Brazilian Black women: powerful resilience amid the Covid-19 pandemic

By Tauá Pires- Youth, Gender and Race Coordinator at Oxfam Brasil.

A year after the World Health Organization first declared COVID-19 a global health emergency, we are nearing 100,000,000 cases and over 2,100,000 coronavirus deaths. And while the coronavirus can wreak havoc on anyone, anywhere, there is nothing equal about the impact that COVID-19 has had on marginalized populations.

Oxfam’s recently published report, ‘The Inequality Virus, shows that the coronavirus has exposed, fed off and increased existing inequalities of wealth, gender and race.

Across the globe, we have seen that the virus has disproportionately impacted those already made vulnerable by systematic racism and other intersectional injustices — and the dangers of this systemic inequality will only grow as vaccine programs begin to roll out. It is not an accident that across the globe — from Brazil to the United States to South Africa — Black people, Afro-descendants, Indigenous Peoples and other racialized groups are more likely to contract COVID-19, and to suffer the worst consequences. From access to health care, exposure to the virus related to occupation, to socioeconomic status, non-White people have been made more vulnerable thanks to inequalities built into the very structures of society. This is a frightening realization. Yet it is also an opportunity: if systemic inequalities were built, they can also be unbuilt. And doing so will be better for all of us.

In this blog series, Oxfamers from across the globe share their observations of how race, the coronavirus and inequality intersect.

Brazilian Black women: powerful resilience amid the Covid-19 pandemic

In Brazil, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is huge. More than 13 million people live in communities without adequate health and sanitation systems nor urban public transportation. This reality becomes even more impactful when looking at the full picture with millions of people living without the minimum conditions to take necessary social distancing measures, practice adequate hygiene, or without access to consistent food supply. In numbers, Brazil had already surpassed 8.9 million cases and more than 218,000 deaths by the end of January 2021. Black and poor people represent the most severely impacted by Covid-19 in Brazil, as the likelihood of dying from COVID-19 is significantly higher if you are black and poor. For example, in Brazil Black people were much more likely to die than White Brazilians. If their death rate had been the same as White people’s, then as of June 2020 over 9,200 Black people would have still been alive (IBGE,2020).

Within this context, Black women — who represent 27% of the Brazilian population — are the social group that is hit hardest. Even before the pandemic, Black women already had the worst rates when it comes to social indicators and human rights (IPEA, 2013) . Further, Black women carry the brunt of paid and unpaid care work, either as domestic workers or as caregivers for children and the elderly (IPEA,2019) . This situation is also reflected in informal jobs, since 47.8% of Black women work in activities related to cleaning, street commerce, the beauty market, and other sectors such as art and culture.

Before Covid-19, Brazil had 40 million informal workers and 11.9 million unemployed persons, many without access to social protection. Estimates suggest that post-pandemic unemployment may increase to rates of 15%, with 16 million unemployed. With no fixed income or savings to face the economic crisis resulting from the pandemic, the situation has become a matter of survival for many Black women. It is not by chance that hunger is haunting Brazil again. Recent official data (IBGE, 2020) showed that 10.3 million people — 7.7 million in the urban areas and 2.6 million in rural areas — were living in hard food insecurity in 2018. We can only imagine what will be the numbers in 2021.

On the other hand, recent data shows that 41 Brazilian billionaires had an increase of more than USD$ 52 billion in their fortunes between March and December 2020, according to Forbes magazine. This would be enough to give USD$ 2,400 to each of the poorest 21.3 million people in the country.

In addition, the number of cases of domestic violence has increased in Brazil. Despite underreporting, records point to a 50% increase in the number of official complaints. However, this is not surprising, as the pandemic has only aggravated inequality that is a social phenomenon in Brazil and surfaced the reality that Black women have to face inequality and vulnerability as part of their lives, which is intensified by racism and sexism ever present in the society.

However, not even Covid-19 was able to demobilize the Black women who lead solidarity efforts in the slums and peripheries of large cities, such as Recife, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and the Federal District. Oxfam Brasil develops a project in these four cities and young Black women participating in the project told us about many initiatives they were developing in their communities and to help other women during the pandemic. In Pernambuco, to amplify and disseminate quality information about Covid-19, protection measures and other details regarding the pandemic, bicycles were equipped with speakers to announce messages from women leaders in their communities. Women leaders in their communities also developed an epidemiology color system to monitor the number of Covid-19 cases in the community. In addition, an online domestic violence incident report was prepared to monitor the increase of violence against women.

Women taking the lead

To organize for the post-pandemic future, thinking about the post-pandemic period, several groups of women came together, albeit virtually, to discuss new ways to promote and create public policies that are inclusive of indigenous people, LGBTQIA+, women, the elderly and young people for this process. Oxfam Brasil supported the mobilization of Black women through partnerships to promote debates about Black women’s political participation in the country and is monitoring progress in the 2020 municipal Elections. Unlike traditional campaigns, these women articulate themselves in collective mandates, and are vocal on behalf of their communities and groups. Almost all Black women candidates carry their experiences of grassroots political action into their political agenda.

Despite the fact that 2020 will be known in Brazil as the period of one of the biggest crises in history, it was also the first time that Black candidates outnumbered non-Black candidates in an election in Brazil, which is a sign of progress towards a more equal political participation in the country for the large part of the population that has long been underrepresented in the political system

Here in Brazil, as in other countries, tackling inequalities involves recognizing racism and sexism as structural factors. That is why Oxfam Brasil works to strengthen the political participation of young Black women, aiming at expanding this presence in the different spheres of power and decision-making spaces. Our dream is that soon social justice will grow faster than rates of inequality.

Tauá Pires is a historian and an expert in Gender and Race Public Policy Management. She is the Youth, Gender and Race Coordinator at Oxfam Brasil.

This blog is a contribution to debate around Davos, views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent Oxfam International’s position.

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