The dangers of staying home: lockdown deepens inequalities in Brazil

By Fernanda Mallak, Isabela Vianna Pinho and Thalles Vichiato Breda.

The coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent social isolation policies have placed the home at the heart of the social debate about immobility and survival. Having to stay home affects the most vulnerable in society far more than others – both socially and materially. In our research we focus on the bodies and residences of those living in Brazil’s urban outskirts, particularly low-income black women.

The effects of the pandemic and the way social isolation is carried out in Brazil has been explored by numerous researchers such as Rachel Randall who analyses the conditions of domestic workers in the country. Aline Pires, Felipe Rangel and Jacob Lima discuss the conditions of underprivileged working-class citizens amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the dismantling of social security. Meanwhile, Angelo Martins Junior has addressed the disregard for life in a society marked by its colonial past and how this reverberates throughout the pandemic period as millions of lives, especially those of black and poor citizens, are left to luck. Considering this, we ask: what makes the experience of staying home so much harder for these populations?

In our work we conceive of the home in three ways: (1) as a human right to dignified housing; (2) as a complex materiality, involving its physical construction and surroundings; and (3) as a space for life, experiences and exchanges within a group of people and things.

The social isolation policy required during COVID implies that people have a place – usually a house – in which to isolate. Although housing is a human right guaranteed by the Brazilian constitution, this does not translate into reality. According to a survey by Brazil’s Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA) in 2015, an estimated 101,854 people across the country are homeless. Security of land tenure is also a very problematic issue. A survey carried out by the Observatory of Evictions (University of São Paulo/Federal University of ABC) shows that more than 1,900 homes have been subject to forced displacements in the state of São Paulo – the country’s main industrial and financial centre – since the beginning of the pandemic.

Restricting the flow of people has proven critical to keeping the pandemic under control. But the way the authorities have continued to deal with informal housing on the outskirts of  São Paulo state – ranging from legal to highly illegal actions – has led to ongoing forced displacements during the past year, thereby intensifying the movement of people and their exposure to COVID-19.

Land occupation in Mogi das Cruzes, São Paulo: informal settlements like these have continued to be subject to forced evictions by the state during the pandemic (image: Fernanda Mallak)

Looking at the house as a complex materiality means taking account of its construction, the urban infrastructure around it and residents’ access to amenities, among other factors. Many homes in the Brazilian urban periphery are precarious structures suffering from poor air circulation, low construction quality, high density of inhabitants, below-basic sanitation facilities and isolated locations. According to data from the National Sanitation Information System (2018), about 16% (40 million) of Brazilians are still deprived of treated water and 47% (100 million) do not have access to sewage collection. A significant part of the Brazilian population therefore lacks the recommended basic resources for disease prevention, such as the means to wash hands and sanitise foodstuffs.

The home is not an isolated entity in these peripheral urban communities but rather comprises social relationships established with other homes – that is, the exchanges and ties within and between them. The circulation of objects, food and money, for example, is constant, as well as daily practices such as maintenance, loans or donations of groceries, carpooling and collaborations in house building. Thus, homes in these areas are built through dynamic relationships that involve interdependencies, solidarities, affections, moralities, obligations and asymmetries – all of which have been significantly reduced during lockdown, leaving many households much less resilient.

During the pandemic the dramatic reduction in mobility has caused the usual daily connections between households, and between private homes and public institutions, to recede. But concurrently the relationships within the home have intensified and, at times, frayed – as evidenced by data on domestic violence during the pandemic. According to the Brazilian Public Security Forum, cases of femicide increased by 22.2% between March and April in 12 states of the country compared with the same period last year. At the same time, police records show a reduction in face-to-face reports of intentional personal injury (-25.5%) and rape (-28.2%). Regarding the latter, studies point to an underreporting of cases, which is explained by an increased difficulty to access police stations as victims are prohibited from travelling to police stations and are forced to stay home with their aggressors. The study also reveals a 431% increase in fights between couples as reported by neighbours on social media between February and April this year. While these data refer to regions in general, the rise in domestic violence is likely to be impacting on households in the urban periphery as much as elsewhere.

During the pandemic all Brazilians have been facing the same restrictions, but it is clear they are not all in the same boat. Coronavirus has laid the country’s structural racism bare: the death risk faced by black Brazilians due to COVID-19 is 62% higher than that faced by whites in the state capital, São Paulo. A person’s greater or lesser exposure to risk is strictly related to the type of ‘boat’ in which she or he sails, in terms of class, gender and race.

In reality, then, a significant proportion of Brazilians are unable to socially isolate safely in a home that is in good condition and from where they can work. For this large sector of the population supporting the household means working both inside and outside the home, taking public transport, getting around and being exposed. In particular, black women from the urban periphery, who are often heads of their households – responsible for supporting the family financially and domestically – find themselves forced to continue moving around, even during lockdown.

COVID-19 has exacerbated historical vulnerabilities in Brazil and, once again, exposed its structural inequalities. Since the pandemic began, there has been a dramatic worsening of living conditions for the poorer sectors of society, both for those who have stayed home in precarious, often violent conditions, and for those who have had to go out to work – exposing themselves to greater risk of infection – in order to survive.

Fernanda Mallak, Isabela Vianna Pinho and Thalles Vichiato Breda are Sociology PhD candidates at the Federal University of São Carlos, Brazil, developing research on urban outskirts, social housing and urban occupations in Brazil.

Other MMB blogs related to this subject: ‘Domestic workers and COVID-19: Brazil’s legacy of slavery lives on’, ‘To stay home or go out to work? Brazil’s unequal modes of COVID-19 survival’, and ‘A violent disregard for life: COVID-19 in Brazil’.

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