A loophole for the unstoppable?

Image: Action Group


Victims and truth in COVID-19.

Two years ago I started a study in my area, discourse analysis, on archival material from the 1970s: the first texts made public by relatives of people who disappeared for political reasons in Argentina and Brazil, asking how they were constructed, in these brief writings, various objects and the formulation of demands. I gather and read what that anxious word tried to make heard with very limited chances, when it was still far from being respected or even known, when I had to deal with the deafness of almost everyone (in Argentina) or the silence of many (in Brazil), and with fear in both countries. The advent of the pandemic caught me in the middle of developing the work, very familiar with the modulations of these voices and with their ways of drawing, in the text, the unavoidable gap that led them to speak.

I felt, therefore, that part of my days in quarantine and remote work for the University were dedicated to studying archives from the past, as my research has been in the last two decades. However, in the third month of confinement, exactly June 8, 2020, I read, on the website of a newspaper in São José dos Campos–SP, an article about the explosive increase in “deaths at home” compared to the previous year. Using data from the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the report cited researchers from UFRJ warning that failing to qualify these deaths could lead to underreporting of the actual incidence of COVID 19. Suddenly, my “studies from the past” jumped to the present - not for the present memory, but for that happening not yet worked on by memory, brought by the report I was reading. I realized that there was something about the “human right to the truth”, as defined by Juan E. Méndez (2007), jurist and activist at Human Rights Watch and now UN rapporteur on torture: revealing to society and victims about actions or State omissions that remained hidden. A “phase of truth” (Napolitano, 2015, p. 14) that by “elucidating violence and pointing out responsibilities” is a constituent of the construction of historical truth. It was not, in the case of this report on “deaths at home”, a body that was made to disappear to hide the violence perpetrated on it, but a cause of death that is erased or distorted. In both cases, to cover up responsibility.

I wondered if groups of family members would emerge that would demand this truth and this accountability. I imagined that it was possible, despite the fact that the multiform dimension of the genocide and the reasons for accountability that the Brazilian State would practice was still not as clear as it was months later, to the point of causing the already known complaint to the UN in March 2021[I]. My question was whether something with the unstoppable force of the movements of relatives of victims of State terrorism, especially of disappeared people, who challenged the dictatorships in South America between the late 1970s and early 80s, if any group that could be perceived as the same indisputable reason could appear as a consequence of the pandemic. And if so, what concrete forms could it take? Would the liability demanded be for the concealment of causes? By exposure to contagion by administrative decision? By omission when it was possible to save lives? Anyway, I decided to be very attentive.

Finally, in April 2021, two facts come to signal (of course in a different way than I imagined) that some trails are opening up and starting to be traveled. On the one hand, in several newspapers in Rio Grande do Sul, between the 12th and 14th of April, the news of the foundation of an entity called AVICO-Brasil, Association of Victims and Families of Victims of COVID 19 appeared.[ii]. On the other hand, a report by UOL on 27/4 informs that members of the National Council for Human Rights (CNDH), linked in turn to entities such as the National Council of Psychology and the Brazilian Bar Association, are considering “a kind of Truth Commission” of the pandemic[iii]. AVICO began an intense activity to publicize its foundation and its Facebook page, and just two weeks later it already appeared in a report in the Brazil edition of the El País. The group has already produced public notes on the installation of the CPI of the pandemic in the Senate, on the lack of second-dose vaccines, participated in lives with entities such as the Gaucho Mental Health Forum, and was interviewed by the TV of the Legislative Assembly of RS. The “Brazil” specifier is already part of the AVICO name in its first public appearances, which indicates the purpose of achieving national reach. The guidelines that the association is showing concern the accountability of authorities for the management of the pandemic at all levels, vaccine requirement for all, recognition of the contagion of COVID in work environments, care for sequelae of those who survived the disease, defense of SUS , legal, medical and psychological care for family members and victims, and also questioning underreporting.

What I propose here is not to assess prospects for these movements within civil society, much less their impact on power relations between classes and political sectors in the country. Not because these perspectives don't interest me as a citizen, but because their assessment takes place in fields of knowledge to which I don't feel I can contribute directly. There is a very specific undertaking that I am pursuing as a researcher in the field of language, which is to look for discursive affiliations between the words of these new actors and the enunciators (families of victims) that I have been studying in those first texts that confronted the concealment of the State crimes in the second half of the previous century. This demands a methodology and time that are not covered by this brief column. What I will try here is to make some notes on conditions of discursive production[iv] that may or may not favor these affiliations, clarifying that, in the framework of discourse analysis, affiliation does not mean convergence, much less conscious identification, but a regime of repetition, the effect of a memory of saying that is not monitored by the individual.

In the first place, it is good to remember a trait that was registered in all verbal manifestations, not just the first ones, of the movements of relatives of the disappeared: the inexorability with which their complaint was enunciated. Through linguistic constructions that varied greatly, the texts always included some kind of reference to which there was no way that this claim could not be said. The family bond appeared, in many cases, as the foundation of this demand's irrevocable character, a foundation that moved to several subsequent attempts to explain the emergence and strength of the movements. However, we believe, like Gorini (2017, p. 17), that it is necessary not to fall into a “naturalizing” view of the family bond as an infallible engine of revolt, since even this bond and its possibilities are subject to specific historical conditions. In one respect, these conditions are now even more favorable for family members who feel that the right to life or integrity of their loved ones has been violated to mobilize. There is no construction of COVID victims as guilty, deserving or enemies, as dictatorships attempted in relation to militants and opponents, or as today the police extermination of the black and poor population stigmatized as “bandits” is justified. And the deep fear of complaining or expressing itself, which in the years of lead spread throughout society, is not felt in most of society now, not that kind of fear. The argument rehearsed by the various sectors of power to avoid accountability is more that of the inevitability of death or contagion, which creates another class of obstacle, which will require other convincing dynamics.

Consideration of this specific obstacle leads us to the problem posed by the other entities mentioned here: those who, through the CNDH, see the possibility of an investigation commission for which, not casually, they use the analogy with “truth commissions”. ” that we already know on the continent. And productively questioning this analogy with State terrorism that in the 70s made it disappear, what State actions are equivalent today to that intention to hide the dimension or scope of the killing? Rogério Giannini, one of the members of the CNDH interviewed by UOL in the aforementioned article[v], warns about “minimizing narratives” and about an attempt by the authorities “to treat the issue as a farce”, creating a “distorted memory” and diluting the responsibility of the State, an attempt that includes underreporting of deaths. For our part, we believe that part of this attempt is the use of the figure of the supposedly “recovered”, as if the effects of the disease stopped when the person survived and stopped having the virus, and as if the number of “recovered” people were not sinisterly dependent on the number of contagions. Not coincidentally, during the periods, within the pandemic, when the mainstream media made a general and loving truce with Bolsonaro, fundamentally from July to December 2020, the count of recovered people was highlighted in each daily COVID report by the “consortium of press vehicles ”, which always ended with the cliché “x million people recovered from the disease”. In summary, in the face of COVID 19, it seems more feasible than in the face of acts of State terrorism to wield a dilution of responsibilities, but we are not here evaluating or predicting whether these attempts will have more force than those of accountability, we are just observing their rhetorical weapons.

Finally, let us consider a factor that determines the characteristics and tones of every voice that begins to make its way into the public space: its institutional dimension in a broad sense, that is, how and with what collective perception it is grouped, what links it establishes. A crucial aspect because it prefigures the interdiscourse, the “already said” that will cross his saying, and that will also change with the practices. This was, returning to what has been our object of study in recent years, a very important difference between the first expressions of the Argentine relatives of the disappeared and the Brazilian relatives, which left traces in the initial discourse of these organizations. The Argentinean movements, fundamentally the one that later gave rise to Madres de Plaza de Mayo, began by stating themselves as “non-political”, and, although they maintained dialogue and actions in common with pre-existing organizations, they made a notable emphasis on the family specificity of their demand; even, in the beginning, it was controversial between them and them that their loved ones had been taken by truly state forces (Gorini, 2012; Filc, 1997). In a short time, this perception changed, and Madres de Plaza de Mayo became the most tenacious enemy of the regime, but, in the beginning, this was the profile. In Brazil, the grouping of relatives of the disappeared was, from the outset, linked to the movements of ex-prisoners and relatives of political prisoners, which had already been operating for several years before (Teles, 2000), and had consolidated relationships with various social organizations and sectors of the Catholic Church itself, as the Dictatorship Dossier also shows (CFMDP-IEVE, 2009, p. 628). Although the family tie was always highlighted, the qualification of the political nature of both the demand and the forced disappearance was much clearer in his words than in the first texts made public by the Argentines.[vi].

What we see, until today, of the very first steps and voices of victims and relatives of victims of COVID 19 in Brazil has, in this constitutive plane of the grouping that is the enunciation of the self and the bonding, more similarity precisely with those Brazilian relatives, and in an achievement very much of this era. The political nature of the cause is clearly assumed, it works practically as a presupposition. Initially, they are linked to different types of institutionality, and there is a significant particularity that appears in the different reports already mentioned in the Zero hour and El País, which concerns the narration of its emergence. Paola Falceta, current vice-president of AVICO, after losing her mother to COVID 19, and when she decided that she needed to do something in the public space, she looked for Gustavo Bernardes, current president of the association, someone who had also suffered from the disease, but that she particularly knew as a human rights activist, more specifically from the intervention based on human rights in the HIV problem. There is, in this first step, and regardless of the intention of the protagonists, a metonymic path that connects three historical moments. Indeed, the memory of what “human rights” are in our continent is indissolubly linked to the post-transition to XNUMXs state terrorism. And the HIV epidemic was, not only here, but all over the world, an occasion for blaming the victim (who “did something wrong”, as before those targeted by dictatorships), and also for refusal, on the part of the state powers , of a responsibility for assuming effective prevention and combat policies, a refusal that has points in common with the one that is now the object of denunciation in Brazil.

And there is something in which this new voice that is emerging, and which demands accountability and truth, also bears a resemblance to the words of the Argentine family movements that emerged during the dictatorship: its emphasis on the need for protagonism by those directly affected. Mainly in AVICO's publications, but also in the declarations of CNDH members, there is an insistence that victims and their families gain a specific place, independent of political and scientific institutionality, and that from that place they dialogue and establish alliances. It seems crucial, in this sense, that they also achieve dialogue and interaction with those who, in this country, have been the target of extermination for decades.

I gave this text, as a title, a question mark because it is not, I reiterate, my purpose to make any predictions about the perspectives or the future of these projects. I don't know if this gap alluded to in my question will open up completely in the practices and power relations of the political struggle, but it is opening up in discursive practices, which do not mechanically reflect the historical reality that determines them. The memory of inexorability they carry can persist beyond conjunctures, and it is very difficult to be used for regressive projects, because the search for the truth about the pandemic points to the economic bases, and to each and every one of the arteries of perverse Brazilian inequality .

* Adrian Pablo Fanjul Professor at the Department of Modern Letters at the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP).


CFMDP-IEVE (Commission for Relatives of Political Deaths and Disappearances - Institute for Studies on State Violence). Dictatorship Dossier: Dead and Disappeared in Brazil (1964-1985). São Paulo: Official Press, 2009.

Courtine, Jean-Jaques. Analysis of political discourse. The communist discourse addressed to Christians. [1981]. Translation into Portuguese by Cristina de Campos Velho Birk et. al. São Carlos: EdUFSCar, 2009.

Fanjul, Adrian Pablo. “First public texts by relatives of people who disappeared for political reasons in Argentina and Brazil in the 70s. An analysis of tensions in discursive regularization.” Humanities and Innovation, v 7, n 24, p. 261-277, 2020.

Philc, Judith. Between kinship and politics. Family and dictatorship, 1976-1983. Buenos Aires: Byblos, 1997.

Gorini, Ulises. La Rebellion de las Madres. History of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. (Volume I – 1976-1983). La Plata: EDULP, 2017.

Mendez, Juan. “The human right to the truth. Lessons on Latin American Experiences in the Story of the Truth.” In: Anne Pérotin-Dumon (dir.). Historizing the living past in Latin America. Santiago: Universidad Alberto Hurtado – Ethics Center. 2007, p, 1-50.

Neapolitan, Mark. “Remembering is winning: the dynamics and vicissitudes of building memory about the Brazilian military regime”. antitheses, v 8, n 15, 2015, p. 9-44.

Teles, Janaina. “Political dead and missing people. A rescue of Brazilian memory”. In: Teles, Janaína (org.). Political dead and missing. Reparation or impunity? São Paulo: Humanitas, 2000, p 130-180.


[I] On 15/3/2021, the NGOs Conectas Human Rights and the Arns Commission presented, at the session of the International Council on Human Rights of the United Nations, a documented complaint against Bolsonaro for promoting “A devastating humanitarian, social and economic tragedy” . The complaint was based, among other elements, on a survey by the USP School of Public Health which, analyzing norms enacted by the federal government, establishes that there was an “institutional strategy for the spread of the virus” led by the president (see Rights in the Pandemic Bulletin, number 10, CONECTAS, https://www.conectas.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Boletim_Direitos-na-Pandemia_ed_10.pdf).

[ii] See, for example, these articles in Gauchazh and Commerce Newspaper: https://gauchazh.clicrbs.com.br/comportamento/noticia/2021/04/associacao-de-vitimas-e-familiares-de-vitimas-da-covid-19-e-criada-em-porto-alegre-cknexzotx00440198gk1r0ul7.html


[iii] https://noticias.uol.com.br/colunas/jamil-chade/2021/04/27/entidades-costuram-base-de-futura-comissao-da-verdade-sobre-pandemia.htm

[iv] The “production conditions”, for the materialist line in discourse analysis (for example, Courtine, 2009, p. 108), are given by the institutional scopes, by the images that the participants have of themselves and of the interlocutors, and by the framework of ideological dispute in which discursive sequences are formulated.

[v] Ver note 4.

[vi] In Fanjul (2020) we extensively develop this comparison based on a series of public letters from Argentine and Brazilian movements.

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