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pandemic and "make die" in brazilian metropolises

October 5, 2020


by César Simoni Santos, Professor at the Department of Geography of the Universidade de São Paulo (USP), Laboratório de Geografia Urbana (Labur) and member of the group Urban Theories Studies of the Institute for Advanced Studies (IEA-USP). 



Faced with the continued spread of Covid-19 cases in Brazil, we can observe new configurations of three technologies of power, to use a term from Foucault's glossary, resulting in the destruction of the poorest. In Society Must Be Defended (1997), Foucault distinguishes between sovereign power, which makes die and lets live, and biopower, that makes live and lets die. But Foucault does not stipulate that there is an irreversable division between the technology of sovereign power and those that followed, and Brazil's urban reality today is perhaps one of the best observatories of how the "make die" combines with the artifices of biopower in what Achille Mbembe calls "necropolitics".

São Paulo 12/04/19. Residents of Paraisópolis protest in front of the Public Security Secretariat asking for justice for the 9 young people who were trampled to death during a funk dance after the PM action last Sunday. (Photo Elineudo Meira).
São Paulo 12/04/19. Residents of Paraisópolis protest in front of the Public Security Secretariat asking for justice for the 9 young people who were trampled to death during a funk dance after the PM action last Sunday. (Photo Elineudo Meira).

At the start of the period when health mesures meant to contain the spread of the coronavirus were increased, some data may have surprised those who believe in obvious correlations. The smaller amount of people in the streets (though it was higher than hoped for or desired) and the respect of public measures (which seemed to unite all areas of government around the goal of reducing the pressure on the medical system) could (should?) have logically led to a decrease in the number of deaths tied to police interventions. That was not the case. On the contrary, during the first two months of the pandemic there was a 26% increase in deaths in that category in comparison to the same period the year before. This increase was even higher in April, precisely during the month which saw the best results in terms of crowds in public places and compliance with lockdown measures (see box 1): over 50%. According to an article in the newspaper O Globo (06/28/20): "the huge number of police-related deaths in April has meant that the first four months of 2020 have surpassed the same period of last year whereas until March the data showed a downwards tendency". São Paulo is not an isolated case. In August 2020, the number of deaths tied to police intervention exceeded its historic record. In the State of Amazonas, most hit by the pandemic, the increase was 425%. The State of Rio de Janeiro provides proof in reverse: after the Supreme Federal Court made the decision to forbid police intervention in the favelas and communities, effective June 5th, the number of police-related deaths decreased from 153 to 34, and from 195 to 50 when comparing July 2019 to July 2020. In total, 264 less deaths, a 76% decrease from last year.

Police intervention related deaths in São Paulo during the pandemic corresponding to a consistent model. Note the strong presence in the areas of Cidade Tiradentes, Guaianazes, Sapobemba, Itaim Paulista e Vila Jacuí, na Zona Leste, e no Grajaú e Capão Redondo, in the Southern part. The cases are concentrated in the peripheral areas planned for consolidation, but also in the growing peripheries on the edge of urban work.

Though the evolution of the numbers seems surprising, the general profil of the occurences is still the exact same model as before. Most deaths are Black people, and they occur in the same peripheral areas where they were expected. Until July 2020, 62% of homicide victims in São Paulo were Black, a percentage that was at 53.3% in 2016 and 57.2% in 2019 (data from SSP-SP). In deaths involving intervention from police officiers, the percentage of Black people was 65% during the lockdown (March to August), reaching 72.72% and 87.5% in March and June respectively. Although there is always a margin of error because of the limits in skin color classifications in these categories, this recurrence, which combines racisme and peripheral living, puts the stigmatization at stake (WACQUANT, 2007) as a "rampant form of mass criminalization" which breaks legal norms that are already fragile (Graham, 2011, p. 94).


A second technology of power, sustained by the wide spread of neoliberal principles, consists in calling for programmed shortfalls from the government in managing the daily number of deaths in the peripheries. As Graham says, "the neoliberal climate is such that not resolving the problems of poor districts and populations has become an acceptable urban policy." (2011, p. 95). But here, far from being an absence of government (Jessop, 2002), we are faced with a contemporary government's way of being (Peck, 2010): the government's way of being in the margins (Das & Poole, 2008).

End of training for cadets of the São Paulo police (source Wikicommons)
End of training for cadets of the São Paulo police (source Wikicommons)

This way of operating can be explained by thinking about at least two different plans of action from the government. In one, centralizing capital, as an alternative to the limits of the accumulation process, is conceded as the base of government policy, and it uses public policies as its instrument. In the other, it is the techniques of "governing the poor" that are improved and imply pillaging and destruction of social services and the infrastructure that supports the increasing demographic mass, resulting in a relative overpopulation. What is found here is the issue of privatization and reallocation of resources, bringing to mind what David Harvey (2003) calls "the accumulation by dispossession". The neoliberal program (PECK, 2010) works based on social and geographical compartmentalization. Therefore, a strategy of fragmented reproduction of urban space allows for an offensive against a geographically circumscribed contingent which is deemed dispensable.


We can see that during the pandemic, putting this technology of power into practice worked really well. By observing the impressive growth of Covid-19 deaths in São Paulo's peripheries, we can see the social division working through space fragmentation (Simoni, 2020). In some of São Paulo's suburban hospitals, the rate of coronavirus deaths is over 90%, a rate that is far superior to the average of 27.4% from reference public hospitals (Folha de São Paulo, 08/03/2020). In neoliberal terms, the "make die" seems therefore to be a simple "let die". But when it becomes an active element of the government's policy, this "make die" seems to be what it is, a new avatar of the old sovereign right to put to death.


Thirdly, the deterioration of the material living conditions that go with the loss of rights, the absence of a minimum of physical and economic security and the annihilation of stable social relationships (in which the codes are at least partially decipherable and the course of actions relatively predictable) is a strategy that helps block the emergence of alternative forms of organization. In war conditions, "frightening lethal capabilities can be created simply by sabotaging the everyday use of common infrastructures" (Graham, 2011; p. 265). In Brazil as in other Latin American countries, water being shut off, black-outs and interruptions in communications are common occurrences for a large part of the population, and the direct attacks meant to destabilize the poorest populations take shape in the evictions followed by the destruction of dwellings. Data from the eviction observatory Labcidade shows that, despite recommendations of the National Justice Council (CNJ), the number of expulsions in the metropolitan region of São Paulo has doubled between April and June compared to the first trimester , reaching at least 1300 families during the period when the rate of infection of the virus had reached its peak (2.81 p, 04/26).


If in the countries of the global North "the Nation-States are pulling away from a role of protector of a community of citizens" by "separating 'at risk' and malignant people or traffic from those considered healthy or worthy of protection" (Graham, 2011, p. 89), in countries like Brazil, putting measures in palce such as this one in the public security domain leads to abandoning the horizon that was being built through the fight for access to rights. The social-spatial segregation, when it becomes one of the key elements of governance, also explains why "the notions of law, rights, citizenship and public space find themselves devoid of their essential potential" (Telles, 2007, p. 201).


The periphery, a place of struggle and utopia, is then transformed into a space of terror and death.


  • DAS, V. and POOLE, D. (2008) “El Estado y sus márgenes: etnografías comparadas”. Revista Académica de Relaciones Internacionales, n. 8, Junho. GERI-UAM. ISSN 1699-3950.
  • FOUCAULT, M. (1997) Il faut défendre la société. Paris: Gallimard; Seuil.
  • GRAHAM, S. (2011) Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism. London: Verso.
  • HARVEY, D. (2003) The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • JESSOP, B. (2002) “Liberalism, Neo-Liberalism and Urban Governance: A State Theoretical Perspective”, Antipode, vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 452-472.
  • MBEMBE, A. « Necropolitics ». Public Culture, Duke, 15(1): pp. 11-40, 2003.
  • PECK, J. (2010) Construction of Neoliberal Reason. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • SIMONI, C. (2020). “A Covid-19 e o direito à cidade dos pobres no Brasil”. In: CARLOS, A.F.A. (ed.) COVID-19 e a crise urbana. São Paulo: FFLCH/USP, 2020. pp. 25-34.
  • TELLES, V.S. (2007) “Transitando na linha de sombra, tecendo as tramas da cidade”. In: OLIVEIRA, F.; RIZEK, C. (ed.) A era da indeterminação. São Paulo: Boitempo. pp. 195-219.
  • WACQUANT, L . (2007) “Territorial stigmatization in the age of advanced marginality” Thesis Eleven, 91(1) 66–77.

César Simoni Santos is a Professor at the geography department at the Universidade de São Paulo (USP), Laboratório de Geografia Urbana (Labur) and member of the group Urban Theories Studies of the Institute for Advanced Studies (IEA-USP). He is the author of the book A fronteira urbana: urbanização, industrialização e mercado imobiliário no Brasil. He wrote a chapter in the book on Il a écrit un chapitre de livre Covid-19 e a crise urbana ("Covid-19 and the urban crisis").

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