What does the pandemic teach us about our past and our future?

What does the pandemic teach us about our past and our future?

Thursday, 7. January 2021


Christmas is a season which, for a large part of the world's population, refers to a time of fraternization and reflection on the year. As I write and think about some questions, I think about the personal sacrifice that so many people are making, after months of confinement and emotional disarray, to be able to move forward, to remain isolated to protect themselves, to protect the people they love and to maintain a sense of collective solidarity for the common good.

Speaking from Brazil, what we observe, unfortunately, is still a very self-centered attitude towards meeting one's own needs - an individualistic sense nurtured by material and, above all, moral precariousness. A country with a complex, multicultural history and blind gaps that may help us to understand the moment.

In a year in which the antiracist movements gained vigor and, we can say, were decisive for the turn of the US elections, we can say that we are still far from recognizing the historical mistakes with results in the present of Brazilian society. Here, the last empire to abolish slavery did no more than convert the old forms of submission into contemporary models of socio-spatial segregation. The colour of the skin is still a serious factor in deciding on a person's character and validity in many processes, meaning the perpetuation of poverty and the helplessness of a generation that is born without opportunities; which starts at a disadvantage and needs to be superior in order to be, perhaps one day, equal.

The webinar ‘Colonialism: how history is catching up on us?’ brought a brief exposition of factors originating and resulting from the process of slavery in the world. We may agree that 15th century colonialism changed the world forever, and was fueled by technological advance, new political positions, religious dogmas, and economic desires. The institution of racism was the central element which enabled the unprecedented advance of capitalism. How? The black person was deemed worthless, and therefore was susceptible to domination and became the force of exploitation of new lands by European invaders. After the abolition of slavery in 1888, we as Brazillians deluded ourselves into thinking that equality was achieved; a well constructed narrative that was perpetuated throughout the 20th century in Brazil, as we proudly state that here 'we have no racism today'. Without any repairs, debates, or inclusive actions, this narrative was created to pacify whites and blacks so that we could understand ourselves as 'brothers' and naturalize the factors of social inequality. 

The subsequent efforts of social whitewashing, as seen by favoring European immigrants to occupy paid jobs and maintain the prosperous European landscape in Brazil through the colour of their skin, architecture, culture, and religion are not unknown. For decades, the observation that black people are concentrated in poor areas and are statistically dominant among the murders executed by the Brazilian police is grounded in a society that still needs subservience. In other words, the stigma of the white superior and the black inferior has modernized subjugation in the form of underemployment, poverty, lack of access to education, health services, housing and decent living.

In Brazil in 2020, we face the setback of many affirmative policies in favour of Brazilian multiculturalism enriched by the African values that populated our land, gender equality, the right to life, to marriage and to adopt children by homosexuals and homoafetiva couples. We have accumulated approximately 20 important years in building institutions, public policies, laws, and collective organizations that fight for the recognition and repair of historical errors. It seems, however, that the system set up to maintain inequality has come under threat and an extreme conservative force has emerged after a coup d'état in 2016, ousting a democratically elected president. What appeared to be a serious occasional event was followed by the dismantling of a series of initial conquests, culminating in the election of facism à brasileira - what will come to be called bolsonarismo, which I believe concentrates the values of white patriarchal supremacy. 

The head of state made numerous declarations in just two years of his mandate about his disdain for natural reserves, human diversity, and multicultural values, and he even clearly stated that he does not resent anything in relation to slavery, denying that there is racism in Brazil. He also puts the values of his religion before others or any scientific knowledge, in addition to supporting the conversion of public schools into the military and making a clear apology for violence and the arming of civilians. We are helpless and supporting each other, even though there is still a considerable part of the population that supports him and his speeches.

What do we care about all this? 200,000 dead by COVID-19 in Brazil. Is it a coincidence that our internal policies have been weak in providing guarantees of physical and economic protection? Is it a coincidence that the black and poor population is more vulnerable and fills the majority of the death statistics by COVID-19? Is it a coincidence that society in general reveals confusion and disbelief in science and scientific indicators? Is it a coincidence that the policy of delaying the construction of a national immunisation and vaccine procurement plan when most of the people dying are no longer economically active? Finally, is it a coincidence that we are going through a critical moment in Brazil with the population exposing themselves to danger, in the certainty that they will not be affected, even if they are? What has happened to our sense of reality?

What we have is an unprecedented effect of a segregationist and denialist policy that, by dismantling the institutions that sought to guarantee the possibilities of life, has gained its apex in a pandemic that teaches us what a society built on fragile ground is made of. After 520 years, we thought we had overcome much and compared ourselves to advanced democracies in the world (do they exist?), underestimating the civic void we are made up of. The denial of the past is exactly what brought us here and the road ahead will need to be occupied by steps never taken before. 

Alline Serpa

Alline Serpa lives in Petropolis, where she works as architect and professor. She met IofC in 1992, and since then has contributed in translating and managing the Portuguese section of IofC global website, as well as coordinating, with others, meetings and programs in Brazil and serving on the board of IofC-Brazil.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.