The "unwanted of people"



A comparison between the social effects of AIDS and Covid-19

“Consoada / When the Undesired of the people arrives / (I don't know if it lasts or is expensive), / maybe I'll be afraid. / Perhaps he would smile, or say: / – Hello, inescapable! / My day was good, the night may fall. / (The night with its spells.) / You will find the field plowed, the house clean, / The table set, / With everything in its place”.

Manuel Bandeira published this poem in 1930, in his book Licentiousness. The psychologizing interpretation will always remember that the poet, very young, stricken with tuberculosis, was treated in a sanatorium in Switzerland and thus had an intimate coexistence with his own death. Hence, perhaps, the serenity with which the lyrical self can wait for the “unwanted of people”, the “inescapable” even if he himself does not know if she will arrive “hard or expensive”. From the title, the poem plays with the expressive force and, for that very reason, ambiguous, of some words, especially those that are not familiar to us, that are not part of our everyday speech: “Consoada” refers so much to the idea of as frugal and light a meal as a Christmas feast.

“Inescapable”, by alliteration, reminds us that death is our only certainty and that, therefore, we cannot delude ourselves: it will play our part, inevitable as it is. Will it be “caroable”, affectionate, gentle and kind or will it present itself as a sick state typical of the elderly? In any case, it is with serenity, I insist and, perhaps, with a certain joy, that the lyrical self prepared a Christmas Eve to receive it. The night, finally, can come down, because the day was good, life was good, it was lived comme il faut and, thus, the “desired of people” will have minimized her work: without crying or candles, she will find “everything in its place”.

My literature teacher in high school, at a public school in Belém do Pará, was in love with Manuel Bandeira. So, at the age of 16, I was introduced to this poem, whose interpretation I have never forgotten. I can still hear her reciting those lines, perhaps in a slightly cracked voice. I remember, in particular, his Maranhão accent, very different from ours, instead of hissing, hissing. At that age, death is just a name, a distant voice that seems never to arrive. Despite the deaths nearby, the great aunt so loved or the neighbor across the street who, so young, she drowned. Even the wakes were places of play and play for children from the interior of Pará, from the Amazon.

The coffin, in the middle of the room, hardly scared us. And how many times, playing “pyre”, did we end up invading the room, running and passing under the coffin, at the risk of bumping into it and knocking it over? There was, of course, the litany, the prayers, the crying, but also the laughter, the coffee, the cake and even the cachaça, if the dead man was a man. There were, of course, the illustrious dead, laid in state in the Town Hall. Of the men, the exploits were told, in particular, the amorous adventures.

Death also had the function of guaranteeing virility and maleness. From women, the typically feminine virtues, linked to the care of the house and children. From children, innocence, that is, the absence of any trace of sexuality. For this reason, white coffins and white flowers were intended for them, to remind them of angels. For adults, purple coffins, whose adornments, often gold, signaled differences in social class. But there was also the fear and horror of death expressed in the deformed and often torn bodies of the drowned. Seeing the drowned man was a challenge for the boys and a test of courage. He composed one of the rites of passage, an apprenticeship in the coldness and almost indifference in the face of horror, which should characterize the future heterosexual man and breadwinner of the family. A learning of the absence of tears and hardness in the face of suffering.

In these last four months, the “desired of people” visits us daily without asking permission and we, contrary to what Manuel Bandeira’s poem says, have no serenity, no clean house, no table set and, above all, no ability to say “hello, inescapable, I'm here, waiting for you, come in, sit down, eat, relax and we're even, we don't owe each other anything and that's why we don't have any bills to settle, do your job, I've done it mine: lived”.

It is quite true that we are experiencing what scientific language calls a pandemic. Word that, in such a short time, frayed by everyday and routine use, in such a way that it was incorporated in us, naturalizing itself. Four months looking at the world through the window or through television and computer images. In the beginning, everything was distant, everything happened on the other side of the world. However, as the destructive force of a virus, for which there is still no effective remedy, approached us, the more the “unwanted of people” showed its face of horror and thus, a certain coexistence, even idyllic with death, which I had experienced in childhood, begins to fade and disappear almost completely.

It is a completely different experience, because I am not talking about “finitude”, a beautiful word that I learned in my trade, in my profession, to designate the extreme dimension of life. Much less a tragic experience, which comes to me through philosophical theories, which I have pored over for so many decades. Even less trying to understand the “unrepresentable” of suffering and pain by analyzing films and texts by genocide survivors, the memories of those tortured by Latin American dictatorships, the testimony of those who lived through the degradation of humanity to the most vile level in the fields of Nazi concentration. It is now about something else, which, however, is not so far from that other experience of a time not lived by us. This is an old friend, a co-worker, a neighbor from childhood, the parents of a mentee or mentee, the cousin with whom I shared so many games in childhood, the cousin, from whom I could not say goodbye, the old family friend , a frequent visitor to our house in Marajó, who infected his brother and his 15-year-old son. Everybody died.

It is also about those images, so shocking and so cruel, of ditches – not graves, but ditches – opened in advance awaiting the arrival of bodies bagged and thrown inside a coffin, dumped in the ditches one on top of the other, reminiscent of scenes from Auschwitz, which we know from documentaries. It is also a question of living with fear, knowing that one is part of the so-called risk group, of waking up in the middle of the night and not sleeping anymore, of having to console friends, despite everything and in the most absurd way. : from a distance, through social networks, through “zap”, sometimes over the phone, in the midst of a broken voice and compulsive crying. Asking for news on a daily basis from my nephew and godson who live in Manaus. Asking about friends all over Brazil. Of worrying about the former student and adviser, who went on a research internship in Italy. Of spending your birthday with a few close friends and relatives without a single affectionate hug and barely a brief, whatever, handshake.

Of not knowing, many times, what time it is, tired and bored of reading, movies and series, of staying in the Facebook, to participate in lives. Even the nudes – why deny that we also receive them? – and proposals for virtual sex begin to become meaningless. Maybe, I've never been so alone with myself. Maybe, we've never been so alone with ourselves. Let's leave it to specialists in the human soul the enormous pleasure it gives them to evaluate and measure the weight that has befallen us from that experience of loneliness mixed with isolation, because I learned some time ago that einsamkeit, “solitude” is not necessarily aleinzusein, "to be alone". Even today, looking at the city through the window, as I write this text, it is so difficult to imagine that death, without any ceremony, is among us. The immensely blue sky and the sunlight, more intense at this time of year for those who live a little below the Equator Line, prevent us, at least for a few moments, from thinking about death, whether as an inescapable future, much less as a terrifying gift.

Anyway, I start to think about the trick that fate has played on me: I am part, for the second time, in my brief existence, of a so-called “risk group”. That is, for the second time, I bring with me, in my body, the insignia of a call to death. The first, in the early 1980s, coinciding with my youth in São Paulo, my “learning years” in the midst of the Latin American megalopolis, on the occasion of the arrival of HIV. The second, now, newly arrived at the age of 63, amid the arrival of covid-19. In the first case, because of my transgressive sexuality. In the second, because of my age, because of the comorbidities that I already carry inside me.

There are similarities between these two experiences, but huge differences as well. In both, it is a virus, which caught science in “short pants”. In the case of HIV, it took at least a decade for more effective treatments to begin to be produced against infections caused by HIV. In the case of covid-19, as we can see all the time in the news, a monumental and transnational effort is being made to find a vaccine in the medium term. In both, equally, it is a question of identifying, as a preventive measure, risk groups: male homosexuals, hemophiliacs and addicts to sharable drugs, in the first case; people over 60 years old and with comorbidities in the second case.

But, there are abysmal differences, which deserve a little attention. Perhaps the comparison between the outbreak of these two viruses in the world, their arrival in Brazil, can illuminate some obscure points of our current experience. Perhaps this comparison is more effective than the one made in relation, for example, to the “plague literature” (I wrote an article about this for the most recent issue of the journal Voluntas, dedicated to the pandemic, in which I analyze Michel Foucault’s criticism of this “plague literature”, which includes, of course, the famous book by Camus).

I would like to quickly touch on just two points, as there are a few others in which the abysmal differences alluded to above are shown. A first point, quite obvious, concerns the fact that HIV required a different kind of “isolation”, especially from its association with transgressive sexuality. There is no comparison between the weight given by public opinion and even by science to the place given to male homosexuality in this case, in relation to those not contaminated by sexual intercourse, hemophiliacs and injecting drug users. Contamination through sex inflated science itself with moralism.

The accusation of promiscuity made public, in a kind of investigation or even an inquisitorial court, the forms of sexual life of male homosexuals, meeting places, clandestine sex, male prostitution and, in particular, saunas and their darkromms, a world of “perversions” and “abjections”, which justified the existence of a disease as divine punishment. In addition, contrary to what happens today, progressively the bodies destroyed by HIV were increasingly shown, to serve as an example. The fight against HIV was, above all, a moral, “civilizing” fight, which only increased and justified homophobia. The male homosexual, but also the transvestites who, in general, survived by prostitution, demonstrated, in a resounding way, a change in the “political axis of individualization”, that is, those whose sexual practices should be fought and, if possible, eliminated, in name of “defence of society”. They thus became possible transmitters and propagators of death.

Now, who are the transmitters and propagators of death today? Unlike HIV, Covid-19 does not respect any purity from a sexual point of view, it does not respect any “gender” and, increasingly, research and daily experience point out that the so-called risk group does not mean that the virus does not can contaminate even newborns. The corona virus that is more lethal and more indifferent than HIV is, in fact, a pandemic.

However, even if there is no proof of transmission through sex, certain intimate contacts such as, for example, kissing on the mouth and, by extension, all oral practices, should be avoided or restricted to a minimum. As a result, the corona virus had corrosive effects on the affective relationships of unmarried couples or couples who did not share the same home. In a way, the corona virus ended up coercing unusual, everyday sexual practices, such as virtual sex. The corona virus, despite theories that insist on classifying certain sexual practices as “perversions”, ended up, paradoxically, recreating or even creating forms of sexual relationships that, in so-called normal times, would be considered “perversions”. It remains to be asked whether these practices will remain in the so-called “new normal” that, they say, awaits us. But, it is better to take precautions and not try to predict the future.

A second and final difference, among many other possible ones, concerns the historical moment of the arrival of these two viruses in Brazil. What was Brazil in the early 1980s and what is Brazil today? When the first cases of AIDS began to become public – the death of actor Rock Hudson, in 1983 and that of Foucault, in 1984 are emblematic of a certain general commotion – Brazil was experiencing a political effervescence, which called for democracy and direct elections and free, after the years of civil-military dictatorship. These were the so-called years of “political openness”, which began with the Amnesty Law in 1979.

Brazil pulsated with the agitation of new social movements, with the demands of new political actors, such as women, gays (that's what I generically call it, according to the terminology of the time), those incarcerated, whether in prisons or in asylums. A healthy air of renewal and hope filled our lungs and made us fill the streets of the country clamoring for “direct now!”. The ideas of citizenship, human rights, the right to freedom of sexual expression gained different contours, even colorful ones, dyed by the colors of the rainbow. In the field of culture and the arts, almost everything was tried and the watchword was renewal.

My youth in São Paulo gave me this enormous joy of being able to fight for a new place in the world. Quickly, as a result of the spread of HIV and the successive and frequent deaths that shook the gay community, solidarity networks, the creation of support committees for those infected, the clamor for the implementation of public policies and for increased funding for scientific research made it heard across the country. This is a long story and, in a sense, a heroic story, which others have told and can tell better than I can.

But what we see in Brazil today is exactly the opposite. In the name of democracy or a mistaken understanding of what democracy is, democracy itself is attacked, human rights are attacked on a daily basis, the rights of indigenous peoples, who are being hit hard by covid, are denied with impressive cheekiness -19, the dead are denied the respect due to them and their families any solidarity. In this way, coldness and indifference in the face of death reach levels where the human fades away.

It is by no means a question of learning how to be tough in the face of death, which the boys in the riverside towns of the Amazon had to learn when faced with the sight of the drowned. There, one was not indifferent, one did not stop suffering and feeling pain; one should not cry, but sneaky tears, even if unwanted, flowed through our eyes, because there, at that moment, the bottom of pain, suffering and death of the world appeared in all its terrible fullness. And so, we shared the pain of others, their families and we mourned together, in our own way, their departure. Here, in our today, indifference seems to exempt any pain, any suffering. It is only about saving the country's economy.

The Brazil of today, unlike the Brazil of the early 1980s, looks like an old ship, apparently portentous and modern, about to sink. Sometimes, I confess, I feel old, broken, without strength. But, remembering my unforgettable literature teacher and the verses of Manuel Bandeira, there is, perhaps, only one way to face the somber and obscure face of death: to find, in front of it, a state of serenity. However… is this possible in the midst of the lethal destruction that strikes us today?

* Ernani Chaves He is a professor at the Faculty of Philosophy at UFPA. Author, among other books, of On the threshold of modern (Pakatatu).

Originally published on the website of n-1 editions []


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