Not even 100 dead will change Brazilian apartheid?

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By JOÃO SETTE WHITAKER*

The pandemic would not happen in this way if, simply, our cities were not the space of the most dramatic apartheid

The hallmark of Brazilian urbanization is the invisibility of poverty. Our society is so segregated that by producing cities divided between a few rich people and many poor people, it makes the latter invisible to the former.

Homelessness in the country is perhaps the most dramatic example. When the male or female employee enters the bosses' house, they materialize for them, without them even asking themselves what trip they took or even where they came from. Where are your homes? In a distant neighborhood on the outskirts, which doesn't matter much, as long as they arrive on time for work. It doesn’t matter how long it took “Pernambuco”, chef at the gourmet bakery, to get to work, crammed into a bus, sometimes for hours, just as it doesn’t matter where he goes when he leaves work, the supermarket cashier passing by your morning shopping. Of course, they all go far away, because in the neighborhood where they work, there is no place for them to live.

In Brazil, the city that “works” is so modern and advanced that we can feel like in any developed city. The overwhelming white majority of the upper-middle and upper classes live in the so-called “expanded centers”, on the beachfronts and in the “noble” neighborhoods and build their lives there: school, college, friends, cinemas, the gym, the club, trendy stores, cool bars, the best hospitals, everything is in that fragment of the city. Someone who is born there can spend his life there without needing anything else.

The poverty of cities – which, however, represents most of the metropolitan urban territories – is invisible. For the richest, the lack of housing is only perceived when one takes the car to go to the beach or the countryside, and one is forced to cross that red and endless sea of ​​precarious houses in the poor peripheries. For the richest, homelessness is perceived out of the corner of the eye when, walking downtown, one sees an apparently “invaded” building (since for them, the property, even when empty and abandoned, is sacred), or when a homeless person asks for alms.

The lack of housing reflects this most striking characteristic in the way the Brazilian upper classes face the inequality that, deep down, serves them so much: ignoring it. Just as the tragic fate of those who die in landslides, burials, floods is ignored every year. Just as we pretend not to see that, in our country, more than twenty thousand young black men are murdered a year, many of them by the police who should be protecting them. They are all, in life or death, invisible.

This invisibility means that no attention is paid to possible solutions to inequality and the urban tragedy that we are experiencing in a country that is, amazingly, among the twelve largest economies in the world. What policies should be implemented to slightly reduce such urban inequality? Sanitation? Why, if in rich neighborhoods there is sanitation? More schools or health centers? Why, if in the rich neighborhoods all are served by very expensive private schools and clinics that look more like beauty salons? Better mobility conditions and more humane and efficient transport? Why, if fifteen thousand cars are sold in the country a day, this comfortable and individual transport solution, who can pay for it?

Urban policies are not seen as necessary because they are not really necessary for those who live in the city “that works”. They are unnecessary, as they address problems invisible to these people. How to understand that a few million of (their) public money was buried in some invisible drainage or sanitation work, in a hillside containment in some remote corner of any periphery?

In the 88 Constitution, a progressive breath that the country experienced, it was understood that education and health, even for the poorest, were fundamental for the survival of the nation. Even under the grimaces of conservatives, it was stamped that 20 and 15% of public budgets in all spheres of government would be obligatorily allocated to them. But as the (lack of) housing was invisible, no one realized that the same amount, or more, should have been allocated to guarantee housing with urbanization for everyone. And it wasn't just for that. It was also because talking about more democratic cities where everyone can live in neighborhoods with quality means building cities where people, rich and poor, minimally mix, share space. And this, in our Brazil, which carries its slave-owning past, is inadmissible.

If in South Africa it was necessary to forcibly implement segregation with an enormous legal and institutional apparatus (which earned that country worldwide condemnation for many years), in Brazil none of this was necessary: ​​segregation happened naturally due to the perverse logic of producing our space, which gives everything to the rich and prevents any possibility for the poorest to access the infrastructured city. In Europe, they had the Social Welfare State, here we had our “Leave-Estar Social”: leave the poor to fend for themselves. As they know how to build (they are the masons of the functioning city), they “find a way” to find shelter by building their houses on the outskirts. And so the urban morphology of most of our urban territories is one of self-construction.

They “forgot” that in the Constitution, and forgot that it is in the home where everything begins and becomes possible: education and health including. Because with an address, the children would be able to go to school, they would have a place to do their homework at night, they could get a job and a bank account, with water and sanitation and garbage collection, avoiding diseases. But no, here in our country it was considered good to believe that everyone would manage in the territory of precariousness.

And here comes a pandemic. The biggest one. Terrible, feared and invisible. It scares the nation because, at first, it is a disease that attacks the rich. Those arriving from Europe. Millionaire marriages are the focus of deadly contamination. The upper classes are frightened. But, little by little, even without doing anything, or almost nothing that one should, the terrible disease begins to take its toll. From the rich neighborhoods, it infiltrates quickly and surreptitiously through the poor peripheries. And it kills. It kills more than it did in rich neighborhoods.

Because in the functioning city, if they are not idiots (and there are many), people can protect themselves, in a reasonably simple way: “just” stay at home, wear a mask on the few exits, wash your hands. For the majority of the population living in these neighborhoods, employment has somehow been secured, and the internet, accessible to everyone via broadband, allows life to go on. Meetings are held, applications are carried out, yoga can be done remotely, classes take place in front of the small screen, purchases arrive quickly thanks to express delivery, lives multiply by the thousands. A lot of creativity, a lot of good things, in fact, also a lot of solidarity, it's undeniable. There are some inconveniences, such as cleaning and doing the laundry, and when mops and robot vacuum cleaners are no longer enough, a discreet movement of maids begins to be seen at the bus stops. With “all care”, even though the buses are full, many bosses and mistresses make their employees return to active duty. Coming from its far-flung neighborhoods, but that's an out-of-gate problem. The construction industry, then, did not even stop. Construction material stores never stopped, and masons continue in the works. After all, the “city that works” cannot stop.

And then, as is to be expected with epidemics, it subsides a bit in the wealthy neighborhoods. Quarantine works, hospital beds don't overcrowd. In terms of audiences, there is also some slack, although in national data, the country is strangely the record holder. Of course, being of continental proportions, the respite seen in São Paulo or the Northeast is the opposite of the situation in Mato Grosso or in the South, where the pandemic still seems to arrive with all its aggressiveness. But there too, the rich end up getting by. Some even too well: in Mato Grosso, the presidents of the State Assembly and the Court of Auditors, both millionaires and infected, took their jets and flew to fancy hospitals with vacancies in the city of São Paulo. Certainly, they will increase the statistics of those who were saved.

But this breather, which sometimes seems artificially created by governors sensitive to market pressures, does not show that underreporting, they say, could be about ten times more cases than the official numbers indicate. A couple of months ago, geographer Fernanda Pinheiro, using data from DataSUS by zip code in São Paulo, showed that, at the moment of the steepest rise in the curve, in wealthy neighborhoods like Morumbi, of every 42 people diagnosed with Covid-19, one died. In the 22 poorest neighborhoods, from Água Rasa to Vila Medeiros, one person died for every two diagnosed. In Ermelino Matarazzo, the relationship was one to one. What does that mean? That in wealthy neighborhoods, people have access to testing reasonably quickly, in private clinics and hospitals, and when diagnosed, they have time to take care of themselves. Few die (1 in 42). In poor neighborhoods, people are not even able to take the test. When they do, in the hospital, they are already in a serious condition, and one in two dies. That is, the problem is essentially urban: lack of access to health services capable of enhancing preventive care.

And so the pandemic has settled in neighborhoods where it is difficult to reach health care, but also where it is difficult to isolate yourself. First, for economic reasons, since informal work, which represents almost half of the economically active population in Brazil, has no guarantees, and that governments, in all spheres, have done little to support these workers. And when there was a minimum of help, it is complicated and difficult to obtain, but above all it does not reach a contingent of hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions of people who, without CPF, without address, without documents, are not even included in the spreadsheets of official statistics. Minister Paulo Guedes was astonished, mind you, with the existence of 38 million “invisible” Brazilians. It's because they are Brazilians from another Brazil, not yours.

But the pandemic took hold in poor neighborhoods also and above all due to structural urban issues: family cohabitation – when several generations of the same family live together, preventing the elderly from being safely isolated –, the high housing density, the lack of homes and the precariousness of most of the existing ones, are constitutive elements of the so-called “housing deficit” in Brazil, known for decades and pointed out by serious institutions such as the João Pinheiro Foundation. The lack of sanitation is evident and pointed out by specialists for years and years. In the tenth largest economy in the world (or thereabouts), cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the country's economic powers, boast 96% and 85% of the collected sewage, according to the Trata Brasil Institute, but few say that of this sewage, 40% in São Paulo, and 55% in Rio, it is not even treated. Belém, and its 1,5 million inhabitants, has only 13% sewage coverage. But this is not just a problem in the North or Northeast. In Canoas or Joinville, in the South, sewage covers only 30% of the city.

And when the pandemic arrives, are they going to say that the problem is a mask, washing your hands and staying isolated? The Covid-19 pandemic exposed what urban planners have been saying for years: the problems of Brazilian cities are of a structural nature. The lethality of Covid cannot be faced (only) with emergency palliative measures. It would not happen in this way if, simply, our cities were not the space of the most dramatic apartheid. The policies that could prevent this scenario are all structural and, therefore, would only be effective if they had been initiated ten years ago or more. More houses, more sanitation, better living conditions, more equipment, these are things that take decades to be done. When Covid hits, it's too late.

But, as I said, the urban problem is an invisible problem, which affects invisible people, from the gates to the outside of rich homes. So nobody cares if, every four years, immense efforts to implement some transformation, to put long-term structural policies into practice, are systematically destroyed in the name of party-political warfare. In São Paulo, the Municipal Housing Plan that I coordinated with great difficulty, which does not name anyone, just the City Hall, and proposes specific actions for 16 years, identifying the demand, the problems and indicating the ways to solve them (social rent, actions for the most vulnerable population, housing production by builders and joint efforts, rent market regulation, housing improvement, etc., etc.) December 2016. A State policy plan, which provided for actions that would have had a significant effect today on Covid. But no, it was a plan for the invisible, and that's why it became invisible. And this is repeated across the country, invariably.

The truth is that, to start solving something, it would be necessary to have a national pact around the commitment to drastically reverse, for at least ten years, the priority of ALL public investments in the country: no more tunnels, bridges, viaducts, expressways, ring roads, layers and more layers of asphalt in upscale neighborhoods, convention complexes, palaces, while sanitation, paving, electricity, schools, hospitals, squares, parks, culture and sports centers, and houses, are not done. many houses, in all our peripheries and also in the central neighborhoods. expropriate and following the best practices all abandoned buildings in central areas with public debt securities to be used as housing, and spend whatever is necessary – because money is not lacking in the world's tenth economy – to renovate them accordingly. Drastically invest in effective mass public transport (and not million-dollar monorails that sit idle) to the detriment of spending on automobiles.

But no, it seems that not even Covid-19 will be able to provoke this. Because what happens to most Brazilian social ills happened with the pandemic. By moving to the outskirts of large cities, it became more invisible than it already was. Won the invisibility of poverty. Thus, well-heeled young people were able to return to the bars of Leblon. “Go take it in the c…. Corona, go take it in the c…., mask!” it was the expression of the boy who made the film that went viral, not without remembering the famous “vai take no c… Dilma” a few years ago. The preferred expression of certain elites who, with their usual subtlety, exalt their egocentrism, their power and absolute contempt for everything and everyone that displeases them, from a legitimately elected president to a virus that takes away the right to draft beer. In São Paulo, on Avenida Sumaré, in the “city that works”, on a Sunday there was a swarm of people doing their Sunday run. In Santos, a judge with a large salary paid by public money, who also did his job, dismissed the guard who fined him for not wearing a mask. He tore it up, threw it on the floor, picked it up. For all these people, the Coronavirus seems to have passed. As the president cleverly gambled right at the beginning of everything, they reinforce the conviction that, deep down, it's just a little flu. At least for them.

But in Brazil, Covid-19 already kills almost 80 in five months. The Vietnam War, which claimed a generation of young Americans and left lasting social scars, killed 60 soldiers in…. ten years (we are not going to talk here about the millions of dead Vietnamese, rarely mentioned in official statistics). But here, things are so naturalized that months have passed without even having a Minister of Health in the midst of the biggest health crisis in a hundred years and no one seems to care much anymore. At least on the “top floor” of society. After all, the virus is over, isn't it?

Thus, we seriously run the risk that the “new normal” that is so much talked about is actually more of the same. Only with a mask. We will return to the normality of our apartheid society, which leaves at least a third of its population out of life. Until the next pandemic arrives. If it doesn't affect the rich, it won't even be noticed. Will a hundred thousand dead, which is where we are heading, not be enough to promote the radical change that, as it is now open, our sick society so badly needs? My hope is that it is young people, as quickly as possible, to give a stop to those who, from the height of their power, insist on keeping the country in barbarism.

*John Sette Whitaker Professor at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at USP (FAU-USP)

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