One of the more bizarre twists during the COVID-19 pandemic has been how the crisis has unfolded in Brazil. The country’s populist right-wing government has failed to implement social distancing measures, leaving the gangs to implement them in the poorest urban areas.
The response of Brazillian president Bolsonaro to the virus has been to describe it as “a little flu”, and encouraged people to keep going to work. There has been no official government lockdown in Brazil, and the country’s Health Minister was sacked by Bolsonaro for advocating social distancing. Current COVID-19 figures from Brazil are that 193,838 people have caught the virus, and 13,618 have died – meaning the country has the sixth-highest coronavirus infection rate in the world and by far the worse in South America.
To paraphrase Aristotle, power abhors a vacuum and the presidency of Bolsonaro certainly failed to provide leadership during this crisis. In the absence of the government taking responsibility, it has been left to the drug gangs to implement social distancing measures in the favelas. These gangs have been using WhatsApp and other social media tools to send out messages to people living in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Below are a couple of examples:
“Whoever is caught on the street will learn how to respect the measure. We want the best for the population. If the government is unable to manage, organised crime resolves,”
“We are on the streets taking risks so that you can sleep in peace, we leave our families to protect yours, so, then respect the order we have given. If you are caught out on the street after 10pm, it will be bad”
What is the motivation for organised crime to take this action during this pandemic? Firstly it is good business sense to protect the lives of the people you make money out of. Mass death in the favelas is bad for business, as these are the people who buy your drugs.
The second reason is ethos (ethical appeal to convince an audience of someone’s credibility or character). These gangs are about building and maintaining power in their communities. One of the key things needed to gain and sustain power is credibility, mass support and appeal. The evidence is pretty clear from the WHO and the scientific community that social distancing is required to stop the spread of the virus. This is logical reasoning or Logos to win support. It is the poorest, most densely populated areas which will be worst affected by the virus spreading. People in these areas will feel vulnerable and scared, so a group providing leadership to save lives will gain emotional appeal or Pathos. So at a time when people fear the virus and science is clear on what course of action is needed to prevent its spread, the way to gain credibility or ethos is to take the logical and popular course of action that the government should have but didn’t.
The third reason is the age-old story of organised crime. Anyone who has watched Peaky Blinders will know that criminals in gangs are usually looking for a way to turn legitimate. Making money from illegal activities poses a significant level of business risk. Though the returns may be high, the cost of being arrested, shut down or murdered by rival gangs or law enforcement is considerable. Providing public health leadership during a pandemic is a great way to establish yourself as a community leader, and get into local politics. There is a well-trodden path from organised crime to mainstream politics and there are many transferable skills when switching from one to another.
It is certainly not an enviable situation where your local drug dealer understands power, politics and leadership better than the man elected to be your country’s president. Much worse is that these same criminals, who make their money off selling additive substances that destroy lives, have shown greater respect for people living in the favelas than the government.
People in the favelas face threats of violence and intimidation from these gangs if they leave their homes during the pandemic. This is a horrible situation to live in. Yet at the same time, the crisis provides an opportunity for the gangs to implement this level of power and control with a level of legitimacy they would have never gained in normal times.
The conditions in the favelas are such that even with social distancing, it is difficult to stop the spread of COVID-19. Houses are built in very close proximity, and often large families are confined into a small living space. In these sorts of environments, it is next to impossible to stop the spread of coronavirus. Attempts to implement social distancing are the best chance people in these areas have of slowing the spread and saving lives. Whilst it is highly undesirable that this preventative public health measure is being run by criminals, someone needed to.