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from Canudos to covid-19: necropolitics and health policies in brazil

July 24, 2020


by Sébastien Rozeaux, Professor in history at the Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès (FRAMESPA).



The catastrophic handling of the health crisis under Jair Bolsonaro's current presidency is, other than the person himself, an indicator of structural social-economic inequalities that started a long time ago.


How can this paradox be understood, the SARS-CoV-2 virus which was introduced, in Ecuador and Chile as well, by members of the middle upper class society - those who can afford the luxury of transatlantic airline trips - but whose victims belong for the most part to the most modest populations, among which are the indigenous peoples and the residents of favelas?


This article proposes then to see how to understand today's tragedy in light of certain aspects of Brazil's long history, by using here the concept of necropolitics. By necropolitics, a concept we owe to Achille Mbembé, a major theorist in postcolonial thinking, one must understand the capacity of a given authority to impose (in a discriminatory fashion) the right to live or die on members of a given political community[1].

Rocinha, Rio's biggest favela, in 2014 (Wikipedia)
Rocinha, Rio's biggest favela, in 2014 (Wikipedia)

The first official victim of Covid-19 in the State of Rio de Janeiro was Cleonice Gonçalves, 63 years old, died on March 17 at Miguel Pereira, in the suburbs of Rio. "Dona Cleo" was a maid and her boss, infected after a recent trip to Italy, had demanded that she continue working in the apartment located in the "exclusive" neighborhood of Haut Leblon, close to the famous Ipanema beaches, where she had been working for twenty years as "diarista", a per day maid, a precarious status. When the first symptoms of the disease appeared, Dona Cleo was finally authorized to go home: her family paid for the taxi, but it was already too late. Diabetic and extremely weak, she died at the hospital the next day.


Domestic work, one of the heritages left over after four centuries of slavery, is consubstantial of the Brazilian society and its inequalities: it involves six million workers, poor and of mixed race, for many undeclared and so without rights. For their employers, their "bosses", it is an identity indicator of middle and upper classes that cannot imagine living without domestics, even if many had to give up hiring them at home, on a permanent basis[2]. While the pandemic fell on the town, the Belém mayor thought it necessary to declare the profession essential, and so exempt from the lockdown regulations - having to do without their domestics seemed so impossible for many families. It is estimated that one third of the bosses refused to free their help during the lockdown.

Canudos: "400 jagunços prisoners", photo taken on September 1, 1897 by Flavio de Barros (Museum of the Republic, Brazil)
Canudos: "400 jagunços prisoners", photo taken on September 1, 1897 by Flavio de Barros (Museum of the Republic, Brazil)

At Rio de Janeiro, as in all the large cities of the country, main epicenters of the pandemic, most domestics live in favelas, these slums put in place on land occupied illegally on the outskirts of large cities or in more central interstitial areas - the Rio case being unique here, since the most famous favelas occupy hills that border and overlook affluent neighborhoods, especially in the posh southern area. Digressing into the etymology and origin of the word will provide interesting insights on the health policies of Brazil since the advent of the Republic, in 1889.


In botany, a favela or faveleira is a thorny bush with white flowers that can be found in the caatinga, this vegetation characteristic of the semi-arid sertão, in the Brazilian Northeast. Before giving its name to Rio's slums and, by extension, to the lower classes of the country, the favela designated the hill that overlooked the Vaza-Barris valley, the place where the republican armies had set up camp when conquering the rebel citadelle of Canudos in which a sort of political, social and ecological community had established itself, breaking away from the values of the positivist and secular republic. In 1897 and after four expeditions, the armies decimated the sertanejos who had gathered there. The war ended with a terrible human count, sacrificing the lives of thousands of farmers and soldiers to save the republic from a supposed counter-revolutionary threat[3].


Upon returning to Rio, the demobilized soliders and their loved ones settled on the Morro da providência, soon renamed Morro da favela, in memory of the war: simultaneously with the rapid expansion of informal housing on this hill in the center of town, negative representations of its residents circulated publicly, for the most part mixed race or black[4]. Little by little, all the informal neighborhoods were designated by that name and the rise of favelas in the large Brazilian cities was accompagnied throughout the 20th century with a stigmatized narrative, especially condemning the insecurity and unhealthy conditions. And it is in the name of a hygienest policy that some of these informal neighborhoods were victims of Haussman-like urban policies in the name of order and progress. The 1922 razing, for the independence day centennial festivities, the Morro do castelo, in downtown Rio, symbolizes this[5].


Though favelas have recently been privy to social and urban inclusion policies, especially under the presidencies of Lula and Dilma, they remain areas where the value of life is lower and this is what the current health crisis is again showing. Their destruction is no longer necessarily true today, but the handling of the health crisis by the current government shows that there is little concern for the life of the favelados. So, to the extortions of criminal gangs, to daily assassinations committed by the military police - whose homicide rate beat records for the past few months - are now added to the government's abandonment, leaving favela populations to handle the virus alone, or almost. For president Bolsonaro and a few industrial captains prefer to look elsewhere: the economic crisis is of greater emergency in their opinion, while Covid-19 was minimized for a long time, and that the list of the dead (79 533 on 07/20/20) continues to rise, without any real respite or decrease in the spread at this time.


From Canudos to Covid-19, the "Brazilian style" necropolitics continues to wreak havoc among the mixed race, faveladas and indigenous populations, in the name of Order (social) and Progress (economic), an intangible motto of the Republic since 1889.

[1] "The current president presents himself as a representative of the ‘casa grande’, a soldier of necropolitics against indigenous peoples, Blacks, quilombolas, poor and starving populations", Eduardo Mei, "La nécropolitique brésilienne et son origine dans la guerre de colonisation", June 18, 2020.  

[2] Camila Giorgetti, "Comment les catégories supérieures de São Paulo parlent-elles de leurs employées domestiques ? Analyse d’un rapport de classe", Brésil(s) [On line], 8 | 2015, published on line on December 1, 2015, reviewed on July 07, 2020. Dominique Vidal, Les bonnes de Rio. Emploi domestique et société démocratique au Brésil, Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2007.

[3] Euclides da Cunha, Hautes Terres (La guerre de Canudos), Paris, Métailié, 1993 (Os Sertões, 1902) ; Marco Antônio Villa, Canudos : o povo da terra, São Paulo,: Atica, 1997.

[4] Mattos, Romulo Costa, Pelos Pobres ! As campanhas pela construção de habitações populares e o discurso sobre as favelas na primeira República, Thèse d’histoire, Universidade federal fluminense, 2008.

[5] Menez, Alexsandro R., « Civilização versus barbárie : a destruição do Morro do Castelo no Rio de Janeiro (1905-1922), Revista Historiador, n°6, 2014, p. 69-81.

Sébastien Rozeaux is a Professor in history at the Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès (FRAMESPA).