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. 

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.