The Brazilian press and the vaccine

Image: Valeria Podes
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By SANDRA BITENCOURT*

How is it possible to immunize journalism from its clarifying functions

At the beginning of the 1894th century, the strengthening of capitalism with the coffee industry modernized structures, increased transport and communication capacity. During this period, already traditional newspapers were also modernized and new vehicles appeared, such as O Jornal do Brasil and O Estado de São Paulo. It is still a dependent press, divided between servility and opposition, but getting stronger and becoming more professional. After the brief period known as the Republic of Swords (six years with the marshals), the Old Republic (1930 to XNUMX) begins. According to the book Political Journalism, Theory, History and Techniques, by Roberto Seabra and Vivaldo de Sousa, two newspapers that illustrate this period are O País, linked to the agro-export elite, and O Correio da Manhã, from the middle layers of society, opposing the latte policy.

This configuration will determine the positioning of newspapers at the time in covering a Popular Revolt in Rio de Janeiro, the biggest riot in the then capital of the young Republic. The Vaccine Revolt will be addressed and framed in press coverage more by political articulations, financial interests, positions on the creation of a national identity, and less by health needs and the calculation of lives lost. According to the Fio Cruz agency, the total balance of the Vaccine Revolt was 945 arrests, 461 deported, 110 wounded and 30 dead in less than two weeks of conflict. The then president, Rodrigues Alves, was forced to give up mandatory vaccination. “Everybody lost. The rebels were punished by the government and by smallpox. Vaccination had been growing and crashed, after the attempt to make it mandatory. The government's action was disastrous and disastrous, because it interrupted an upward movement of adherence to the vaccine ", says the historic report. Later, informs the Fiocruz document, in 1908, when Rio was hit by the most violent smallpox epidemic in its history, the people rushed to be vaccinated.

Although the smallpox vaccine had been discovered 200 years earlier by the English physician Edward Jenner, and despite having proven its effectiveness at least a hundred years ago, a large part of the population was unaware and feared the effects it could cause. The government was absolutely inept at informing and the press did not play a more detailed role in clarifying either, even though the lack of basic sanitation and poor hygiene conditions made the city a focus of epidemics, mainly yellow fever, smallpox and plague. In addition, there was still a huge body of rumors and a moral outrage. Vaccination would be understood as an attack on the modesty of women, who would have to bare their arms (or, according to more radical rumours, their legs and buttocks). It spread even though when taking the vaccine, the human being would have the features of the cow, the animal from which the substance was initially produced. Oswaldo Cruz, an idealistic young doctor, was responsible for structuring public health in Brazil, he cleaned up Rio, despite the opposition of a good part of the media and the popular demonstration against the authoritarian way in which the campaign was organized. Many newspapers published cartoons and criticisms of the public health worker. But why wouldn't the press collaborate in clarifying such an important sanitary measure, considering the public interest and the protection of life, assumptions that guide, or should guide, journalism?

Because other interests were at stake. The city's population rebelled against the military-style sanitation plan, but they were already revolted by the urban remodeling carried out by President Rodrigues Alves (1902-1906), who took drastic measures, removing tenements and hovels from the central districts, giving gave way to large avenues and the widening of streets, displacing populations and expanding shacks in the hills of Rio de Janeiro or in distant neighborhoods on the outskirts. Everything was conducted in an arbitrary and vertical manner, but coherent with the capitalism that imposed itself as a system that transforms culture, politics and the economy. The press is strengthened in this context, acquiring characteristics of a company and supporting the industrial elite, dictating rules and imposing a new way of life. The press acquires a prominent role, influence and power.

Rio de Janeiro, currently with 700 inhabitants, suffers from serious urban problems, with lack of sanitation, overpopulation in tenements, garbage in the streets and an environment conducive to the proliferation of various diseases. But it is also a portrait of troubled transformations in the political and economic field, with a mass of miserable labor on one side and the other, with businessmen and farmers pressuring the government for modernization of the ports and development of the city, in the search to attract foreign capital and increase exports. The mission to rid the city of infectious and contagious diseases, especially the smallpox epidemic, arises in the midst of these social and political tensions. And the fuse of revolt is lit with a press leak. The newspaper A Notícia publishes, with exclusivity and without formal authorization, the project to regulate the Mandatory Vaccine Law, prepared and written by Oswaldo Cruz, and fervently discussed in parliament. The disclosure of the news infuriated the people who had already been upset with the eviction and removal actions of Mayor Pereira Passos. Part of the press supported the measures to transform Brazilian society, seeking to overcome the characteristics of the colonial period, although such actions had a high social cost. Brazil's main export was coffee, mainly from São Paulo farmers. They formed the support base of President Rodrigues Alves, who adopted the anti-industrialist policy of his predecessor, President Campos Sales (1898-1902), thus guaranteeing the functioning and even the reinforcement of the agrarian-export model. As a result, vehicles such as the Estado de São Paulo gave favorable coverage to the measures, despite the violent means to impose prophylactic action. However, neither the government nor the press provided the population with information that could clarify the importance of sanitary action, which allowed the emergence of all kinds of speculation. The controversy was treated passionately by the press at the time, with heated debates and abundant production of cartoons, especially repudiating the campaign of public health doctor Oswaldo Cruz. In other words, the target of criticism was directed towards vaccination, although non-compliance was a product of violent reurbanization. There was little guidance and enlightenment aimed at eradicating panic and outrage. Many newspapers gathered around intellectuals, such as Rui Barbosa, engaged against mandatory vaccination.

Cut to a century later. Disinformation is maintained and reproduced, the circulation of rumors and conspiracy theories, moral bias, the death count while authorities do not plan and guide. But above all, the role of the press as a defender and representative of the financial elites is maintained, needing to balance itself in the face of a health tragedy and at the same time not causing greater ruptures with the power on duty, in the name of a modernization this time contained in the said reforms essential, which eliminate the public functions of the State and endorse the effects of necropolitics.

What other explanation for a press that works by demanding hiccups in the face of the unimaginable? With each move of the undeniable project of death, we see the reproduction of notes of repudiation and manifestations that suggest that the acceptable limits were exceeded. But at the same time, there is coverage that tries to save the government and attributes dementia to a supposed ideological wing, which attributes the debacle, for example, around the lack of vaccination planning to a politicization of the subject, as if there were even equity between the inaction of the federal government and the appetite of the governor of São Paulo to provide vaccination. A press conference is tolerated where a Minister of Health, ignorant of the subject he needs to command, lies referring to an agreement that did not exist. There is “naturalization” that the Agency responsible for coordinating immunization announces a slowdown operation, while hospital corridors and cemeteries are crowded. There is naturalness in observing the movement of authorities in masks, reproducing an endless symbolic discourse of denialism. When will journalism say, with data, evidence and all the letters that the president is a damn genocide? Would the market and its moods allow such daring? Are the institutions that claim to work anesthetized? Isn't it up to journalism to monitor power, serve as a watchdog for citizenship, denounce, clarify, provide the truth?

In this century that separates us from the Revolt in Rio, how far have we advanced in modernization, citizenship, national identity, free press, in actions presided over by science, in politics oriented to the public interest? It seems to me that our progress, including the role of the press and journalism, is the size of the knowledge and courage of the Minister of Health: that is, minimal.

* Sandra Bitencourt is a journalist, PhD in Communication and Information, researcher at NUCOP/PPGCOM-UFRGS.

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