Time to Be Together - But Not That Close

Illustration of Rosana Paulino
Rosana Paulino | Illustration (detail): © Nik Neves

Brazil has withstood the virus, government denialism, and fake news concerning the pandemic. Additionally, the population has faced the necessity to rethink socialising when a kiss on the cheek and a hug could become synonymous with death. Within this new reality, visual artist Rosana Paulino asks: What does it mean to be close and what does it mean to be distant?

By Rosana Paulino

With the advent of the pandemic, the struggles and changes necessary for survival varied immensely according to each country’s guidelines. In Brazil, part of the population had to fight on several fronts simultaneously: the pandemic, the negligence and disorder resulting from a genocidal government, fake news and conflicting information about the illness and the shortage of medical supplies. We were also confronted with the necessity to rethink socialising when a kiss on the cheek and a hug could become synonymous with death. Within this new reality, what does it mean to be close and what does it mean to be distant? What really is the meaning of closeness and distance?

Certainly, important lessons were, or should have been, learned in the face of this scenario. The first, which perhaps we already knew, though we were reluctant to recognise, is that in Brazil, with respect to the poor, it’s about us, for us. Those who are conventionally known as the “elite”, first, contaminated those who have less and, afterward, disrespected the norms linked to the prevention of the disease.

Community Solutions

Organising those who are most vulnerable, on the other hand, proved surprising in some cases. Joint solutions coming from existing organisations, such as the “G10 das Favelas,” referring to the ten largest urban communities in the country, have shown their strength and competence leading Heliópolis, which according to the Marielle Franco Dictionary of Favelas is the second largest slum in Latin America, to present better data than those obtained by the municipal and state governments of São Paulo regarding early detection, quarantine, and treatment of those infected by the virus.

The population in those locations is confronting the challenge of existing in spaces of increased physical proximity. Not by choice, but rather for lack of options faced with high rents and the appreciation of properties in urban areas. Seen as a powder keg in the face of the threat of COVID-19, given the large number of residents in these dwellings (a survey of the Instituto Locomotiva and the Data Favela shows that in four out of every ten households there are more than three people per room), the fear was that the arrival of the virus in those settings would cause unprecedented death. The success achieved showed the strength that those agents have when they work together and receive government support. It remains to be seen whether such exceptional organisation can be formalised in a consistent manner. If it is, structural change will occur like we have never seen before, with new, powerful organisations and leadership coming in which tend to put pressure on the government in a way that is unprecedented in Brazil.

Technology and Inequality

If technology has played a predominant role in response to the virus and in bringing people together, on the other hand it seems to be leading to an intensification of inequalities and to deteriorating educational opportunities. Ultimately, using lockdown time for self-development, besides being a luxury for the few - given that many continue to work - requires good computers with quality connection to digital networks.

The Brazilian reality, however, is that most people use smartphones for that access and have a limited data plan and, primarily, have great difficulty knowing how to obtain quality information, limiting themselves to visiting only the most well-known media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and, recently, TikTok. Fake or low-quality news tend to threaten the very freedom of choice of individuals, as well as political and social systems in a time when knowledge and an anti-denialist stance are fundamental to the fight against not only the coronavirus, but also to combating global warming which is a threat to our very human existence on the planet.

An Avalanche of “Livestreams”   

Regarding culture, Brazil, like many countries, did not escape the surge in livestreams. The term proximity became further delineated with an explosion of broadcasts, some extremely relevant, driven by an initial concern that put various actors in conversations that, were it not for our pandemic exile, certainly would not have occurred otherwise. I wonder how we are going to manage these collections stored on the Internet in the future. Which ones will resist? Which ones will be witnesses to this moment? Which ones were truly important? How are we going to catalogue, research, study, and disseminate these encounters? How will we organise this body of knowledge produced by these livestreams?

With their open programming, livestreams have also led to a decrease in distance between universities and individuals, between peripheral culture and hegemonic culture, and made possible the entrance of diverse actors that could puncture the blockade of the centers of power and amplify their voices, bringing other points of view that could enrich the cultural environment. A good example was the Feira Literária das Periferias FLUP (Literary Fair of the Peripheries) with FLUP DIGITAL 2020. The events, which that year honored guests such as the Black intellectual Lélia Gonzalez, reached peak numbers of more than seven thousand viewers, providing for individual and collective channels of expression unprecedented in the Brazilian cultural milieu. It is worth remembering that Black feminism became a political and cultural force in the country making great use of the internet. If Black, Indigenous, feminine, and peripheral cultural production follows the same path and becomes a solid legacy, it is a fact to be observed attentively over the next years.

To conclude, I would like to say that, even if the pandemic has not been able to generate the gigantic wave of solidarity and social change that the most hopeful dreamers envisaged, at least it served to elicit aspects of collective and individual political participation that had previously been absent from the Brazilian landscape. Although the data is conflicted, with some pointing to an increase in solidarity and others showing a decrease, it seems to me that some strategies used during the pandemic can leave lasting effects on our society as individuals realise that their mobilisation can, and should, be a driving force for new ways of positioning themselves in the world. And this has brought, for us, a significant increase in what we call, in simplest terms, political participation.