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“Genocides don’t always have to be intentional. It’s about impact. Whether or not they have been planning to kill people, we know people are dying and Black people are dying disproportionately.”


Story Transcript

This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Kim Brown: Welcome to The Real News, I’m Kim Brown. The United States and Brazil are both former European colonies founded in large part based off the removal and extermination of its native Indigenous people, also built in large part of the labor of millions of imported Africans for the purpose of slavery. And the descendants of those black and Brown people are now experiencing the burden of COVID-19, the global pandemic that is disproportionately killing black and brown people and both the US and Brazil. But what commonalities do these two countries have that they are now experiencing similar outcomes in these very distinct populations?

Well, joining us today to discuss this is professor Kia Lilly Caldwell. She is a professor of African, African American and Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She recently co-authored a piece detailing how structural racism and the legacy of slavery is making COVID more deadly for Afro-Brazilians, and she joins us today, I’m assuming from North Carolina Professor Caldwell, I didn’t ask you that beforehand, where you’re joining us from today?

Kia Lilly Caldwell: Absolutely I’m here in North Carolina in Durham.

Kim Brown: Fantastic, we appreciate you making some time for us. So when I was reading your piece, I was looking at it and I said, “Wow, this could actually be written about how COVID-19 is impacting Black Americans as well. Talk to us about the particularities of how structural racism in Brazil is fueling the death toll among Afro-Brazilians and Indigenous people there.

Kia Lilly Caldwell: Well thank you, Kim, for the opportunity to speak with you today. I do think it’s really important to put a racial lens on what’s happening in Brazil, because we do see the number of cases skyrocketing. We know that the US and Brazil are first and second in the world in terms of the number of confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19. And back in late March, I was really concerned about the impact that the pandemic would have and was having, even at that time, on Afro-Brazilians. And so when we think about structural racism, it has not been commonplace to talk about structural racism in Brazil, sort of in a widespread manner. Black activists certainly have called attention to racism and the existence of racism.

But because for most of the 20th century, Brazil was viewed as a racial democracy, or basically as a non racist society and a mixed race, non racist society. It’s been much harder to talk about structural and institutionalized forms of racism. However, I think what we’re seeing with the COVID-19 pandemic in both the US and Brazil, is that it’s highlighting and bringing sort of to the forefront, the racial inequities that exist in both societies, which are pretty glaring, not only for Afro-Brazilians, but also for the Indigenous communities in Brazil.

Kim Brown: And when we talk about the number of Afro-Brazilians and Indigenous people that have been either infected with COVID or have died from COVID, that number is really hard to pin down because the government of Jair Bolsonaro is not necessarily forthcoming with that information. In fact, the government is recording that information, but not distributed it. And it was so familiar compared to the release of data earlier in July from the New York Times, which had to sue the Centers for Disease Control in order to get racial data about COVID-19 infections. And it found that Black and Latinx people here in the US are three times more likely to get COVID and twice as likely to die from it. Do we have any such data similarly that is coming out of Brazil, as it relates to how COVID, or at least the number of Afro-Brazilians and Indigenous Brazilians that this virus has killed?

Kia Lilly Caldwell: Right, so that is really an important question and issue and the data is lacking. Not only is it not being fully distributed or transparent, a lot of times the race or color, the term color, is typically used on the Brazilian census in terms of census categories and also for health data. So color is the term that’s used. And when we think about Afro-descendant in Brazilians, they are classified as [foreign language 00:04:40], which means black and then [foreign language 00:04:43], which means mixed or brown. So there are actually two categories that are used to refer to people of African descent. You have to combine both of those categories to kind of get a black category, and then the Indigenous communities are classified under the Indigenous category. But what my colleagues in Brazil have found from looking at the data is that a lot of these cases are not… the color, skin color, of the patient, or the person who has died is not recorded.

So anywhere from 25 to 30% of the cases do not include any color or race data at all. But we also do know that in late June, early July, 40% of the total sort of COVID cases were of [foreign language 00:05:31] and [foreign language 00:05:32], so African descendant Brazilians. The other thing that has happened is not only are the number of cases much higher, the number of deaths much higher for Afro-Brazilians, but the number of COVID cases for White Brazilians has been going down. So it went down from late May to early July, from 50% of the total cases to 25% of the total cases.

Kim Brown: What does that kind of erasure of racial data? What does that do?

Kia Lilly Caldwell: Right, so this has been an ongoing challenge in Brazil in terms of the census. So for most of the 20th century in Brazil, they did not collect census data by race or skin color. And this was in an effort to really hide in many ways, the size of the African-descendant population and to portray Brazil as a predominantly white nation. In 2010, for the first time, it was shown that over 50% of the population was black or brown, at least 50%, right? Because there are also White Brazilians who have African ancestry, but they identify as white or there are brown in Afro-Brazilians who might self identify as white because of the way that race is constructed there in racial and color categories. So this is a form of erasure, or a form of what Latin Americans call invisibilization. And it also means that you can’t pinpoint health disparities, educational disparities, income inequalities, if you don’t have the data. And we’re facing something similar here in the US unfortunately.

Kim Brown: The drivers of COVID-19 amongst Black Americans, at least initially, from the information that we have has a lot to do with the fact that Black Americans are by and large essential workers, people who are not able to work from home, people who have to take public transportation to get back and forth to work, and also people who live in multigenerational homes. What are some of the drivers of COVID-19 in similar ways, as it relates to Afro-Brazilians and Indigenous person,

Kia Lilly Caldwell: There are many parallels. And in fact, there was an article that was published in the Lancet recently that pointed out that the number of cases was much higher amongst the elderly, as we know, but also Black and Brown Brazilians, Afro-Brazilians. And so this article was also calling for the need to kind of cross tabulate the data and find out whether these are elderly Afro-Brazilians, who were being disproportionately affected. The article also pointed out multigenerational housing, and the fact that you have elderly people living with much younger people, which then exposes them to the virus. All of the things that we’re seeing here in the US with regard to African Americans and the Latinx community, being essential workers, being in high risk occupations are also true of Afro-Brazilians.

And in fact, I think it’s even more pronounced in many ways because of the high rates of unemployment in Brazil, the fact that people work in the informal economy, often doing things like recycling cans and really doing whatever types of labor they can, but also a high number of Afro-Brazilian women still work in domestic service in Brazil. So you were talking about working in people’s homes and in that way, being exposed to the virus. And in fact, the first known person to have died from coronavirus in Brazil, COVID-19 in Brazil, was a domestic worker in Rio. So all of those things lead to heightened exposure to the virus.

Kim Brown: So in both countries, I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the virus is being handled poorly by the federal officials and the elected leaders. They’re here in the US, President Donald Trump overseeing a just bad management of the virus, as we’re seeing coronavirus cases spike in a number of places also in Brazil, President Bolsonaro has now contracted COVID himself twice now. And both of these leaders are right-wing and authoritarian. And I’m just curious as to your opinion as to whether or not there are any policies that could be enacted that could either stem the amount of transmission of COVID through black and brown populations. Or is it, are we dealing with systems that are so deeply entrenched that it will be so hard to sort of right the ship at this point, because this is the outcome of hundreds of years of neglect by black and brown people from the mostly white federal government.

Kia Lilly Caldwell: Yeah. I mean, I am hopeful that things can be improved, but swift action is really needed. I’ll focus on Brazil first. Testing has not been widespread in Brazil. And as you mentioned, Jair Bolsonaro did not take the virus seriously. And he still does not take the virus seriously. He kept calling it a little flu, which led people to not really protect themselves. But also if we think about the high density within favelas, right, which are communities that many Afro-Brazilians live in, in major cities, places like Rio, over 2 million people live in favelas in Rio. So you’re talking about, again, densely populated communities that don’t have proper sanitation or running water for all residents kind of on a normal day. And so then to tell people that they should wash their hands and distance and use sanitizer none of that is very realistic.

So having an infrastructure in place that can provide water to people is really important in addition to the testing and encouraging social distancing and allowing people to actually be on lockdown. And that’s not really a possibility for a lot of people who rely on their jobs. So I do think if this pandemic had been approached from the perspective of kind of the least of these, right, who is most vulnerable, it could have been addressed differently. It’s not too late to do that, it’s not too late to think about the Indigenous communities, particularly in the Amazon, but that political will needs to be there. And unfortunately, with both presidents, what we’ve seen is a lot of racism, racist rhetoric, and racist policies, which really kind of counteract any attempt to make this pandemic have more equitable impact, if that’s at all possible.

Kim Brown: You speak about political will and the Black Lives Matter movement lives in Brazil. What steps politically, and I guess from a grassroots level are Black Brazilians and Indigenous Brazilians doing to either protect themselves at this point or to make it clear to the federal government that these level of inequities are no longer tolerable.

Kia Lilly Caldwell: Right, absolutely. So there was certainly organizing happening before the pandemic around police violence in Brazil, which is also epidemic proportions. It’s estimated that 33,000 people were killed by the police throughout the country over the past 10 years. So when we think about just the horror and the trauma caused by that, but also that, as a public health issue, that has been on many people’s radars for a long time. And then also if we sort of think about the political situation, and Jair Bolsonaro coming to power, the fragility of Brazil’s democracy in this moment, there have been calls for him to be impeached and even calls that he could be charged with genocide just because of his mishandling of the pandemic. And so certainly there was organizing, taking place around racism, around police brutality, around the marginalization and discrimination experienced by indigenous communities.

Around the Amazon also, and what’s been happening with the Amazon, which affects all of us. Ultimately, I was reading an article that said that the burning and the deforestation that’s been taking place in the Amazon will lead to new novel viruses, right, or more novel viruses. And so Brazil really needs to be on our radars for multiple reasons, right, because of the pandemic, because of the Amazon, because of police brutality, and because it has the largest African diaspora community in the world, the second largest African descendant community in the world with Nigeria, having the first. All of these things are affecting what’s happening to Afro_Brazilians, not to mention the political situation as well.

Kim Brown: I’m glad you mentioned the G-word, genocide because that is sort of been my observation of what’s happening here in the US and then looking about what’s happening in Brazil, it’s almost the same thing and are we witnessing a soft genocide of black and brown people on two continents where inaction by the federal government is in effect causing the mass deaths of tens of thousands and not to mention what the push here, state side to reopen the economy, to get people back to work, to reopen schools without first getting a handle on the level of transmission of coronavirus, is this the intentional or perhaps unintentional killing of tens of thousands of black and brown people without having to march them into concentration camps, so to speak?

Kia Lilly Caldwell: Yeah, I mean, it’s very alarming, right? We should be alarmed and we should also be alarmed by the inaction of both government, Bolsonaro is now onto his third health minister during the pandemic, and the current health minister is a general who has no healthcare experience, right? And so when we think about that, when we think about the lies and mismanagement of the pandemic here, we can connect that to genocide. And the fact that genocides don’t always have to be intentional, it’s about impact, it’s not always about intention. So whether or not they’re planning or have been planning to kill people, we know that people are dying, but we also know that black people are dying disproportionately, right? And the callousness with which this is being treated is also really problematic. And so I do think that genocide is appropriate in many ways.

I think we have to be cautious about using the term. But when we look at 140,000 confirmed deaths for the US and 80,000 confirmed deaths for Brazil, and I think saying confirmed deaths is important because in Brazil, it’s likely that the number of deaths has been much higher, possibly five times higher. It’s also people are saying, researchers are saying that the number of confirmed cases is probably 12 times or 15 times what the data is saying, right? So it’s an alarming situation and I often think where does the accountability come in, right? Who are these two presidents in these two governments accountable to, and who should they be accountable to? And that is a major problem.

Kim Brown: Well, Professor break it down for us because I mean, the reason why we are seeing mirror images of outcomes for black and brown people in the US and in Brazil is because of the legacy of slavery and hundreds of years of violence and neglect. It’s difficult to fathom that here in 2020, that very little of this has been rectified, at least when it comes to health outcomes. Does this all originate from slavery or are our other colonies that have black and African descendants in it, are we seeing similar things there? What’s up with the US and Brazil in this instance?

Kia Lilly Caldwell: That is such a good question. The US and Brazil has sort of been mirror images of each other for a long time, for better or worse. And researchers have often compared them in terms of their histories of slavery. Typically Brazil was seen, especially during the early and mid 20th century, as being ahead of the US because there was no Jim Crow, right, there was no legalized racial segregation.

However, I think what we’re seeing today shows that they’re really not all that different and these are legacies of slavery. With Brazil, having the largest and longest involvement in slavery and in the transatlantic slave trade of any single country, right, over four million Africans were forcibly taken to Brazil. Sometimes the estimates go up to five million. Whereas the S brought in 300,000 to 500,000 enslaved Africans. But I think a question is why are these black communities in both countries, so oppressed, which is not to say that Afro-Venezuelans are not, or Africa-Colombians, we’re certainly not hearing as much about what’s happening in those two countries.

But I think that in Brazil, there has certainly been a vested interest in the oppression of black people and in anti-black racism, because the majority of the population is black and white elites have known that. And so even if we think about Jair Bolsonaro’s rise to power, it came on the heels of over a decade of two leftist administration’s. Lula and Dilma Rousseff, right? So there was backlash there. If we think about Trump coming to power, there was backlash against the Obama era. And so in this era of backlash, in this moment of backlash, black communities are really suffering that the impact of that if we think about voting rights and so many other things in this country, as well as in Brazil. So it’s something that I do believe we need to have our eyes on as folks here in the US but also abroad. And there is a push to really restore democracy in Brazil, which I also think is essential to addressing this global health crisis or the impact of the global health crisis in the pandemic there.

Kim Brown: Incredible. And it’ll be something when we finally get out of this moment, unfortunately, we are in the midst of it so we don’t know when it’s going to end, but right now, black and brown people, two continents in the Western Hemisphere, not fairing well in the US and in Brazil, and it’s roots and causes go back hundreds of years to slavery and colonialism. We’ve been speaking today with Kia Lilly Caldwell. Her piece is titled COVID-19 is deadly or for black Brazilians, a legacy of structural racism that dates back to slavery. It appeared originally on the conversation.com and it was co-written with Professor Caldwell and Edna Maria de Araujo, who is a Professor Public Health and Epidemiology at the State University of Feira de Santana. And professor Caldwell has been joining us today from North Carolina. Thank you so much for making the time to talk about this, because it’s extremely important what we’re witnessing at this moment in time to black and brown people as a result of COVID. So thank you Professor Caldwell.
Kia Lilly Caldwell: Thank you.

Kim Brown: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.

Kim Brown

Kim Brown has been covering national and international politics for over 10 years and has been a sought-after voice on issues on race and culture.