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First class patients

Brazil

According to Brazil’s Ministry of Health, on 6 May the country had recorded 8,536 deaths from Covid-19. Despite underreporting, the figure already showed that the main victims were poor people from large cities. Coincidentally, on the same day, the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) reported that the richest 1 per cent of the population earned 33 times more than the poorest 50 per cent in 2019.

Also, on the same day, the mayor of Belém, capital of Pará state, announced that the activities of domestic workers would be considered ‘essential’ during the pandemic. That means they could be called back to work at their employers’ homes before any quarantine ended.

Still on that day, Brazilians learned of soaring demand for flights with intensive care (ICU) facilities in order to move wealthy patients from Belém to São Paulo and Brasília due to the collapse of the local health system.

In the country’s North – where Belém is located – the average monthly income of the poorest half of the population is $107. Leasing a flying ICU to go between Belém and Brasília costs over $6,794 – or 63 months’ wages of a person within the poor 50 per cent.

Back in 2016, labour unions had warned Congress not to pass a Constitutional Amendment restricting public spending on health for fiscal reasons as the public health system was at the limit of its capacity. Some legislators suggested, instead, taxing fortunes and inheritances to provide more resources for the area. The rich laughed at the idea. Now the rich fly out to other cities due to the lack of health infrastructure in their own areas while poor people die.

And how did the poor get the virus? The first person to die of Covid-19 in Rio de Janeiro was a domestic worker who used to travel 120 kilometres a week to the house where she was employed in the wealthy neighbourhood of Leblon. Her employer had visited Italy and was waiting for the result of a coronavirus test – which turned out to be positive. ‘The mistress did not tell her that she thought she was ill,’ the victim’s brother told the news agency Agência Pública.

Engrained inequality makes it difficult for people to see themselves and others as equals and deserving the same consideration. It creates the perception that the State exists to serve the most affluent and control the poorest.

President Jair Bolsonaro, recognized to be one of the world’s worst leaders when it comes to fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, calls it a ‘little flu’ and ‘a fantasy’. Asked about the thousands of dead victims, he replied: ‘So what?’ He calls on everyone to ignore social distancing, for the benefit of the economy.

What’s scandalous is not just that some people can go to other cities for good healthcare but that this is happening while the poorest are waiting to die at home due to the lack of beds in public hospitals; the poor are having to sacrifice their health by going to their employers’ houses to preserve the status quo.

When the death toll reached 10,000 on 9 May, the President announced he was going to have a barbecue with guests. Faced with criticisms about his insensitivity, he went for a jet ski ride.

New Internationalist issue 526 magazine cover This article is from the June 2020 issue of New Internationalist.
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