“They agreed to kill us, we agreed not to die”: Acts of love and resistance to confront Covid-19 by members of Afro-Brazilian religions

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“They agreed to kill us, we agreed not to die”: Acts of love and resistance to confront Covid-19 by members of Afro-Brazilian religions

Author: Daniela Calvo, Ph.D. in Social Sciences at the Programa de Pós-Graduação em Ciências Sociais of the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (PPCIS/UERJ), member of NUER (Núcleo de Estudo de Religiões of UERJ), Master in Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology at the Università degli Studi di Torino. You can contact Daniela by email at: dnlclv7@gmail.com.

Fieldsite: Brazil

Community care versus State necropolitics

At the beginning of the pandemic, Covid-19 appeared as a “democratic virus”, as it attacks and kills regardless of socioeconomic status and age, and everybody has the power to kill, get infected and infect others.

However, other factors, such as age, access to medical treatment and socioeconomic conditions, discriminate in terms of who is more likely to become infected, manifest severe symptoms and die.

In Brazil, the first confirmed cases of Covid-19 were among people whose economic condition permitted travel to Europe, where they contracted the virus. However, the first confirmed death, in Rio de Janeiro and Miguel Pereira (and one of the first in Brazil), on March 17, 2020, was that of a maid who lived in a humble neighbourhood of Miguel Pereira and worked in Rio de Janeiro. The woman for whom she worked, back from vacation in Italy, did not inform her of the possibility of having contracted the virus (and, later, she also tested positive). The family members of the maid stated that, without information about her exposure to Covid-19, the hospital could not act in time.

This case is exemplary of many of the events that followed the diffusion of Covid-19 in Brazil.

While a privileged portion of the population can allow telework; transportation by private car; and, in case of contagion by Covid-19, a bed in a private clinic or, in some cases, even a private flight to be served in the best hospitals in the country, “the scarcity of opportunities compels millions of people daily, in the search for survival, to go out to meet with the transmitters of Covid-19. And, on the way home, on crowded buses and subways, they contaminate the large portion of the population that never quit their exhaustive daily lives. When they get home, the spread in the most precarious housing, especially in the favelas, has enormous propagating potential” (as Daniel Höfling states in a report on the Free Journalists network). And, eventually, they have no access to basic hygiene conditions because of the lack of water in some favelas, which aggravates housing conditions, that are often already precarious. When sick, they compete for beds in the crowded hospitals of the Public Health System, already in disarray because of funding cuts.

As Höfling notes, the crisis generated by Covid-19 reinforced the slavery system that perpetuated the model of Casa-Grande and Senzala in terms of the relationship between a privileged contingent and a large number of workers, who are accused of being propagators of the virus, as well as being driven to work in conditions of total insecurity for their health, while denying social inequality and difference of resources (protection and treatment) to face Covid-19.

Some people (mainly from the affluent classes) participate in motorcades and blow horns to protest against the social isolation measures advised by the World Health Organization (WHO) and defended by the former Minister of Health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta (dismissed by President Bolsonaro), the governors of several states and the mayors of many cities.

The attitude of President Bolsonaro and most of his supporters  has alternated among the denial of the pandemic or its gravity; accusations of conspiracy (against China, the press, communism), or divine punishment for the parade of the Mangueira Samba School (which represented the return of Jesus in a world of intolerance, racism and violence), and a simplification of the situation through the choice between economy and life.

Commenting on the speech of businessman Guilherme Benchimol—who lamented the difficulty of overcoming the Covid-19 epidemic in Brazil because of the presence of many communities and favelas, suggesting that the peak would have already passed through the middle and upper middle classes—psychologist Christian Dunker, in an interview with El País, noted that this group of denialists feel safe in their condominiums, where they raise barriers in front of the workers whose services they enjoy. He says that “these workers have never ceased to be invisible, like street dwellers, pedestrians, informal and precarious workers. They are forms of life that are not part of the ‘others’. But, in the context of the pandemic, they are also elements that transmit the virus.”

The necropolitics of the State, allied with capitalist power, unequally distributes the possibility of living and dying, confirmed by protocols for choosing who to treat in case of limited hospital capacity, favouring the younger and letting the elderly die.

An article in the newspaper Estadão on May 4 reports that the risk of blacks dying from Covid-19 in the city of São Paulo is 62% higher than that of whites.

Groups at the margins of the State, such as residents of the favelas, indigenous peoples, gypsies and communities of Afro-Brazilian religions recognized such necropolitics along with their own vulnerability to Covid-19, and confronted them with important community actions, in which they used different strategies to take care of themselves, their family and their community.

For instance, many favelas organized in order to face the crisis with community initiatives that satisfied the different needs of the population during the crisis (food, masks, financial help for unemployed people, structures for people who needed to isolate, monitoring of the needs of the population). Exemplary is the case of Paraisópolis, the largest favela in São Paulo, that even hired private ambulances with doctors and nurses.

Gathered via the internet, the indigenous peoples held a National Assembly of Indigenous Resistance, in which they prepared a letter and a committee in order to record the cases of Covid-19 among indigenous peoples; defined a plan, and requested responses from the federal government and public institutions. Furthermore, they denounced their state of abandonment, the lack of appropriate medical assistance, food insecurity and illegal activities on their lands (miners, loggers, and agrobusinessmen, who, together with evangelical missions, also carry the risk of contamination by Covid-19).

The Brazilian Gypsy Institute denounced the hunger, the economic difficulties implied by the social isolation and the precariousness of the camps of gypsy people of Bahia (where the second-largest gypsy community in the country is concentrated, most of them informal merchants without a fixed address), asking for help from the State, while, in the meantime, resorting to raffles of traditional dresses and hunting to sustain themselves.

Members of Afro-Brazilian religions, shortly after the WHO’s declaration of a pandemic, organized themselves through their social networks to denounce the health, social and economic emergency and promote information campaigns and actions in benefit of their communities and the entire population.

Afro-Brazilian religions in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic

During the Covid-19 crisis, the communities of Afro-Brazilian religions confirmed their role as agents of health promotion and assistance to their members and to the social reality in which they are inserted. Adhering to the guidelines of the WHO and health authorities, through their social networks (mainly Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp), leaders of terreiros and networks of Afro-Brazilian religions carried out a broad information campaign on the severity of the pandemic and promoted measures to prevent contagion (such as social isolation, the use of masks and hygiene). Their aim was to reach not only their members but the entire population.

Unable to meet because of the social isolation to which they adhered, they reinforced their messages of support, comfort and affection through social networks, and the leaders performed rituals and prayers to ask the orixás for protection, healing and the expulsion of Covid-19 from the earth, creating virtual connections and inviting everyone to participate through posts, messages and the union of thoughts and intentions.

They expanded their actions and organized new ones for medical, psychological and legal care for their members and the population of the neighbourhoods in which they are inserted (mostly poor neighbourhoods on the peripheries of large cities), and the distribution of food, hygiene products and masks.

Through social networks and their internet sites, newspaper articles and videoconferences, members of Afro-Brazilian religions activated discussions about the education of children and young people (with closed schools and online classes) and about the risk of increased domestic violence during the pandemic; stressed the importance for people of Afro-Brazilian religions who died from Covid-19 to be buried and not cremated, according to their traditional values; disseminated news and denunciations of social differences that led to a greater vulnerability of poor and black people to Covid-19; and called for greater respect for nature.

They continued to denounce religious intolerance and violence against blacks (the case of João Pedro Mattos, 14, killed by the police during an operation in the complexo do Salgueiro, a favela of São Gonçalo-RJ, aroused much criticism and protest); the high lethality of Covid-19 among blacks; and the increase in racial, social and economic inequalities during the pandemic.

Baba Diba de Iyemonja, National Coordinator of RENAFRO Saúde (National Network of Afro-Brazilian Religions and Health) released a video in which he asks everyone to protect themselves, their own families and the entire population through social isolation. In particular, he stressed the importance of protecting the most vulnerable people (elderly, diabetics, hypertensive patients, people with respiratory problems or immune deficiency, etc.), who, in case of contagion, have a higher risk to develop serious symptoms and die.

On the website of FONSANPOTMA (National Forum for Food and Nutritional Security of Traditional Peoples of African Matrix), there is an article specially dedicated to caring of the elderly, who have great value in Afro-Brazilian religions (a trait inherited from African traditions) as transmitters of experience and wisdom. Dr Kota Mulanji, the coordinator of FONSANPOTMA, stressed that “The elders are for us our guardians of knowledge and life. Older people are the real foci of danger in this time of crisis”.

Baba Diba de Iyemonja’s speech highlighted also the vulnerability of blacks (who still make up the majority of communities of Afro-Brazilian religions) to contagion with Covid-19 and encouraged protection as a means of political resistance. He stated that “It is a fact that this virus is not for our people, but we need to take precautions in order not to be infected, given the social vulnerability imposed by the racism that structures our Brazil. Let us not forget that there is a political project of the genocide of black people underway and we cannot strengthen it by omitting ourselves from prevention and exposing ourselves to dangers.”

Another video, also published on the Facebook page of RENAFRO Saúde, (in addition to disseminating the coronavirus prevention campaign) is a political statement of union and resistance. Pai Adailton Moreira of Ogun, from Aṣẹ Omiojuaro in Rio de Janeiro, states that: “They agreed to kill us. We agreed not to die. Orixá is health, prevent against coronavirus”.

The sentence “They agreed to kill us. We agreed not to die”, attributed to the writer Conceição Evaristo, went viral in the networks in the form of quotations, banners and memes, and has been used as a fundamental agreement that black people need to make in order to resist structural violence, including through caring for themselves and studying the ways in which violence is organized and acted.

This sentence represents both a complaint against and a request for unity.

As a complaint, it is expressed in discourses and actions against the different forms of discrimination, exploitation and violence that blacks suffer in Brazilian society and is accompanied by other phrases that carry the same message. In particular, the statement “Black lives matter” and the repetition of an excerpt from the lyrics of Elza Soares’s song—“The cheapest meat on the market is black meat, which goes for free to prison and to plastic bags”—were used to denounce also the risk situation in which black and poor workers were placed by the pandemic and President Bolsonaro’s choice not to enact a state of emergency and lockdown.

As a request for unity, it is manifested in the actions for coping with Covid-19, in the appeals to protect one another, in the “agreement not to die” and in other messages stressing the importance of coming together in order to face the common enemy (Covid-19).

A post shared on the Facebook page of Ilé Òsùmàrè Aràká Àse Ògòdó, known as Casa de Òsùmàrè, in Salvador, highlights the importance of unity to face Covid-19 with a powerful image: “When the herd unites, the lion will lie down hungry” (see below).

Another post that circulated on the social networks of members of Afro-Brazilian religions points out the same message of unity: “Against corona: together we are stronger”.

This unity expresses the African concept of “Umbuntu”, which became part of the ethics and philosophy of life of the different African-derived religious and cultural manifestations in Brazil.

“Umbuntu” is a Bantu word that can be translated as “I am what I am by virtue of what we are” and manifests itself in the form of the circle (roda), in which many African-derived cultural demonstrations are organized: capoeira circles, samba circles, candomblé circles, etc. A circle of African children is the principal image used to represent this concept.

“Umbuntu” expresses the idea of the connection between people and the need to sustain and help each other. The term is used to value the contribution of African and Afro-descendant peoples in the construction of Brazil and to build an ethic based on collaboration, solidarity and the recognition of people’s interrelationship.

“Umbuntu” is the value at the basis of the strategies of the communities of Afro-Brazilian religions to face Covid-19, in which prevention, self-care, responsibility and solidarity are requested in order to protect oneself, the family itself, the community and the entire planet. In fact, Pai Silvanilton Encarnação da Mata of the Casa de Òsùmàrè, in a statement diffused from its Facebook page, defined care required to contain the Covid-19 contagion as “true gestures of love and social responsibility”.