Christina Hägerfors

We spend our days watching ambulances, as Covid-19 rips through the country.

Ler em portuguêsRead in English

The New York Times
19 de abril de 2021

by Vanessa Barbara
Contributing Opinion Op-ed Writer

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — From the balcony of my apartment, I can see an ambulance parking lot. For over a year now, my 2½-year-old daughter and I have been monitoring — avidly, anxiously — the movements of the 10 ambulances parked there. That’s the sort of entertainment we have now.

“Look, another one is getting back!” she says, pointing at an ambulance as it stops and turns off its red-and-white lights. It’s not exactly rigorous analysis, I know, but I judge the severity of the pandemic by looking at this parking lot. Since the beginning of the year, fewer and fewer ambulances stay put. Now, during the day, it’s common to see only one or two vehicles at the lot — and never for long. Just wait awhile and away they go, sirens blaring, to answer someone’s call.

Official statistics confirm our observations. In the state of São Paulo, where I live along with 46 million others, the rate of Covid-19 hospitalizations more than doubled in the four weeks from Feb. 21 to March 21. At the beginning of April, an average of 3,025 people were being admitted daily to a hospital — a rise of 58 percent from the start of the previous month. I try to explain to my daughter, in a lighthearted way, that these ambulances are transporting sick people to the hospital, where they are going to take some fruit-flavored medicine and get better very quickly.

Looking at that incessant parade of ambulances, I try not to sound desperate. I try to keep from my voice the knowledge that 543 people have died waiting for a hospital bed since the end of February in São Paulo alone, that across the country over 370,000 people have lost their lives — and that the worst may be yet to come. (After all, in the Southern Hemisphere, winter is just around the corner.) But I can’t hide the impotence and anger I feel, trapped in a small apartment for who knows how much longer, watching the tragedy unfold.

There was one glorious intermission, though. In early February, my husband and I enrolled our daughter in a private school with plenty of trees and fresh air. The classrooms are spacious and airy, and many lessons are held outdoors. I’ve never seen her so happy. Her social and emotional development soared. She sang randomly and chatted about her new friends.

But in early March, she tested positive for the coronavirus. She had mild symptoms: low fever, a runny nose, a cough. We gave her 14 drops of acetaminophen, which she doesn’t love, once every six hours, for three days. She dutifully complied. Her classmates and teachers also entered a 14-day isolation, although nobody else tested positive. She quickly recovered; my husband and I tested negative. We couldn’t trace the source of her illness, though we assume it must have been someone at the school. “An immaculate infection!” my husband joked.

By the time our quarantine ended, in mid-March, São Paulo’s governor had declared a state of emergency, closing all schools. The virus was ripping through the country, claiming a record number of lives. A friend of mine who works as a nurse said that it was now common to see a traffic jam of ambulances in front of hospitals. Outside our apartment, the parking lot was bustling.

It was an entirely foreseeable escalation. Since the virus reached Brazil in March last year, we’ve never really had a proper lockdown, regionally or nationally. While state governors and city mayors have tried to institute some restrictions, President Jair Bolsonaro has consistently advocated the free circulation of people — and, consequently, the virus.

The results could not be starker: There are on average around 3,000 deaths per day, a staggering number spurred by a new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus. Of daily Covid-19 deaths worldwide, Brazil currently accounts for almost a third. In dozens of states, I.C.U.s are 90 percent or more full. Calamity doesn’t begin to cover it.

The vaccination rollout, chaotic at first, is still slow. My 72-year-old father finally received his second dose 10 days ago; my 67-year-old mother just got her first shot last week. Only 4.5 percent of the population is fully immunized, compared with 25 percent in the United States. Our public health system is capable of doing much more, but we simply don’t have enough vaccines. We shall never forget that last year Mr. Bolsonaro’s government turned down an offer of 70 million vaccine doses from Pfizer.

Many other countries are beginning to emerge from the crisis, while ours plunges ever deeper into catastrophe. But Mr. Bolsonaro — who has actively discouraged social distancing, tests and vaccines — couldn’t care less. “Enough fussing and whining,” he said in March. “How much longer will the crying go on?”

Without the vaccines or political will to curb the virus, we don’t have many options left. We can’t take to the streets to protest — at least not without a high risk of infection — and the next election is a year and a half away. More than 370,000 Brazilians are gone forever. As for the rest of us, we continue to live as prisoners in our own homes, watching the ambulances go by.


A version of this article appears in print on April 20, 2021, Section A, Page 25 of the New York edition with the headline: “Trapped in Brazil’s Covid Tragedy”.

Christina Hägerfors

Passamos os dias vendo ambulâncias enquanto a Covid-19 assola o país.

Leer en español | Read in English

The New York Times
21 de abril de 2021

by Vanessa Barbara
Contributing Opinion Op-ed Writer

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Da varanda do meu apartamento, consigo enxergar um estacionamento de ambulâncias. Já faz mais de um ano que eu e minha filha de 2 anos e meio monitoramos – de forma ávida e ansiosa – o movimento das dez ambulâncias estacionadas no local. É o tipo de entretenimento que temos hoje em dia.

“Olha, mais uma está voltando!”, ela diz, apontando para a ambulância, que encosta e desliga suas luzes vermelhas e brancas. Não é bem uma análise rigorosa, eu sei, mas costumo avaliar a severidade da pandemia olhando para esse estacionamento. Desde o começo do ano, cada vez menos veículos ficam parados. Agora, durante o dia, é comum ver só uma ou duas ambulâncias no local —e nunca por muito tempo. Basta esperar um pouco e lá vão elas, com as sirenes ligadas, atender ao chamado de alguém.

As estatísticas oficiais confirmam nossas observações. No estado de São Paulo, onde vivemos entre outras 46 milhões de pessoas, a taxa de internações por Covid-19 mais do que dobrou nas quatro semanas de 21 de fevereiro a 21 de março. No início de abril, em média 3.025 pessoas foram internadas por dia nos hospitais —um aumento de 58 por cento com relação ao início do mês anterior. Eu tento explicar à minha filha, de uma forma leve, que essas ambulâncias estão transportando pessoas doentes ao hospital, onde elas irão tomar um remédio de frutas e logo irão melhorar.

Olhando para esse desfile incessante de ambulâncias, eu tento não soar desesperada. Procuro disfarçar do meu tom de voz o conhecimento de que 543 pessoas morreram esperando por um leito de hospital desde o fim de fevereiro só em São Paulo, que no país mais de 370 mil pessoas perderam a vida —e que o pior ainda pode estar por vir. (Afinal, no hemisfério sul, o inverno vem chegando.) Mas não consigo esconder a impotência e a raiva que sinto, presa num apartamento pequeno por sabe-se lá mais quanto tempo, assistindo ao desenrolar da tragédia.

Houve um glorioso intervalo, porém. No início de fevereiro, meu marido e eu inscrevemos nossa filha em uma escola particular com muitas árvores e ar fresco. As salas são espaçosas e arejadas, e inúmeras aulas acontecem ao ar livre. Nunca a vi tão feliz. Seu desenvolvimento social e emocional disparou. Ela cantava aleatoriamente e tagarelava sobre os novos amigos.

Contudo, no início de março, ela testou positivo para o coronavírus. Teve sintomas leves: febre baixa, nariz escorrendo, tosse. Demos a ela 14 gotas de paracetamol, de que ela não gosta muito, uma vez a cada seis horas, por três dias. Ela aceitou obedientemente. Seus colegas de classe e professores também entraram em um isolamento de 14 dias, embora mais ninguém tenha testado positivo. Ela se recuperou rapidamente; eu e meu marido testamos negativo. Não conseguimos rastrear a origem de sua doença, mas assumimos que deve ter sido alguém da escola. “Uma imaculada infecção!”, brincou o meu marido.

Quando nossa quarentena acabou, em meados de março, o governador de São Paulo declarou estado de emergência, fechando todas as escolas. O vírus já devastava o país, arrebatando um número inédito de vidas. Um amigo meu que trabalha como enfermeiro disse que se tornou comum ver um congestionamento de ambulâncias diante dos hospitais. Do lado de fora do nosso apartamento, o estacionamento estava movimentado.

Foi um agravamento totalmente previsível. Desde que o vírus chegou ao Brasil, em março do ano passado, não chegamos a ter um lockdown propriamente dito, em nível regional ou nacional. Enquanto governadores e prefeitos tentavam impor algumas restrições, o presidente Jair Bolsonaro defendia sistematicamente a livre circulação de pessoas – e, consequentemente, do vírus.

Os resultados não podiam ser mais nítidos: temos, em média, 3 mil mortes por dia, um número espantoso que foi impulsionado por uma variante nova e mais contagiosa do coronavírus. O Brasil atualmente responde por quase um terço das mortes diárias por Covid-19 no mundo. Em dezenas de estados, as UTIs estão com 90 por cento ou mais de ocupação. O termo “calamidade” nem chega perto de descrever a situação.

A campanha de vacinação, a princípio caótica, permanece lenta. Meu pai de 72 anos finalmente recebeu a segunda dose há dez dias; minha mãe, de 67 anos, recebeu a primeira dose na semana passada. Apenas 4,5 por cento da população está totalmente imunizada, em comparação a 25 por cento nos Estados Unidos. Nosso sistema público de saúde é capaz de fazer muito melhor, mas simplesmente não temos vacinas suficientes. Jamais esqueceremos que, no ano passado, o governo de Bolsonaro rejeitou uma oferta de 70 milhões de doses do imunizante da Pfizer.

Muitos outros países já começam a sair da crise, enquanto o nosso mergulha ainda mais fundo na catástrofe. Mas Bolsonaro – que desencorajou ativamente o distanciamento social, os testes e as vacinas – não dá a mínima. “Chega de frescura, de mimimi”, ele disse em março. “Vão ficar chorando até quando?”

Sem vacinas ou vontade política para conter o vírus, não nos restam muitas opções. Não podemos ir às ruas protestar – não sem um alto risco de infecção – e ainda temos um ano e meio até a próxima eleição. Mais de 370 mil brasileiros se foram. Quanto ao resto de nós, continuamos a viver como prisioneiros em nossas casas, vendo as ambulâncias passarem.


Este artigo foi publicado na edição de 20 de abril de 2021 do The New York Times, Section A, Page 25 com o título: “Trapped in Brazil’s Covid Tragedy”. Tradução para o português da autora.

Christina Hägerfors

Pasamos los días viendo ambulancias, mientras la COVID-19 arrasa con el país.

Read in English | Ler em português

The New York Times
21 de abril de 2021

by Vanessa Barbara
Contributing Opinion Op-ed Writer

SÃO PAULO, Brasil — Desde el balcón de mi apartamento puedo ver un estacionamiento de ambulancias. Durante más de un año, mi hija de 2 años y medio y yo hemos monitoreado —de manera ávida y ansiosa— los movimientos de las diez ambulancias que están estacionadas ahí. Es el tipo de entretenimiento que tenemos ahora.

“¡Mira, otra está regresando!”, me dice, apuntando hacia una ambulancia que se detiene y apaga sus luces rojas y blancas. No es un análisis exactamente riguroso, lo sé, pero juzgo la gravedad de la pandemia observando este estacionamiento. Desde inicios del año, cada vez menos ambulancias permanecen inmóviles. Ahora, durante el día, es común ver tan solo uno o dos vehículos en el estacionamiento y nunca están mucho tiempo. Tan solo esperan un momento y se marchan de inmediato, resonando sus sirenas, para responder la llamada de alguien.

Las estadísticas oficiales confirman nuestras observaciones. En el estado de São Paulo, donde vivo con otros 46 millones de personas, la tasa de hospitalizaciones por la COVID-19 aumentó a más del doble en las cuatro semanas del 21 de febrero al 21 de marzo. A inicios de abril, fueron internadas en hospitales un promedio de 3025 personas al día, un incremento del 58 por ciento en comparación con el comienzo del mes anterior. Intento explicarle a mi hija, de una manera alegre, que esas ambulancias están transportando gente enferma al hospital, donde les van a dar una medicina sabor a frutas y se van a aliviar muy rápido.

Cuando veo el desfile incesante de ambulancias, intento no sonar desesperada. Intento evitar que mi voz diga todo lo que sé de las 543 personas que han muerto desde finales de febrero tan solo en São Paulo mientras esperaban una cama de hospital, de las más de 370.000 personas que han perdido la vida en todo el país… y de que tal vez falte lo peor. (Después de todo, en el hemisferio sur, el invierno está a la vuelta de la esquina). Sin embargo, no puedo ocultar la impotencia y el enojo que siento, atrapada en un pequeño apartamento durante quién sabe cuánto tiempo, viendo cómo se desencadena la tragedia.

No obstante, hubo un glorioso intermedio. A inicios de febrero, mi esposo y yo inscribimos a nuestra hija en una escuela privada con muchos árboles y aire limpio. Los salones de clase son amplios y ventilados, y hay muchas clases al aire libre. Nunca la había visto tan feliz. Su desarrollo social y emocional se elevaron como la espuma. Cantaba sin ningún motivo aparente y conversaba sobre sus nuevos amigos.

Sin embargo, a inicios de marzo, mi hija dio positivo por coronavirus. Tuvo síntomas leves: fiebre baja, moqueo nasal, tos. Le dimos catorce gotas de acetaminofén una vez cada seis horas durante tres días, lo cual no le encantó, pero obedeció responsablemente. Sus compañeros y maestros también estuvieron catorce días aislados, aunque ninguno dio positivo. Se recuperó con rapidez; mi marido y yo dimos negativo. No pudimos rastrear la fuente de la enfermedad, aunque supusimos que debió ser alguien de la escuela. “¡Una infección inmaculada!”, bromeaba mi esposo.

Para cuando terminó nuestra cuarentena, a mediados de marzo, el gobernador de São Paulo había declarado un estado de emergencia y había cerrado todas las escuelas. El virus estaba arrasando el país y cobrando una cifra récord de vidas. Una amiga que trabaja de enfermera me comentó que ahora era común ver tráfico de ambulancias enfrente de los hospitales. Afuera de nuestro apartamento, el estacionamiento estaba a reventar.

Fue un incremento que se veía venir a todas luces. Desde que el virus llegó a Brasil el año pasado, en realidad, nunca hemos tenido un cierre de emergencia como tal, ni a nivel regional ni nacional. Aunque los gobernadores estatales y los alcaldes de las ciudades han intentado instituir algunas restricciones, el presidente Jair Bolsonaro no ha dejado de defender la libre circulación de la gente… y, en consecuencia, del virus.

El resultado no podría ser más crudo: en promedio, hay más o menos 3000 muertes al día, una cantidad impactante a causa de una nueva variante más contagiosa del coronavirus. De las muertes diarias por la COVID-19 a nivel mundial, en este momento, Brasil representa casi una tercera parte. En decenas de estados, las salas de cuidados intensivos están al 90 por ciento de su capacidad o más. La palabra calamidad se queda corta para describir la situación.

La distribución de vacunas, caótica al principio, sigue siendo lenta. Mi padre de 72 años por fin recibió su segunda dosis hace diez días; mi madre de 67 años acaba de ponerse la primera dosis la semana pasada. Tan solo el 4,5 por ciento de la población está completamente inmunizada, en comparación con el 25 por ciento de Estados Unidos. Nuestro sistema de salud pública es capaz de hacer mucho más, pero simplemente no tenemos las vacunas necesarias. Nunca debemos olvidar que el año pasado el gobierno de Bolsonaro rechazó una oferta de 70 millones de dosis de la vacuna de Pfizer.

Muchos otros países están empezando a salir de la crisis, mientras que el nuestro se hunde cada vez más en la catástrofe. No obstante, a Bolsonaro —quien ha sido contundente al desalentar el distanciamiento social, las pruebas y las vacunas— no le podría importar menos. “Ya basta de preocuparse y chillar”, dijo en marzo. “¿Cuánto más seguirá el llanto?”.

Sin las vacunas ni la voluntad política para detener el virus, no nos quedan muchas opciones. No podemos tomar las calles para protestar —al menos no sin un alto riesgo de infección— y las próximas elecciones son dentro de un año y medio. Más de 370.000 brasileños se fueron para no volver. En cuanto al resto de nosotros, seguimos viviendo como prisioneros en nuestras propias casas, mientras vemos las ambulancias pasar.


Vanessa Barbara es editora del sitio web literario A Hortaliça, autora de dos novelas y dos libros de no ficción en portugués, y colaboradora de Opinión.

Vaccinating over 210 million people may sound daunting, but for Brazil it really shouldn’t be. Credit: Bruno Kelly/Reuters

It’s not hard to work out who to blame for the country’s disastrous vaccine rollout.

The New York Times
Feb. 28, 2021

by Vanessa Barbara
Contributing Opinion Op-ed Writer

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — When it comes to Covid-19 vaccination programs, there are some countries that have exceeded expectations and others that have fallen surprisingly short. And then there is Brazil.

Vaccinating over 210 million people may sound daunting, but for Brazil it really shouldn’t be. With one of the largest universal, free-of-charge public health systems in the world, the country has a distinguished track record of vaccinations and disease control. The National Immunization Program, founded in 1973, helped to eradicate polio and rubella in the country and currently offers more than 20 vaccines free in every municipality.

Along with the infrastructure to distribute vaccines, there’s also the expertise to do so: In 1980, the country vaccinated 17.5 million children against polio in a single day. In 2010, over 89 million doses of the swine flu vaccine were administered in under four months. And last year, more than 70 million Brazilians received their annual shot against influenza.

We take immunization so seriously here that we even have a mascot for vaccination campaigns, an adorable six-foot smiling white blob named “Zé Gotinha,” Joe Droplet. (This glorious national hero apparently refused to shake hands with President Jair Bolsonaro during an official event in December.)

But despite these advantages, Brazil’s vaccine rollout has been painfully slow, inconsistent and marred by shortages. The nationwide program began on Jan. 18, later than over 50 countries, and at its current rate will take more than four years to complete. Several major cities, such as Rio de Janeiro and Salvador, have already had to stop their campaigns because of problems in supply.

In a country where the pandemic has wrought terrible damage — 250,000 people have died, the second-highest total in the world, after the United States, as cities along the Amazon River like Manaus have been abandoned to their fate — the failure amounts to a disaster.

So what went wrong? Perhaps we should look to Joe Droplet: He seems to know exactly who to blame.

From the beginning, Mr. Bolsonaro’s government downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic. The president fought against masks and social distancing measures, comparing the coronavirus to rain that would fall on most people while drowning just some of them. (“It’s no use staying home crying,” he recently said, after the country registered 1,452 deaths on a single day.) In the middle of the outbreak, he managed to get rid of two health ministers — both doctors — who threatened to contradict him, replacing them with an army general.

What’s more, not only did Mr. Bolsonaro spend emergency funds to purchase and distribute unproven drugs against Covid-19, even after they had been shown to be ineffective, he also refused many offers of vaccine doses. In August, Pfizer offered Brazil 70 million doses, with delivery starting in December — but the government was not interested. The company made two other proposals, to no avail.

When pressed for an explanation, Brazil’s Health Ministry claimed that the terms of the contract — the same that applied to all countries — were “abusive.” Pfizer, Mr. Bolsonaro complained, wouldn’t take responsibility “if you turn into Superman, if a woman grows a beard or a man starts to talk with a high-pitched voice.” Instead, he kept up his efforts to discredit vaccination, promoting an imaginary “early treatment” for Covid-19.

Mr. Bolsonaro even found time to oppose a proposal, brought to the World Health Organization by India and South Africa, to temporarily lift patent restrictions on coronavirus vaccines. Allowing developing countries — including Brazil — to manufacture vaccines sooner and at much greater scale apparently held no interest.

Eventually the federal government, under public pressure, started to plan a vaccination program. But it focused on a single manufacturer, AstraZeneca, whose vaccine trials ended up taking longer than others. Other difficulties surfaced later. After the approval of the vaccine in January, there was a shipment delay. And the flight bearing two million doses from India was postponed for a week.

Mr. Bolsonaro also spent months attacking the other vaccine now available in Brazil — CoronaVac, developed by the Chinese company Sinovac — because it had been backed by São Paulo’s governor, a political rival and likely competitor in the 2022 presidential race. (Mr. Bolsonaro even celebrated the death of a participant in the CoronaVac trial, later deemed to be unrelated to the vaccine.)

When the AstraZeneca vaccine failed to materialize quickly, Mr. Bolsonaro had to turn to the supply of the CoronaVac that São Paulo’s governor had managed to amass. There were no words of thanks.

Brazil is now gradually expanding local production, while more doses are on their way from India and the Covax Facility, a global vaccine distribution program. But everything is happening in slow motion. Two million doses now, four million a month later.

The shortage of vaccines at least conceals the fact that the government probably hadn’t secured enough syringes to administer them. Truly, it’s little wonder that the government’s handling of the pandemic was judged by the Lowy Institute, a research institute in Australia, to be the worst in the world.

Mr. Bolsonaro, through ineptitude and malice, has squandered the country’s resources to ruinous effect. Joe Droplet was right to ignore him. If only the rest of us could, too.


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. 

An empty classroom in São Paulo, Brazil. Credit: Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

What we’re facing in Brazil is an educational catastrophe

The New York Times
Jan. 25, 2021

by Vanessa Barbara
Contributing Opinion Op-ed Writer

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — For almost 10 months now, around 35 million Brazilian children have been out of school. When schools were closed in March, at the beginning of the pandemic, I thought we only had to be a little patient. As soon as we got the virus under control, they would be the first to reopen, right?

Wrong. Brazil hasn’t come close to controlling the pandemic: In the absence of national lockdowns and comprehensive mass testing, the daily death toll has remained constantly high. The most we got — beyond President Jair Bolsonaro’s brazen denials that anything was wrong — were a few restrictions applied here and there by local governments.

Then as early as June, regional governors — hoping to mitigate the bleakness of the situation — thought it a good idea to slowly reopen the institutions that were most important to us: shopping centers, restaurants, bars, gyms, beauty salons, movie theaters, concert halls, even betting shops. Pretty much everything, it seemed, except for schools. And so it has mostly stayed.

On public health grounds, this made no sense. As people resumed their cardio workouts and hair-dying habits, the virus continued to spread. And in response, teachers refused to return to schools while the risks were so high. (I don’t blame them.) But surely our leaders wouldn’t just cast children aside — they would have a plan for a gradual reopening, right?

A crowded bar in the bohemian neighborhood of Vila Madalena, in São Paulo. While schools are closed, nonessential businesses like bars, gyms and beauty salons are open. Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Wrong again! Ten months since schools were shuttered, everything is roughly as it was. In Brazil, bizarrely, bars have been deemed more important than schools, manicures of greater social significance than children’s mental health. Most parents feel abandoned, forced to take on an intolerable burden with no support. And an entire generation of children, their development dangerously stalled, have been left to their own devices.

The results have been dreadful. Many Brazilian students are currently receiving some version of remote learning — but only those who have the means to do so. Roughly 25 percent of students from public schools don’t have access to the internet, according to one estimate. Other research found that close to a third of caregivers were concerned that their kids would drop out of school altogether.

Antônio Mello Lins, a 15-year-old high school student, at home in São Paulo. He has been able to take online classes from home since schools were closed in March. Credit: Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

That’s not surprising. It’s hard to overemphasize the positive impact of in-person learning, which goes far beyond reading and writing to include children’s physical and mental health, nutrition, safety and social skills. In its absence, pediatricians have reported a worrying rise in depression, anxiety, sleep disorders and aggressive behavior among their patients.

And in a country as unequal as ours, this interruption is especially devastating. While in many cities private schools, sufficiently solvent to adapt their buildings, have been authorized to partially reopen for in-person classes, public schools — often, like the nursery my 2-year-old attended until March, small, unventilated and crowded — have mostly remained closed. The poorer the child, the greater the damage of school closure. (In more ways than one: At least seven million children could be going hungry at home, without access to school lunches.)

All in all, according to a November report by the UNICEF, children in Latin America and the Caribbean have lost on average four times more days of schooling compared with the rest of the world. Most students are now at risk of missing out on an entire school year. For younger children, most affected by the lack of socialization, it’s an especially big blow. There simply aren’t enough studies to measure the size of the educational catastrophe we’re facing here.

Paulo Henrique Lima, 8, right, and Renato Oliveira Ferreira, 11, outside their home in a low-income neighborhood of São Paulo. Neither have computers or internet at home, but they have been taking a daily 90-minute educational TV class provided by the local government. Credit: Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

I wish I had an easy solution for this tragedy, for the sake of our children. (Hey! What about turning all the bars into schools? Just picture it: teachers instead of waiters, children at the tables. We could put milk in beer kegs!) But there’s no straightforward fix. Though many scientific studies show that children don’t appear to be exposed to higher risks of coronavirus infection in schools and that school staff, compared with the general adult population, aren’t at a higher risk either, that depends on having community transmission rates under control and mitigation measures in place.

But in Brazil, where the second wave has crashed on the top of the first one — on Jan. 7, the country reached the mark of 200,000 Covid-19 deaths — and schools often lack the basic infrastructure to institute public health measures, those conditions are clearly not present.

A closed school in São Paulo. Credit: Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Some governors and mayors recently announced their intention to open schools in February or March, no matter what. But teachers are now refusing to go back to in-person classes until they are vaccinated. The trouble is Brazil still doesn’t have a solid national immunization plan. Judging from the chaotic, inchoate rollout so far, amid the appearance of two new variants of the virus, it could take months to vaccinate all school workers.

But doing nothing is not an option. So here are three suggestions. First, we need — right away — to increase public school funding and put in place a comprehensive plan to reform school buildings. (Many Brazilian cities could actually set up open-air schools all year long; we live in a tropical country, after all.) Second, we need to give teachers and school staff early access to vaccination, once frontline health personnel and high-risk populations are vaccinated.

And third, we need to do something especially courageous: We should call for the closure of all nonessential services until schools are safe enough to reopen. It might not be immediately popular — people may miss their foot baths to the point of anguish — but for the well-being and future of our country’s children, it is essential.

There is an alternative, of course. Kids will have to expropriate all bars. And beauty salons. And betting shops.


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 of Brazil is clearly not ready to mourn the departure of his American counterpart. Credit: Adriano Machado/Reuters

Brazil’s president is in denial

The New York Times
Dec. 8, 2020

by Vanessa Barbara
Contributing Opinion Op-ed Writer

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — My country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has still not recognized Joe Biden as the winner of America’s presidential election.

In his silence, he stands alongside other world leaders such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, Prime Minister Janez Jansa of Slovenia and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. “I’m holding back a little more,” Mr. Bolsonaro said recently, adding that there was “a lot of fraud” in the election.

It’s an understandable response, as he seems to have a problem accepting facts. Just think about it: This is a guy who still claims hydroxychloroquine is the cure for Covid-19. He maintains that the pandemic is overblown. He asserts that his government has simply eradicated corruption and that Brazil never had a military dictatorship. He says that the Amazon is not burning at all.

But there’s more to the refusal than Mr. Bolsonaro’s now commonplace bizarreness. As one of President Trump’s fiercest allies on the global stage, Mr. Bolsonaro is clearly not ready to mourn the departure of his fellow leader. He’s in denial.

Perhaps for good reason. For Mr. Bolsonaro, who took up the nickname “Trump of the tropics,” his fate and that of his American counterpart are entwined. And as opposition forces seem to be gathering strength, he may be worried that with Mr. Trump’s defeat comes his own.

For all of Mr. Bolsonaro’s eagerness to embrace Mr. Trump — “I’m more and more in love with him,” he said last year — the rewards have been pretty thin on the ground. For a start, after his first trip to the United States, Mr. Bolsonaro ended visa requirements for visitors from America. The measure has not been reciprocated. And unlike most American presidents, Mr. Trump never visited Brazil. (That’s rude!)

Then there’s the economy. In 2019, Brazil agreed to give up some benefits at the World Trade Organization in return for the United States’ backing of Brazil’s bid to become a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which the government hoped would increase investor confidence in the country’s economy. That has not happened.

Mr. Bolsonaro also granted American wheat and ethanol producers special trading concessions, harming his own country’s agricultural sector in the process. To reciprocate the favor, the Trump administration placed tariffs on Brazilian aluminum. Worst. Buddy. Ever.

But Mr. Trump’s tenure has given Mr. Bolsonaro one big win: He was free to act in the Amazon as he pleased. This meant weakening the enforcement of environmental regulations, which, in his opinion, “don’t protect anything.” He has systematically turned a blind eye as cattle farmers, loggers and miners have continued to plunder the rainforest. Destruction has soared under his administration: This year, the scale of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon surged to a 12-year high.

In wreaking such environmental and human havoc, Mr. Bolsonaro could act with impunity; after all, he had Mr. Trump’s blessing. “I have gotten to know President @jairbolsonaro well in our dealings with Brazil,” the American president wrote on Twitter in 2019. “He is working very hard on the Amazon fires and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil.”

Ah, those were the days. Mr. Biden is unlikely to be so permissive (and will, please Lord, be on Twitter less). With the United States no longer led by someone who thinks climate change is a hoax, Mr. Bolsonaro can expect to encounter much more pressure. Brazil, in the words of the political scientist Oliver Stuenkel, may soon have to “face down a joint U.S.-European alliance threatening to isolate Brazil economically over its failure to protect the world’s largest tropical forest.”

Mr. Bolsonaro, to give him his due, seems to be aware that a Biden administration is likely to restrict his room for maneuver. “We recently saw a great candidate for head of state say that if I didn’t put out the fire in the Amazon, he will put up commercial barriers against Brazil,” he said in November, referring to a statement made by Mr. Biden during a presidential debate. Don’t worry, though: He has a plan to deal with it. “Just diplomacy is not enough,” he said. “When saliva runs out, one has to have gunpowder, otherwise it doesn’t work.”

It’s possible — necessary, I would say — to ridicule these as the words of a madman. But underneath the bravado is the recognition that the situation is changing for Mr. Bolsonaro, and not for the better. Mr. Trump’s loss robs the Brazilian president not only of a friendly (at least in theory) presence in Washington, but also of a kindred spirit. For right-wing populists, Mr. Trump was a trailblazer, a beacon, even a leader. His departure marks a worrying reversal and perhaps spells trouble ahead.

Certainly, that’s the view (and hope!) of many Brazilians. Mr. Trump’s victory in 2016 seemed to foretell the rise of the country’s own maverick, right-wing populist to power; perhaps Mr. Trump’s exit will prove to be similarly prescient. Who knows? Judging from Mr. Bolsonaro’s recent comments — “Hope is the last to die,” he said grimly the day after the election — the thought must have crossed his mind.

But Mr. Bolsonaro is not easily deterred. He promises to stand strong at his post. After all, Mr. Trump “was not the most important person in the world,” as he said last month. “The most important person is God.”


Credit: Kyle Platts

Welcome to the wonderful, threatened world of Brazil’s “quilo” restaurants

The New York Times
Oct. 25, 2020

by Vanessa Barbara
Contributing Opinion Op-ed Writer

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — The Swedes gave the world the concept of “smorgasbord,” a celebratory buffet meal featuring a variety of hot and cold dishes. But it was the Brazilians who elevated this gastronomic mishmash to a new level. By adding a singular touch of inventiveness, recurrence and chaos, they gave the world something special: the “quilo” restaurant.

Such restaurants may look familiar — in form and method, they’re perhaps not too far from a cafeteria, Korean deli or salad bar. But they are deeply expressive of a specifically Brazilian approach to food: communal, yet with full rein for individual creativity; workaday, yet luxuriously varied. And very, very delicious.

They amount to a vital tradition at the heart — and in the stomach — of the country’s culinary culture. Now the pandemic, which has wreaked terrible havoc on Brazil, threatens to disrupt and perhaps destroy them.

As soon as customers walk into a quilo restaurant, the magic starts. They aren’t ushered to a fancy table by a waiter — they pick up their plates from a pile and enter a line. Then they serve themselves from an extensive array of dishes, including (but not limited to) soup, rice, beans, eggs, steak, pork, seafood stew, shrimp bobó, lasagna, pizza, yakisoba, kebabs, grilled cheese, crab-stuffed shells, sfihas, tabbouleh, quiches, ceviches, barbecue and sushi. They top their plates with a slice of mango or a proud piece of watermelon and go to the scales. That’s when they find out how much they’re going to pay.

While the original Swedish smorgasbord is a celebratory meal with formal rules of etiquette, quilo restaurants are part of everyday life. Inexpensive and found on street corners all over the country, they serve home-style meals for workers on a short lunch break. They typically charge around $10 per kilogram (that’s why they’re called “quilo” — “kilo” in English), or 35 ounces, and they are often open only for a quick lunch.

But that doesn’t mean that there are no rules. You can’t jump the line or use the spoon for the shrimp to scoop up the mashed potatoes. (Not nice, really.) And it is not considered polite to disrupt the progress of the line in order to go back and pick up more quail eggs.

Apart from that, there’s no gastronomic judgment. Everything is permitted.

At least it was — before the pandemic. There was a time when co-workers went to a quilo restaurant and chatted over the chafing dishes, picking at the food with a spoon and airing lots of talk about the nutritional value of broccoli. Everybody gave their opinion about it, saliva droplets and all. On their plates, you could marvel at the combination of papaya with sushi, coated in a full-bodied sauce of measles morbillivirus and Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria. Or a good strain of the H1N1 virus perfectly paired with beef Bourguignon. It was all part of the game.

“There is a Brazilian tradition of eating directly from the pots on the stove,” Mary Del Priore, a historian, recently told Vejamagazine. “Quilo restaurants refer exactly to that.” People gladly used the utensils that dozens of others had used before. They laid a spoonful of stew on their plate, then changed their mind and put it back. The feijoada would remain out on the counter, exposed and disordered, open to all.

Not anymore. Now in many quilo restaurants, an employee must serve the clients — killing all the joy of jumbling food together in an open buffet. In other restaurants, customers can serve themselves, but only if they wear plastic gloves, lending the activity a tasteless, antiseptic feel. They must also socially distance in the line and under no circumstances share a table with strangers. A rich, hectic atmosphere has been replaced with something transactional and detached.

Many quilo restaurants have started to limit their offerings. Diners cannot choose anymore from 20 kinds of salad, 25 hot dishes, three types of raw fish and 10 desserts — as if the food counter were a gastronomic reflection of Brazil’s social and ethnic diversity. (Sashimi with spaghetti, falafel with paella, empanadas with sardines … you get the idea.) Now we’re as homogeneous as can be.

And it gets worse: Many quilo restaurants are slowly transitioning to offering only regular, à la carte meals. That’s terrible news for vegans and vegetarians, who will be unable to set up a nutritious, colorful plate with only rice, grains and vegetables.

I know: We’re dealing with a deadly public health emergency, and some things need to change if our beloved quilorestaurants are not to become superspreader locations. People’s lives, in a country where over 150,000 have already been lost to the virus, are more important than immersive buffet experiences.

I know, I know. But I’m going to miss my meal of rice and beans with spiced eggplant Parmesan, creamed corn, cabbage, cucumber, deep-fried cassava and a slice of pineapple to top it off. For a people who have never been stopped, not even by their indigestion, it is a sad fate.


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 Oct. 26, 2020, Section A, Page 23 of the New York edition with the headline: Sashimi With Spaghetti? Yes, Please.

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.

El presidente de Brasil, Jair Bolsonaro, da un discurso sobre la pandemia del coronavirus. Credit: Isac Nobrega/Presidencia de Brasil vía Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Después de ver al presidente durante tantos días, por fin entendí que la felicidad es opcional.

The New York Times
15 de septiembre de 2020

by Vanessa Barbara
colaboradora de Opinión de The New York Times

Read in English

SÃO PAULO, Brasil — El 29 de agosto, mi país cruzó el umbral de las 120.000 muertes por la COVID-19. Con unos 900 nuevos muertos al día, todavía no hemos visto una tendencia a la baja en el brote. Quería comprender por qué muchos brasileños parecen impávidos frente a este escenario, así que decidí tomar medidas desesperadas: empecé a ver las apariciones en vivo que el presidente Jair Bolsonaro realiza cada semana en YouTube y Facebook.

Sí, ya sé que suena inútil, ridículo y masoquista, y un poco es así. Sin embargo, después de ver tres meses de videos —un total de once horas extenuantes frente de la computadora—, ahora me doy cuenta de que todo ha cambiado. ¡Por fin!

Después de todo, solo se trataba de un asunto de perspectiva. No debí confiar en los medios tradicionales para obtener información, porque “no tienen nada bueno que decir sobre Brasil”, de acuerdo con Bolsonaro. El presidente advirtió que un noticiero que se transmite en el horario de máxima audiencia y que en su mayor parte muestra muertes —“televisión funeral”, le llama— es algo que nadie puede disfrutar. Tiene razón. En contraste, las transmisiones presidenciales en vivo siempre son inspiradoras, aunque en esencia esto se logra rechazando cualquier noticia negativa sobre su gobierno.

Apenas unas semanas antes de su investidura en 2019, Bolsonaro prometió que iba aparecer en vivo todas las semanas para informar a sus simpatizantes sobre las acciones del gobierno. Explicó que los medios tradicionales a menudo tergiversan los hechos. “Aquí no hay tergiversación”, afirmó. “Tendrán noticias honestas, como se supone que se deberían dar”.

Si tan solo hubiera sabido esto antes. Por ejemplo, habría sabido que la Organización Mundial de la Salud (OMS) de hecho es “de mala calidad” y que “perdió credibilidad”. No me debí preocupar sobre sus informes epidemiológicos. Según Bolsonaro, la organización está “dejando mucho que desear”. No logró reconocer el milagroso efecto de la hidroxicloroquina, un fármaco para tratar la malaria que curó de la COVID-19 a unos 200 empleados gubernamentales en el edificio presidencial. “Nadie fue hospitalizado”, aseguró. ¡Ya basta de pruebas controladas aleatorizadas!

Después de ver al presidente durante tantos días, por fin entendí que la felicidad es opcional. Todo lo ajeno a su comprensión de la realidad es irrelevante. Bolsonaro acusa a la OMS de ser “contradictoria” y una de las cosas “menos científicas” del mundo. Se puede inferir que las cosas más científicas son las opiniones del presidente, las cuales le gusta difundir en declaraciones interminables, siempre usando los mismos argumentos. “Muchos doctores ya están diciendo que las mascarillas no protegen nada”, dijo hace poco. “Es otra farsa que vamos a ver”.

Bolsonaro mencionó la hidroxicloroquina en trece de catorce transmisiones en vivo; muchas veces, incluso exhibió una caja de pastillas sobre la mesa. De todas las transmisiones que vi —desde junio a septiembre—, solo no mencionó el fármaco una vez, el 25 de junio, el mismo día que aseguró: “Nadie protege el medioambiente como nosotros”.

Bueno, es un alivio. Resulta que la selva de la Amazonía no se está quemando realmente, porque “no puede incendiarse”. Bolsonaro afirma que los devastadores incendios en la Amazonía son una noticia falsa creada por periódicos brasileños, algo que han propagado los medios extranjeros. Cuando sí admite que hay algunos incendios en la región, no culpa a la industria agrícola, sino a los indígenas, los “caboclos” (una mezcla de orígenes indígena y blanco) y a los habitantes de las riberas. “Es su cultura”, comenta. Para respaldar sus aseveraciones, se refiere a estadísticas de fuentes desconocidas. “No sé quién lo dijo, pero…”.

Es un placer ver a alguien que es tan meticuloso al hablar de hechos y cifras. Muchos lectores supondrán que mi cerebro se ha convertido en papilla después de un maratón de videos de Bolsonaro, pero son afirmaciones sin ningún fundamento, en contraste con la precisión implacable del presidente.

Durante una transmisión de agosto, Bolsonaro habló sobre algo que había escuchado: “No sé si es verdad o no… ¡Sí, es verdad!”. Y luego, en la misma emisión: “Nos enteramos, no voy a decir que provino de fuentes confiables”. En otra ocasión, abandonó todos los escrúpulos y tan solo nos pidió que confiáramos en él: “Tenemos noticias reales de que los hospitales tienen un excedente de camas” (en todo caso, y solo para estar seguro, alentó a sus seguidores a “encontrar la manera de ingresar” a hospitales públicos para filmarlos, y mostrar que no estaban saturados de pacientes).

Aprendí que el problema con los periodistas es que suelen “actuar con maldad”. El 23 de agosto, durante la visita del presidente a una catedral, uno de ellos le preguntó por qué su esposa había recibido 89.000 reales (más de 16.500 dólares) de Fabrício Queiroz, un exasistente legislativo que supuestamente tiene vínculos con las milicias de Río de Janeiro, grupos paramilitares clandestinos que funcionan como una especie de mafia. El presidente le respondió al reportero: “Qué ganas de reventarte la boca a golpes”. La pregunta sigue sin respuesta.

“No es que huya de la prensa”, explicó durante una transmisión de julio. La prueba es que hace una excepción con tres periodistas de radio que demuestran una “imparcialidad absoluta” al informar “qué está pasando de verdad en Brasil”. A veces, durante la transmisión, le pueden hacer preguntas al presidente. En alguna ocasión, uno de ellos cuestionó por qué ya no escuchamos noticias sobre corrupción en el sector de la infraestructura; el otro exigió saber el estado de salud del presidente. Ninguno recibió un golpe verbal en la boca.

No cabe duda de que no nos cansamos de la ciencia, el rigor y la imparcialidad.

Sin embargo, justo cuando estaba a punto de terminar mi animado maratón televisivo, tuve una pesadilla. Soñé que Bolsonaro estaba quemando una pila de documentos que demostraban su negligencia en el manejo de la pandemia en Brasil. No lo podía detener, pero intentaba hurgar en las cenizas con la esperanza de salvar algo. Pronto, llegaba la policía y me arrestaba. Me sentía indefensa de nuevo.

Cuando desperté, habíamos llegado a 127.000 muertes.

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.