Contributions from Brazil

There are two entries from Brazil on this page – click on the links below to be taken to each one or scroll down to read both:

From hands clean to hands-on: Coronavirus and ideas to support older people in São Paulo

Author: Marília Duque, PhD student at ESPM São Paulo and an Honorary Research Associate at UCL’s Department of Anthropology. Marília is also a member of the Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) Team.

Field site: Sao Paulo, Brazil

Isolated, not alone

In Brazil, 15.3% of people aged 60 years and over live alone. When I conducted my 16-month ethnography among older people in Sao Paulo, I came across many of them. Most are extremely active and engaged in social activities and in the WhatsApp groups I participated. They have many friends, enjoy their freedom and independence. However, there are also a few who are living in a kind of semi-quarantine. The reasons for this are many. Some are widows. Some chose not to have children, some had children, but the children moved abroad. Some self-isolated after retirement. Their social interactions are sometimes restricted to speaking to shop assistants and people at the market, the drugstore, and the bank. There are many nuances among people in those two groups, and I was worried about both when social distancing was imposed by the coronavirus outbreak. How could I help them? The answer came from my fieldsite, where I observed how people like Marta and Bete below, were using WhatsApp to create networks of care.

Marta, aged 54, told me she does volunteering work. Every morning she sends a “good morning” messages to three older ladies who she knows are leaving alone. The WhatsApp messages work as a daily check to ensure the three are doing alright, as well as being a demonstration of affection and bringing joy to them.

Bete, aged 66, experiences a similar routine, but with her daughter, who lives in Spain. Everyday the daughter waits for a message from her mother to arrive before 10 am, when the mother writes to confirm that she slept well and that she is fine. The same procedure is repeated at night. If Bete doesn’t answer the message, her daughter has some friends in Brazil that she can count on who can support her mother if necessary. In addition to this, Bete, who had an aneurysm two years ago, also receives occasional calls from her health insurance provider. During the call, she updates the doctors about the state of her health and receives advice. Despite living alone in São Paulo, far from her daughter and grandson, Bete feels safe and assisted.

I learned a few things from these simple, but successful models of care:

  • They take place on a platform people are already used to (in the Brazilians’ case, this means WhatsApp).
  • They are based on care providers who shift from a reactive to a proactive role (including family, friends, or institutions)
  • They create a daily routine of care
  • They show even simple text messages can make a difference.

Based on that, I created an awareness campaign which replicates those models and provides support to older people living alone during the coronavirus crisis. The campaign is called “Angels on WhatsApp” because “angel” was what some of my informants used to call me when I helped them solve a problem.

Prototyping Wings

The campaign was launched on the 14th of March on my social media channels, but my focus was my WhatsApp groups and people I knew working on the topics of ageing or health. The campaign consisted of an image and a text message with instructions on how to become an Angel for older people living alone during the quarantine.

There is a guardian angel on my WhatsApp. Adopt an older person who lives alone during the coronavirus crisis. All you have to do is to be available on WhatsApp. Acess:

The message describing the campaign that was sent out to my contacts can be read below. Because the message was translated from Brazilian Portuguese, some of the content of the message will relate to Brazilian healthcare infrastructure.


Social distancing can be a great preventive measure against the Coronavirus, especially for the population over 70, which has the highest mortality rate. The feelings of loneliness, abandonment and helplessness that it can bring are an immediately visible downside. But that does not mean that older people have to go through this alone.

The idea of the initiative is simple: you can become a guardian angel on WhatsApp 😇 and help support older people who live alone. The idea can be applied anywhere in the world, but it is important to do as the virus would do, and start with the people you have contact with. So, forget your country, and forget your city. Think small: start with your WhatsApp contacts.


👉 Text him/her in the morning and in the evening. Ask how he/she is, whether he/she slept well, whether he/she has eaten.
👉 Be available to chat.
👉 Be ready to guide him/her on how to seek medical advice. In Brazil, the Ministry of Health developed an app with a questionnaire for screening patients based on symptoms and a map of treatment centres using geolocation. Search for ‘CORONAVIRUS SUS’ in your app store.
👉 You can also keep him/her informed by sending news from reliable sources. The Ministry of Health has prepared a page on the Coronavirus that can be accessed here: The CORONAVÍRUS SUS app also offers reliable news and tips.

👀 PLEASE NOTE: the volunteer cannot make a diagnosis or give any medical recommendations. The volunteer is a bridge for connect older people to reliable information and professional medical assistance.


  1. You can help support older people and make them feel less lonely during their period of self-isolation due to the Coronavirus.
    2. Two heads are better than one: you can both discuss the news about Coronavirus and double-check their reliability and trustworthiness before sending them on to friends.
    3. The SUS application is really good, but one of the biggest difficulties older people (mainly over 70) have is downloading and installing new applications. You can be a bridge between an older person and the information and guidance contained in the SUS application.

My name is Marília, and this idea is based on my PhD research. For 16 months, I observed the use of smartphones among older people in Sao Paulo. If there is an app that they universally use, it is WhatsApp, including using the app to build networks of care and solidarity. Want to know more? Access: (in Portuguese)

The message above went viral, and people I knew started asking me for older people’s WhatsApp numbers. Some of them decided to focus on their neighbours, reproducing the notes that were spreading all over the country[1]. Then, the campaign reached the media, and I ended up getting 150 emails from people interested in becoming an angel. That was how my problems started.

“Hello, neighbours! If you are in a risk group, I am available
to help by going to the drug store or market. You can count on me.”

From Heaven to Hell

On the one hand, I had 150 people wanting to volunteer. On the other, I had hundreds of older people I worked with and some I knew would be alone during the quarantine. So what did I do? Nothing. Firstly, I couldn’t breach the terms of confidentiality of my research. Secondly, because older people are a common target for scammers, I could only intervene directly when three older people wrote to me asking for an angel, when I managed to get close friends of mine who I knew were trustworthy, to take care of them. And what about the rest? I couldn’t take the risk of having a swindler mistaken for an angel, so I started looking for existing platforms that could facilitate this match between people. I found two.

The first one is the startup “Mais Vivida”, which connects young people who get paid to help older people with their shopping or computer skills, for example. Mais Vivida created a free service for the coronavirus crisis which puts volunteers and older people in touch for free, but their service has a problem. To ask for help, older people need to fill in a six step form on Google Forms. I tried to use Google Forms to create a survey for my research participants before. It didn’t work well, especially for those older than 75.

Screenshot from Google Forms used by Mais Vivida.

I continued searching and I found “Os vizinhos do Bem” (The Good Neighbours), a platform developed for the quarantine which matches those who can offer help to those who need help. In this case, the first question the website asks is why you are seeking help and there, the user has the option to inform the service that he or she is 60 or older. The questionnaire is simpler, with only 11 fields, but it could be still a challenge to complete for older people.

For now, I keep giving guidance to volunteers to check their WhatsApp contacts, to ask friends, and to pay attention to their neighbours and I am also encouraging them to engage with one of those platforms. In the perfect scenario, older people wouldn’t have to leave WhatsApp or install any other app to inform others that they want help. After teaching three semesters on a WhatsApp course, it was clear the platform is where they become connected, where they feel comfortable and confident. So I am still waiting to find an alternative which considers this ‘smartness from below’, but this won’t stop angels being angels. I keep receiving feedback from people and it confirms what one woman aged 66 once told me: “In volunteering, you think you are giving something, but you are the one who is always winning.”

Below, you can read the testimonials of some of the Angels who have taken part in the initiatives, where they reflect on their positive experience.

“When I discovered that an action as simple as sending messages, calling or video chatting with older people could make such a difference, I was overjoyed. I adopted three lovely “aunts” with whom I started to speak every day. Today, one got emotional and thanked me saying that before that, she only had her dog to talk to. Then I was the one who got emotional”. – E. S. Forbes


“At first, I thought that she did not need help, as she was very attentive and has children living in the same city. As the conversations went on, I came to that old truth – we all need it. We always learn that we can help others and that would fulfilment and calm the soul. We also learn that there is always something new to be learnt. Taking care of an “older lady”, even if virtually, also helped me to manage the absence of my own parents who are not here anymore. In the scariest moments, like the ones we are living in now, I think about them and what they would say to me. So now, I listen to my older lady. All of this also gave me that really made me want to help more, to send messages to those uncles we never speak to and to the neighbours in the building”.  – S.Prevideli


Sweets, flowers, prayers: gestures of affection and gift exchange in the pandemic

Author: Marina Frid, a postdoctoral researcher in Communication and Culture at UFRJ, Brazil. You can contact her at

Fieldsite: I am staying in touch with a group of 18 informants who live and work in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and are quarantining in different parts of the city and the surrounding metropolitan area. From my home in Rio, I am interviewing them over the phone, Skype and WhatsApp video calls.

Choosing your quarantine home

Messaging, videoconferencing and delivery apps, as other online resources, became central for staying in touch with workmates, friends, family and dates during the so-called “social isolation” period in Rio. Still, non-digital solutions were also very much a part of people’s strategies for finding comfort and affection in the midst of the pandemic.

For instance, two of my informants who are single and live alone decided to go back to their parents’ home. Gabriela described her choice as “convenient”. In 2019, she had moved out of her parents’ place in the neighbourhood of Recreio to her own apartment in the South Zone, about 40 km away, which she bought and renovated. During the pandemic, she has been going to the supermarket for her parents. Her mother knows the layout of her preferred store by heart and gives very specific instructions of the aisles in which Gabriela can find every product they need.

Gabriela, however, admits that shopping for her parents was not exactly the reason she moved back in with them temporarily. The help they offer her is, perhaps, the most important aspect. The pandemic turned into a financial crisis at her work. Clients started rescinding contracts as soon as social isolation measures went in effect. Her company had to completely redesign its products to readjust to crowd-control restrictions and try to avoid further cancellations. This means that Gabriela was suddenly overwhelmed with extra work. Hence, her parents have been helping her “a lot” by relieving her from the burden of some house chores like cooking, doing laundry and cleaning. Plus, Gabriela’s mother also acted as her “assistant”, helping her check some spreadsheets from her work.

During our conversations, I asked Gabriela about dating during the pandemic. In the first three weeks of social isolation, she was not in the mood of staying in touch online with casual dates and dismissed the idea. By the tenth week, she had listened to her therapist’s encouraging words and reactivated her Tinder account, though still intending to wait a little longer before trying to meet someone new.

Alex had moved to a rented apartment in downtown Rio not very long before the pandemic. As soon as “social isolation” began, however, he chose to stay at his parent’s home in the nearby city of Duque de Caxias. On the one hand, he had not installed certain things in his place yet, like cable internet. On the other, it would be easier to help his parents and go to the supermarket for them if he were there. Most importantly, Alex did not want to be in “social isolation” alone – “I know myself, I’d get bored”. To him, having the company of his family during this period of pandemic helped him keep his mind “sane”:

“I’m working from home. I’m giving personal training sessions from home. I’m studying. That and being with my family is crucial so this period of isolation will be no more than a phase, not a big sacrifice, like for some people I know, who live alone, who are really alone, who couldn’t go back to their family’s home. They’re kind of “freaking out” or about to. So, I think it was fundamental to be back here to have that interaction with my family.”

Choosing where to quarantine proved to be a critical decision for some couples as well. An acquaintance of mine moved in with his fiancée and in-laws to avoid going back and forth from his place to hers. My informant Joana, on the other hand, gave up on the idea of staying at her fiancée’s place and decided to stay at her own place to help her sister take care of their mother, who is in the risk group. Since Joana and her fiancée live in neighbourhoods that are quite distant from each other (about 50 km apart) and do not have a car, they had to keep a distance relationship during the pandemic. They text each other and do video calls over WhatsApp multiple times a day.

Though she is 19 years old, Carol considers herself and her single friends “old-fashioned”. They prefer not to look for dates online, and they are not worrying about that during social isolation – “We’re cool”. She knows that some of her acquaintances from college are going out on actual dates with people they meet on social media despite health recommendations. Also, her friends who have steady boyfriends never stopped visiting them at their homes, or vice-versa, because of the pandemic.

Celebrating birthdays and holidays

Carol and her friends organised a distance surprise birthday party for one of the girls of their group. First, they had a basket filled with the birthday girl’s favourite foods and flowers delivered to her mother. Then, at midnight, they all met on Zoom and the birthday girl received her basket live during their virtual gathering.

Pedro’s father also had a surprise birthday event, though not online. His friends drove by his house with their cars ornamented with balloons and singing happy birthday. Pedro did not exactly describe that episode in the social isolation period as a good moment. On the one hand, the friends did cheer his father up with that affectionate manifestation. On the other, Pedro lamented that his dad could not have a proper 60-year-old birthday party.

Easter is an important holiday in Brazil as a religious celebration and an opportunity for family reunions. Most of my informants tried to maintain something of the ritual, like cooking a fish dish or giving sweets, even if they could not gather with their relatives. The exchange of chocolates, especially chocolate Easter eggs, is an important part of the experience of that holiday in Brazil. So, many informants reported they bought chocolate for themselves or found ways to give out Easter eggs or other sweets to their loved ones.

Some of them, especially those who live fairly near their relatives, walked or drove to deliver chocolates to their parents, in-laws, grandparents, godchildren, etc. Differently, Ana ordered Easter eggs for her parents and sister on the internet. To avoid confusion, she warned them they would have chocolates delivered to them in the following days. That warning inspired her parents – with the help of her sister – to buy chocolates online for Ana, her husband and children as well. By Easter Sunday, Ana had received her parent’s gifts. However, her chocolate order had not reached her parents yet. Ten days after Easter, the chocolate shop had not delivered her order nor given any explanation about the delay.

In this “weird” Easter, Gabriela decided to do something special for members of her work team. She ordered gourmet brigadeiros (a typical Brazilian sweet that looks like a round fudge) in different speciality shops and had them delivered in their homes. None of them lives in Rio, so Gabriela had to search the internet for brigadeiro shops in their respective cities and near their addresses. In some cases, she used iFood, a food delivery app.

Figure 1 – Gabriela sent gourmet brigadeiros to her staff on Easter.

Mother’s Day is another important family celebration that happened during social isolation. There were no big family gatherings, but most of my informants managed to gift their mums by hiring online services or doing the delivery themselves. Elis made and delivered breakfast baskets to her mother and mother-in-law. Pedro and his wife ordered gifts to their mothers via WhatsApp and Instagram.

Figure 2 – Ana’s mother and her with their respective sunflowers on Mother’s Day.

Ana and her mother gave each other sunflowers. On that occasion, delivery on both ends was successful. The family met for lunch on Zoom, like they did on Easter Sunday: Ana, her husband and children joined the online meeting from their home, while Ana’s parents and sister connected from theirs.

Friendship gestures

Spontaneous gestures of affection and solidarity helped attenuate stressful experiences during the pandemic. For instance, Ana has a lot of trouble dealing with her parents’ and sister’s issues from a distance. Her father is supposed to be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 given his age, history of cancer and diabetes, but he insisted on going out every day throughout the entire social isolation period. His behaviour strains his relationship with Ana’s mother and sister and causes a great deal of concern for the whole family. The three of them constantly call Ana to complain. She tries to talk her father into staying home and following health recommendations but has little success. Once, Ana was so upset and worried about her dad that she had to vent to a friend of hers during an online work meeting. The next day, the friend, who lives in South Africa, sent Ana flowers to make her feel better. The kind gesture worked: Ana showed me the bouquet she had just received with a big smile.

Figure 3 – Ana received flowers at her home in Rio from a friend that lives in South Africa.

Perhaps one of the most dreaded moments in the pandemic is getting news that friends or relatives were hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms. I for one felt tremendously anxious when learning that a friend of mine, José, had been admitted in a hospital and isolated in the wing for coronavirus patients. To restrict messages and phone calls to José’s wife, who was quite distressed and prevented from staying in the hospital with him, a close friend of the family organized a WhatsApp group to share the daily medical bulletins about José with the invited participants. The WhatsApp group grew to over one hundred members, many of which did not know each other, including relatives, friends, current and former coworkers. Nothing was posted in the group that did not concern José’s health. Participants agreed to pray together every day at 18 hours. Hence, around that time, many of them posted textual or visual messages related to their prayers and according to their respective religious beliefs – Catholicism, Candomblé, Spiritism, among others. Those not connected to a specific religion also shared positive thinking messages. Thankfully, after weeks of apprehension and prayers, we received the happy news that José was discharged from the hospital. The WhatsApp group has since been ended.

* I have changed the names of all informants to protect their privacy.