I´m sitting on my balcony here in Vitoria, capital of the beautiful Brazilian state of Espirito Santo, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Blue skies, beautiful people, and a temperature that is always warm but never hot. Below me, I´m looking out on the typical hustle and bustle of city life. Restaurant terraces are packed, and a young man is dancing with a young woman who is certainly not in his social bubble, all to the music of a live samba band.
This joyful daily life is now an act of rebellion. Our Governor just made another stern pronouncement on the news admonishing people to follow the rules of distanciamento social and threatening to impose harsher restrictions. As a Canadian who has lived here for three years now, sometimes I think I´m the only one who follows the news. Everyone else just goes on living.
Despite being in the epicentre of what the Western media breathlessly calls one of the world´s worst coronavirus outbreaks, most people here are going about their life. They called a lockdown and nobody came.
An earlier bike ride along the beach found the sand packed with scantily clad men and women playing football and volleyball. Despite a recent law proclaiming masks to be worn in all public places, I observed the take up being probably less than 20%. My Brazilian wife, unfortunately, is a bit of a rules enthusiast and she insisted we wear masks for our ride in a display of good citizenship.
A few minutes in, she complained she was getting a mask tan, and so took it off, never to be seen again. I can´t help but think this act sums up how lockdown went for the whole country.
The first few weeks of the lockdown went as scripted. The city became deserted, as if the vírus was an invisible poison gas that floated through the air. The doom-laden voice of the Governor pronounced that all businesses would be shut and everyone should stay home and not leave unless absolutely necessary. A truck with a speaker on the back circulated while playing menacing piano music over a recording about the dangers of the CO-RONA-VEERUS and how everyone should hide under their beds.
Two months later, things changed. The world´s most sociable culture didn’t take well to being isolated. Hand to mouth workers weren’t going to wait and see if they would starve to death before being allowed to work again. Most people, even if they posted differently on Instagram, decided the lockdown was over.
The media, of course, laid this all at the feet of Brazil´s right wing president, as if he had unleashed the vírus on his own people by calling local antisocial distancing mandates “dictatorial” and opining that they would result in more deaths than the vírus itself (he was, it turned out, probably right). But I think most Brazilians started getting on with their lives of their own accord.
The truth is that many Brazilians live hard lives and don´t want to be told by some politician that they now had to quake in their boots at home, unable to see their loved ones, have a beer with their friends, have casual sex, or do any of the things that makes Brazil great or life worth living.
Of course, Brazil paid for this.The death count recently passed 100,000, although they are mainly sickly senior citizens who would have died of something else in the next year anyway. Regardless, the country is now held up as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong if you don´t lock down.
However, despite the models of “Professor Lockdown” which indicate that the death toll should be in the millions by now, neither my wife or I know anyone who has tested positive, let alone died. Six months in, and there is a conspicuous lack of rotting corpses strewn over Ipanema. Going against the predictions of the crybaby Minister of Health (since fired) that Brazil´s medical system would collapse by April, hospital beds were never more than 80% occupied in major capitals. Of course, now the “flatten the curve” experts say that hospital bed use is not a useful metric, despite at first urging social distancing to… preserve hospital beds.
If you look at the seemingly large casualty count, Brazil´s per capita death toll, in a population of 207 odd million, is lower than Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, the UK, Sweden, and the United States. Of course, the experts now say that deaths per capita isn´t an accurate metric, and it is in no way illogical to directly compare massive Brazil to tiny New Zealand.
Oh, if only St. Jacinda was here!
Brazilians are canny people. They realized that there was no way for the underfunded and incompetent police to enforce any restrictions. I´ve been treated nightly to scenes on TV of illegally open bars in Rio de Janeiro, where crowds of soused revellers packed in shoulder-to-shoulder to sing “eu não vou embora!” or “We aren’t going away” to slackjawed teams of municipal guards (traffic cops) trying to shut them down. A local lawyer became somewhat of a hero for publicly ripping up a ticket given to him for not wearing a mask.
The lockdown-breaking locals started to find allies among politicians who understood that the mass poverty inflicted on Brazil´s hard won middle class and desperate poor by lockdowns would be devastating… for them at the polls. Most large cities decided to re-open pretty much everything, from shopping malls to tourist sites, despite rising case counts, to the shock and horror of bedwetters world wide. The logic of the politicians? That the medical system had proven it could cope, therefore people should start getting back to work. Heresy!
Nobody talks about second waves outside of surfing contexts. For beleaguered Brazilians, coronavirus is just another endemic circulating disease they will have to live with, just like dengue, zika, yellow fever, and so on. Also, as I am told by my neighbours, hiding won´t build herd immunity.
They may have a point. Despite high national case numbers, Brazilian cities that were struck hard early on have now seen new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths fall off a cliff around the 20% infected mark, just like clockwork. Of course, we all know that herd immunity cannot be reached and would result in hundreds of thousands of deaths and untold suffering blah blah blah. So what explains these drops? Will we hear the English language media discussing this? Will pigs fly?
With the numbers now falling in my state as well, I shake my head daily at the bizarro world pronouncements of the state Governor proclaiming that beaches and hiking trails, to which people have been flocking for months, are now open. Restaurants are now allowed to operate until 6pm, despite the swanky spot down the block having been open until 2am every night since the beginning of the pandemic, pumping loud music. I suspect bribery.
The death count keeps rising by thousands every day, but optimism abounds. The private sector recently announced the construction of a new factory that will produce 30 million doses of the Oxford vaccine every month. An ambitious goal, which the media immediately said was impossible. The Chinese vaccine will also be produced, but nobody wants to take it.
Meanwhile, folks in Canada gleefully participate in using social media to shame those who gather in large groups, dance, drink, or sing, while reminding everyone about how the new normal involves great personal sacrifice to slow the relentless spread of this deadly new virus with a 99.7% survivability rate. The only acceptable level of flatness for the curve is zero cases forever, otherwise complete disaster. And it’s all going to be your fault!
I´m going to stay here, thanks. I got the beach, I got the sun, I got my friends, and, as long as I stay away from the media, I´m surrounded by positive, hopeful people. Heck, last week the borders opened for international tourism, no negative test required, no quarantine. Over 60s just need to, wisely, carry health insurance. Seeing as both my wife and I are under 80 and not obese, we have little to fear.
For Brazilians, death is a part of life. Fatalities could be 100,000, they could be 200,000, they could be 2 million. No amount is going to stop them from living, consequences be damned.