frasco vazio de soro, uma seringa, uma caixa de curativos, uma colher para remédio e um martelo.

Ao contrário do que se esperava, a crise do coronavírus não fez Mabel repensar suas atitudes severas de governanta alemã. Enquanto estamos executando alguma tarefa doméstica, ela sai pela casa incorporando a coach: reclama que derrubamos um grão de arroz no chão, que deixamos um chinelo no caminho, que esquecemos a lixeira aberta, que estamos com a mão molhada. Ela repreende até as personagens dos contos de fada. Para a Cinderela, grita: “Pega o sapato!” Para a Cachinhos Dourados, que quebrou uma cadeira, ela ordena: “Conserta!” Isso gera todo tipo de tensão nos dinossauros coloridos.

Na sexta, dia 20, empilhamos caixas de lenços de papel. No sábado, cortamos o cabelo dela. Passei a chamar carinhosamente nossa doença de choronavírus, devido a um de seus sintomas mais pronunciados. Mal sabia que era cedo demais para cravar um diagnóstico: na segunda seguinte, tive febre de manhã e à noite. Quebrei a quarentena para me consultar com uma otorrinolaringologista, que descartou infecção bacteriana e me colocou na lista de suspeitos para Covid-19. Não é possível ter certeza, já que os hospitais só estão testando os pacientes internados. A prescrição: antitérmico e isolamento. Nada de novo, portanto.

O episódio mais representativo de nossa quarentena até agora aconteceu no quarto dia, enquanto eu fazia cocô com a porta aberta, como costuma acontecer ultimamente. Mabel se aproxima para assuntar. Ela rasga um pedaço de papel higiênico e se oferece para limpar o meu bumbum. Eu rejeito educadamente, dizendo que ainda estou no processo. Faço uma espécie de teatrinho do cocô. Ela põe as mãos nos meus joelhos, olha bem para mim e diz: “Força, mamãe!”

É o nosso 12º dia de quarentena. Penso que talvez estejamos ensinando à nossa filha alguma coisa sobre resiliência ao tédio.

An image of President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil with the phrase “hysteria damages the economy” was projected on a building in São Paulo last month to protest his handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Credit: Miguel Schincariol/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

We live in a time of more questions than answers. Beware anyone who thinks otherwise, especially presidents.

The New York Times
Apr. 14, 2020

by Vanessa Barbara
Contributing Opinion Op-ed Writer

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — My first symptoms started on a Monday morning, March 23. I was just getting over a random disease that my daughter had brought home from nursery school — we’re still not sure what — when I had a sudden fever. My husband was the culprit, we decided; my daughter and I had already been isolated at home sick with something else for 10 days. He, on the other hand, was still attending a few work meetings and leaving our house to buy groceries.

On that first day, I had a low fever and a strong headache. I also lost my sense of smell and developed nausea and ear pain. I called an ear, nose and throat doctor and reported my symptoms; she asked to examine me at the hospital. On Tuesday, I went to see her — she looked like an astronaut, in all her protective gear — and she promptly ruled out a bacterial infection. She prescribed a fever reducer and a medication to loosen the mucus. Then she put me on home quarantine — again — this time, for a suspected case of Covid-19.

In Brazil, until very recently, only the most severe cases were being tested for the new coronavirus. So I spent the next week in a haze: Was it Covid or not Covid? Would I infect my 21-month-old daughter? How could I take care of her in such a dire state? Would I soon require hospitalization? I was already feeling depleted from the intense mothering of the past couple of days without nursery school; suddenly I had to keep doing exactly the same thing, but with a fever. I wondered about the recovery rates for exhausted moms.

At the same time that I was facing this unprecedented uncertainty and fear, my president seemed absolutely certain — about everything.

For weeks now, President Jair Bolsonaro has been downplaying the severity of the coronavirus crisis; he dismissed the outbreak as a “fantasy,” called measures to fight it “hysteria” and called the illness a “measly cold.” He spreads dangerous misinformation — about an unproven cure, for example — and publicly ridicules quarantine measures. He ignores statistics, scientific evidence and specialists’ recommendations, as if he alone is endowed with a mysterious source of wisdom. He acts with the assuredness of fools. When in mid-March, Brazilian governors and mayors started to enforce lockdown measures, Mr. Bolsonaro accused them of falling into a state of panic. “Our lives have to continue,” he said, urging everyone to roll back restrictions. Later, he conceded a little ground, saying that “we will all die one day.” Because that is the sort of statesman he is.

Luckily, most of us haven’t listened to the president. In fact, few are still listening to him. My city, São Paulo, has been the place hardest hit by the outbreak in Brazil, and that’s enough to keep us on our toes — there’s no time to pay attention to delirious statements like Mr. Bolsonaro’s call for a national day of fasting and prayer to “free Brazil from this evil.” He is becoming more isolated by the day — figuratively, I mean: The approval ratings of his minister of health and various state governors are on the rise, while his own have plummeted.

Back in the realm of reality, the weekend came and my fever subsided, but I still had a persistent headache. I knew by then that the second week of the disease cycle was the truly critical one, when patients either improve or get sicker. I tried not to have a panic attack, since if I did, I wouldn’t know how to know whether it was the disease causing shortness of breath or my intense anxiety. At this point, the country had registered 4,309 confirmed cases and 139 deaths — 98 of them in the state of São Paulo.

On Tuesday, the 31st, I managed to schedule a visit with a health care provider to test me for the coronavirus. (I had to pay $73 for it.) It was the RRT-PCR test, which stands for real-time reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction; the test detects bits of viral genetic material present in respiratory secretions. The results would not be ready for a couple of days. By then, my headache had lessened to something more tolerable, and I could once again smell the sweet scent of my daughter’s full diaper. I recovered my appetite (not while in proximity to her diaper, though). We resumed our mother-and-daughter sessions of crazy tap dancing on the balcony. I felt a vague sense of victory. By Friday, April 3, Brazil had 9,216 confirmed cases and 365 deaths.

Then on Saturday, the 4th, my test results came back negative. And the uncertainty came flooding back: Had it been the flu all this time? Or a false negative, perhaps? (A Chinese study has suggested that the false-negative rate of PCR tests may be around 30 percent.) A positive result would have been at least something concrete to deal with, a rare certainty amid all this coronavirus-fueled anxiety. As the days pass, I’m left wondering when or if we will get serological tests — which detect the presence of antibodies for a specific disease — to settle the question. I was back where I’d started, only more exhausted this time and with a (slightly improved) headache.

Besides the terrible loss of thousands of lives, the coronavirus has hit us with a wave of uncertainty. We worry for ourselves and for our parents. We wonder what will happen next, when the curve will start to flatten, how long this is going to last. Mass testing of the population still seems the surest and fastest way to stop the virus, but when my turn came, I learned that even this is riddled with ambiguities. But perhaps at this time, only fools have certainty about anything.


Vanessa Barbara is the editor of the literary website A Hortaliça, the author of two novels and two nonfiction books in Portuguese, and a contributing opinion writer. 

Miguel Schincariol/Getty Images. An image of President Jair Bolsonaro wearing a face mask projected onto a building’s wall during a Panelaço balcony protest, São Paulo, Brazil, March 19, 2020

This running series of brief dispatches by New York Review writers will document the coronavirus outbreak with regular updates from around the world.

—The Editors

The New York Review of Books (Daily)
by Vanessa Barbara
March 20, 2020

SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL—Over the last week, a powerful virus has been circulating among the toddlers in my daughter’s public nursery school. She spent two nights with a high fever and many others with a persistent cough that caused occasional vomiting. (She’s twenty months old.) But this happened a few days before the coronavirus started to spread locally in Brazil, so her pediatrician guessed it was common flu or something similar. Besides, many schools here are registering a number of H1N1 and Influenza B cases, which are also possibilities. I was eventually infected, too. We didn’t take any tests.

At that point, the country had registered two hundred confirmed cases of coronavirus and almost two thousand cases under suspicion. There was no countrywide confinement. 

On Monday, when my husband went by the nursery school to deliver a sick note, the teacher casually mentioned that there were three confirmed coronavirus cases there. He immediately went home and broke the news. I was alarmed. My daughter apparently found the word funny and she couldn’t stop repeating it: “Co-ona-visss! Co-ona-visss!” while running in circles in the living room. (She was feeling a lot better.) 

To be completely sure, I called the school. They said those were only suspicious cases. We stayed home, as we’ve been doing for a while now. My husband went to work, wondering when he would be allowed to do his job remotely. (He’s a tax inspector for the city hall.) 

In Brazil, denial and confusion are the current official strategies to deal with the pandemic. President Jair Bolsonaro has been downplaying the crisis for weeks; he had called concern over the virus “oversized” and said that “other flus kill more than this.” On March 15, the president joined a pro-government street rally in Brasília, ignoring medical recommendations of social distancing. He shook hands and took selfies with supporters. More than fifteen members of his recent delegation to Florida have now tested positive for the virus. 

On Tuesday, against all better judgement, a few of my friends gathered to play volleyball as if nothing was happening. Meanwhile, health officials reported Brazil’s first death from Covid-19. By then, the country already had three hundred confirmed cases. But we know these statistics are unreliable: almost no one is being tested for anything, after all. 

On Wednesday, my friends decided to play volleyball again. Seriously. The death toll rose to four people, all of them from São Paulo. The mayor ordered the shutdown of all commercial establishments—including volleyball courts—with some exceptions such as supermarkets and drugstores. My husband was finally allowed to work from home. I had a low fever. My daughter seems to be recovering well. 

On Thursday, I received the news that my daughter’s best friend, from the nursery school, is also on the path to full recovery—we only don’t know exactly from what. In Brazil, against the recommendations of the World Health Organization, only patients with severe symptoms of coronavirus are being tested. Streets are finally starting to empty out a bit. Death toll: seven

It seems that the denial phase is almost over. Now we can concentrate on isolating ourselves with confusion as company.