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Social Gaps between the Rich and Poor
Distancing as a Privilege

Biker from the series “Daily Life”, Brazil 2020.
Biker from the series “Daily Life”, Brazil 2020. | Photo (detail): © Marlon de Paula

In Brazil, the pandemic magnified the social gap between the rich and the poor. While the former has been able to work remotely from their homes, the latter could not afford the luxury to abandon the streets.

By Ana Paula Orlandi

The first person to officially die of COVID-19 in the city of Rio de Janeiro was the household employee Cleonice Gonçalves, 63 years old, diabetic with hypertension, after having had direct contact with her boss, the lady of the house, who had returned from a trip to Italy infected with the virus. Gonçalves passed away in March 2020. “Unfortunately, maintaining social distancing, a fundamental measure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, was a privilege of the few in Brazil,” asserts Janaína Mariano de Souza, a household employee and President of the Federação das Empregadas e Trabalhadores Domésticos (Household Employees and Domestic Workers Alliance) of the State of São Paulo. According to data released in July 2021 by the Institute of Applied Economic Research (Ipea), among the 83 million people employed in the country in 2020, 74 million of them (88.9 per cent) continued working in-person, even during the pandemic.

According to the same study, only 8.2 million Brazilians (11 per cent) were able to carry out their professional activities remotely. The majority of that contingent is made up of people who are white, female, between the ages of 30 and 39, living in the Southeast of Brazil, with college degrees and who work for the private sector.

In the streets, despite the virus

“The profile of our class is very different from that,” Souza points out. In Brazil, she says, most domestic workers, like salaried maids, nannies, housecleaners, day workers, and caregivers for the elderly, are Black women with low levels of education who live on the outskirts of cities.  Many earn the income for their households. “In light of the type of work they do, those professionals are not able to work from home,” Souza goes on. “Those who did not lose their jobs during the pandemic had to deal with public transportation to get to work, generally in upscale neighborhoods, even though aware of the risks of contracting the virus,” Souza says.

The pandemic further exposed gender, racial and class-based inequalities present in the daily routines of domestic workers in Brazil, observes Rosaly de Seixas Brito, who has a PhD in anthropology and is professor in the Department of Communications at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA). “Domestic work is socially undervalued and carries with it a stigma stemming from deep-seated colonial logic in a country rooted in violence formed on the basis of the exploitation of slave labour and the genocide of Indigenous peoples,” says Brito, who is editor of the book Comunicação, gênero e trabalho doméstico – das reiterações coloniais à invenção de outros possíveis (Communication, Gender, and Domestic Work: From Colonial Reiterations to the Invention of Other Possibilities), in collaboration with Danila Cal, her colleague at UFPA. “In the state of Pará, domestic work was deemed an essential service by the government, which is absurd. It demonstrates that the health of that professional category is regarded as lesser-than and unworthy of the same care and protection as compared to other Brazilians,” she concludes.

Death and poverty

Domestic workers are not alone in this context of exclusion. Research produced by the Pólis Institute based on data from the Municipal Department of Health of São Paulo, published in May 2021, indicates that 37.8 per cent of the people who died in the state capital between March 2020 and March 2021 were working – the majority of whom were performing the duties of a household maid, mason, and taxi or rideshare driver. Of the more than 30 thousand deceased, 23.6 thousand (76,7 per cent) had not completed primary education. “Considering the victims’ schooling as an indirect indicator for their standard income level, the data demonstrates that COVID-19 mortality is greater among poorer workers (both male and female), which in many cases are characterised by informality and the inability to work remotely,” note the authors of the study “Trabalho, território e covid no município de São Paulo” (Work, Land, and Covid in the City of São Paulo).

“The pandemic entered the country by plane, brought by the elite, but spread through the slums, peripheral neighbourhoods and substandard housing areas, those dwellings, sometimes, having only one room where people do not even have space to practice self-isolation and many with one bathroom,” Brito observes. “As the British geographer David Harvey points out, the novel coronavirus pandemic is a class, gender and racialised pandemic,” the anthropologist indicates.

The impossibility of social distancing

A study of the Rede de Pesquisa Solidária (Solidary Research Network), formed in 2020 and made up of nearly 50 Brazilian researchers, reinforces this perception. The data draws attention to the fact that Black men have a greater risk (around 45 per cent) of dying from the corona virus compared to white men in careers that require university degrees, such as architecture, law, and engineering.

According to sociologist Ian Prates, researcher at the Brazilian Centre for Analysis and Planning (Cebrap) and coordinator of the study, three elements help to explain this scenario: “One of them is market segmentation: despite working in the same profession, white men occupy better jobs than Black men in Brazil. Another element is the socio-spatial question which is combined with residential segregation. Generally, Black men live in peripheral neighbourhoods and, in light of this inequality, are subject to a greater probability of needing to take public transportation, commuting in greater numbers. Additionally, as was seen since the beginning of the pandemic, throughout the world and not only in Brazil, in peripheral neighbourhoods the level of contagion of COVID-19 is greater for various reasons, including the impossibility of social distancing. Finally, the third element is that white men have access to better quality health services.”

Digital inclusion and exclusion

The pandemic exacerbated social evils, such as hunger and unemployment in the country. “Those problems are still going to drag on for a long time,” says economist Lauro Gonzalez, coordinator of the Centre for Microfinance Studies and Financial Inclusion at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation. “We need to rethink and expand income transfer programmes for people as well as grant credit, especially to small businesses and informal workers. But those measures must take into consideration the well-being of society and not have political bias.”

Another point that deserves attention, according to Gonzalez, is digital inclusion, particularly of the more vulnerable classes. “The majority of the 47 million people who do not use the internet in Brazil belong to the lower class who are most in need of income transfer programmes. Enrollment in those programmes cannot be only online. We need to preserve in-person services, the role of local governments and professionals who work at the local level and maintain direct contact with the recipients of social assistance services. Inequality in the country, which is already enormous, cannot become even worse.”