Author: Andrea Friedmann Rozenbaum, anthropologist, University of Amsterdam alumna. You can contact her at email@example.com
Fieldsite: In isolation in the north-coast of São Paulo (Brazil), in a seaside area called Camburi. I consider my field site being both the neighbourhood I am at and the people with whom I am interacting online. In addition, for this report, I collected materials from the press and social media.
Care and surveillance in Camburi, São Sebastião
Camburi is part of São Sebastião municipality, which envelops three districts including 28 seaside neighbourhoods distributed throughout approximately 120km along the coast. While its local population is of approximately 90.000, during weekends and holidays, this number increases significantly as tourists come from São Paulo metropolis and other hinterland cities.[i] Tourism is a vital economic activity in São Sebastião. According to the mayor, many people moved to the region to quarantine, raising the population to 140.000.[ii]
It is important to note the socio-economic disparity when comparing the local population of São Sebastião to the majority of its visitors from the state’s capital. The former is a low-income area.[iii] In contrast, visitors who own or rent a house at the locality, having enough means to afford that, indicates their position within the country’s socio-economic elite.
Additionally, in Brazil, the virus arrived through the wealthy elites.[iv] So, the idea of them travelling to the coast and disseminating the virus there might be a concern for the locals. Especially due to the lack of a good health care public structure to give support, in case the system reaches its maximum capacity.
As the pandemic reached the country, state governors and mayors started to take measures to care for the population. While Brazil’s president neglected the severity of COVID-19, various local authorities recommended social isolation and determined the closure of non-essential services in their regions.[v] São Sebastião immediately acted on it too. From my observations, in comparison to what I’ve previously watched in São Paulo capital, the actions taken in the coastal region seemed to be stricter. While in São Paulo there is still no imposition of a limited number of people entering a supermarket, such measure was already operative in Camburi since mid-March. While in the metropolis anyone could step into a drugstore, in São Sebastião’s districts, clients could only be served at the door. Also, I heard from residents in Camburi that the police were approaching people walking on the streets to recommend them to go to their houses.
Additionally, São Sebastião’s mayor took measures to avoid tourists. First, he announced the closure of hotels, inns and restaurants. But as time passed, restaurants reopened for delivery. Later, vacation residencies were just allowed to host their owners, and rentals were prohibited.[vi] While such measures might have slightly contained tourism, people continued to visit the area.
Perhaps, before the virus reached these coastal districts, many locals were already following the municipal recommendations of caring for themselves to be protected from the virus. As the state’s capital is one of the main focus of the pandemic, São Sebastião and other coastal municipalities tried blocking the main roads to prevent people arriving from São Paulo.[vii] However, the state’s governor didn’t allow the measure.[viii] Then, other attempts were taken by São Sebastião’s mayor, such as controlling roadblocks and sanitary barriers.[ix] These measures were supposedly implemented and advertised by the mayor. However, people coming to the region stated not witnessing any road control.
São Sebastião’s mayor, Felipe Augusto, started doing daily Facebook (FB) video ‘lives’ of approximately 40 minutes since March 15th, 2020.[x] In such appearances, usually joined by members of his team, public workers, or health care experts, the mayor gives updates about the situation in the region. Apart from revealing the current number of cases, they share all the initiatives and measures they have been taking. Recommendations and alerts are also communicated, and they answer questions sent by the people.
The mayors’ FB page has almost 39.000 followers, most of whom I would presume being part of the local population. I found out about this page through a local resident, who told me that the mayor was doing daily ‘lives’ to keep the population informed, which she has been frequently watching. Both the mayor and his followers are quite active on the FB page.[xi] Many people ‘like’ the posts, send comments, and share them. In the vast majority of such comments the users praise and thank the mayor for his measures.
It is also usual to see people complaining about the situation in some cases, especially about the fact that vacationers from the capital are ‘invading’ their area. More than being a menace to the region, since they could ‘bring’ the virus from São Paulo, the locals reveal their anger as many visitors are not respecting social isolation measures – such as avoiding the beach. For instance, one user comments, “what calls my attention is that the cases are rising and the beaches are packed with tourists as if nothing was going on. We are doing our part, but it is not worth it if they come and go at all times with no restriction at all”.[xii]
I could find only a few critical comments towards the mayor.[xiii] For instance, one says, “…if you want to change the virus’ dissemination, start on the bank’s queue, giving more attention to the people who voted on you, city councillors and mayor!!!!!!”. Another posts, “…he doesn’t care at all about the people, there are residents in need, but what interests him is appearing on TV”.[xiv] As we can note, such disapprovals regard specific measures or the fact that the mayor is using the situation for self-promotion.
The beach as a place for surveillance
As the first measures were taken to keep the virus from spreading in the region, the mayor alerted people not to go to the beach as an extent of social isolation. Many individuals followed such recommendations, but others insisted on going. While locals were complaining on Facebook that they saw tourists at the beach, the municipality also took some harsher measures. On the mayor’s page, there are videos and photos showing policemen patrolling the beach areas, as well as approaching the few people they encountered there. According to the mayor, this was a way of making people aware of how their behaviour could worsen the current situation.
However, I kept hearing complaints from some local neighbours and also reading them on the mayor’s social media. According to one of my neighbours, in some beach areas, the tourists were bribing police officers so they could go to the beach. People also revealed how angry they were that while they were prohibited from working selling goods on the beach, visitors were attending such areas.
However, for some time, many people kept going to the beach, not following the recommendations.[xv] During holidays, the number of tourists increased up to 50.000.[xvi] As the population didn’t see the municipality acting to avoid people’s presence on the beach, in some places they decided to act for themselves. Groups of locals barred the beaches’ accesses with materials such as wood, tires, barbed wires and even dumpsters.[xvii] They approached those who wanted to enter, asking them to respect the social isolation measures.
On May 12th, as the number of infected people raised, while the reported deaths remained the same, the municipality decided to take a stricter measure regarding the beaches’ attendance – but just during weekends.[xviii] From Monday to Thursday people will be allowed to go to the beach, but only to practice individual sports – such as walking, biking, surfing. People must wear masks, following the state’s governor’s directions. Collective sports or laying down on a fixed spot is prohibited, as well as gathering in groups. From Friday to Sunday, when most of the vacationers arrive, going to the beach will be prohibited.
While in the mayor’s social media page, the measure seems to be taking place, people are still going to the beach on weekends. A friend, who was in Juquehy beach on the weekend after the measure was announced, told me that she went to the beach on Saturday, May 16th and saw people walking around. She said, “well, it wasn’t crowded, but it wasn’t empty too”. Although the municipality seems to be putting effort into caring for the local population, such measures are still not yet successfully implemented.
Perhaps, this recent measure can help to contain the virus’ spread. At least during weekends, it can diminish the chance of tourists bringing the virus from the capital, where the number of cases is quite high.[xix] However, if the beaches get crowded on weekdays, such practice could also contribute to increasing the dissemination.
While São Sebastião’s local authorities started planning the return of economic activities, they got caught by surprise by sudden measures taken in the state’s capital. São Paulo’s municipality anticipated three holidays, creating a 6-day-holiday – ‘feriadão’, as Brazilians call it. This action was an attempt to reassure social isolation since isolation metrics revealed that people tended to stay more at home on weekends.[xx] The measure was sanctioned on a Tuesday (May 18th) and supposed to start the next day. As the coastal mayors anticipated the possibility of people travelling to their towns, they tried asking the state government to support the closure of highways, which was not granted. São Sebastião’s residents reacted by blocking the roads with fire barricades.
Both authorities and the population were discussing how to act next. On the one hand, some argued that if tourists were there, then the local beach vendors should be allowed to offer their goods and earn money to survive. On the other hand, many asked the mayor to care for them, closing up the beaches enforcing strict surveillance on the vacationists. As they pointed out, these two months of care would be in vain, and the outsiders would contaminate the locals, who cannot count on a robust health care system. In the end, the mayor set up a last-minute ‘live’ on FB, in which he asked the population to decide what would be best. Through comments, most people asked him to shut down the beaches, ensuring strict surveillance during the holiday. The residents also joined the actions, helping to build barriers and to approach tourists to generate awareness.[xxi]
Through this case, we can observe how measures taken by a municipality to care for its citizens can end up interfering on other regions. Thus, reinforcing the need to carefully plan ahead. Even though we are undergoing circumstances never experienced before, and numerous measures are experimental, many aspects must be previously considered. This way, possible consequences could be anticipated, creating less harm than they would otherwise.
Drones: Caring or surveilling?
São Sebastião’s municipality has been advertising a new technology they are using to contain the new coronavirus’s spread.[xxii] From April 25th, they rented a drone to fly initially around the city centre – especially in clustered areas, such as queues – on weekdays, and above the beaches on weekends. The technology has two main functions. First, through a speaker, the drone alerts people reinforcing preventive measures. Second, with a built-in thermal camera, and using facial recognition, the apparatus measures people’s body temperature on the streets. Thus, when the drone identifies a person with a higher temperature, the closest health care unit is alerted, and a team promptly approaches the potentially sick individual. The person would then receive orientation, be taken to a health care unit to be tested, and, if needed, receive proper care.
I couldn’t find any mentions related to surveillance or privacy matters in the mayor’s FB page. Despite the fact that I haven’t witnessed the drone or the health care team in action, I kept reflecting on how this could be somehow shaming. I thought of someone in a queue being approached by a group of medical professionals and conducted to the hospital. Particularly in a relatively small city like São Sebastião, this could generate negative gossip.
Concerns and reflections
At the beginning of March, there were no COVID-19 cases reported by the municipality. Later, the number of cases started to appear, until they raised to 165 in May, but with a low number of deaths, which is two.[xxiii] The municipality has been announcing that they are doing the so-called ‘quick tests’ in waves. According to the information posted on their social media page, every fifteen days they interview and check on 600 people. Also, they are testing essential services’ workers, such as those working in the municipality, police officers, and health care professionals.
As previously mentioned, São Sebastião is one of the few cities in the state with a good social isolation rate, according to WHO’s indication – between 60% and 70%.[xxiv] In the state’s capital, the latest information reveals only 49% of residents respecting the measures.[xxv] Although it is unfair to compare a small municipality to one of the world’s greater metropolises, when it comes to the social isolation index, São Sebastião looks even better on the picture. Such index is being monitored through mobile data following people’s dislocation.[xxvi] Through geolocation, it is possible to infer where a person spends the night and assume that such locality is their house. Monitoring how much people move away from their homes reveals the degree of social isolation taking place. It is interesting to note that there were no comments on the mayor’s FB on how this method of measuring could be somehow invading individuals’ privacy.
Finally, addressing the topics of care and surveillance, São Sebastião seems to be actively taking – and advertising – measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Such actions are usually welcomed and praised by the population – at least from what I could investigate online. Thus, regarding care, the local community recognises the municipality’s measures of caring in the current circumstances. However, people also identify situations in which a lack of protection is revealed. The locals tend to associate the vacationists to the virus’ threat. Even though the mayor has been advertising and supposedly taking measures to provide care for the original residents on that end, such actions don’t seem to be, in fact, sufficient. So much, that the population is gathering to take action in their own defence.
On the surveillance side, people don’t seem to worry about possible issues that might come out of how care is being practised. A potential ‘invasion’ of people’s privacy through drones or mobile phone geolocation is not being debated publicly. Thus, while care measures appear as vital for São Sebatião’s residents at this moment, the threat of surveillance doesn’t seem to be part of their concerns.
[i] ‘São Paulo’ is both the name of the state and its capital city. São Sebastião is a municipality in the state of São Paulo, to where many people from São Paulo city go during weekends and holidays.
[iii] The average in São Sebastião is of three times the minimal national income. Currently the minimal income is rated at R$ 1045 per month, which is approximately € 167 per month. Source: IBGE – https://cidades.ibge.gov.br/brasil/sp/sao-sebastiao/panorama
[vii] The distance between São Paulo and São Sebastião is of approximatelly 200km.
[ix] Sources: https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/cotidiano/2020/04/turistas-ignoram-decretos-municipais-e-estadual-e-vao-as-praias-paulistas.shtml; https://agora.folha.uol.com.br/sao-paulo/2020/04/cidades-do-litoral-paulista-vao-barrar-a-entrada-de-turistas-no-feriado-de-pascoa.shtml
[xi] The mayor has been posting, on average, three times per day since mid-March.
[xii] Free translation from Portuguese to English.
[xiii] I cannot know for sure if the FB page’s admin is deleting posts with negative comments, or more severe criticism. The observations I bring in this report refer to the posts that were accessible, and do not follow strict metrics.
[xxiii] The numbers might be under-reported, as there is plenty of evidence of sub-notification all over the country.