The strength of the people against COVID-19 across a country in misgovernment

Verena Glass

Civil society actions against COVID-19

In Brazil, while president Jair Bolsonaro boycotts all efforts to fight the spread of novel coronavirus, popular movements are getting organized to help the most  vulnerable part of the population.

In the global context of COVID-19 pandemics, Brazil is gaining notoriety for their Federal Government’s disastrous management of the health crisis, with emphasis on president Jair Bolsonaro’s actions. Through social media, personal actions and political decisions, Bolsonaro is leading his campaign, denying the lethality of the novel coronavirus, encouraging the public to disregard social distancing, actively joining rallies against safety measures and mocking the country’s rising rates of contagion and deaths. Thereby deauthorizing his own government technical staff, he has caused two health ministers to resign in less than one month.

Parallel to Bolsonaro’s negationist histrionism, other sectors of the government have been adopting measures which leave the most vulnerable population exposed to contagion and to the economic effects of the pandemics.

Since local governments started adopting restrictions of movement and shutting down non-essential economic activities there has been a layoff boom, affecting thousands of workers. In response to this crisis, the federal government has given patrons full authority to stipulate working and leave arrangements for 3 months, allowing employers to negotiate agreements on proportional 25%, 50% or 70% reductions of salary and working hours, pushing thousands of families deeper into poverty. Trade unions have been completely excluded from all negotiations.

Indigenous peoples and traditional populations are another sector being severely affected, as their territories are systematically invaded with practical impunity for illegal mining and logging (in the first trimester of 2020, deforestation in the Amazon region has surged to break all records, with a 51% increase compared to the same period in 2019). Indigenous people are extremely vulnerable to “white man’s diseases”, which in the past have killed thousands, bringing entire ethnic groups to the verge of extinction. Nonetheless, new government regulation, created in April, has authorized occupation and selling of indigenous non-homologated land, while the Ministry of Environment is criticizing and reducing surveillance of disputed areas. By the end of May, around 20% of the 300 indigenous groups of Brazil had already been hit by contagion and deaths.  

The spread of COVID-19 across one of the world’s most unequal countries, as we would expected, is not at all “democratic”. Poor areas of the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo have fatality rates 10 times higher than those recorded in rich neighborhoods. According to the City of São Paulo authorities, black people are 62% more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. In the city outskirts and favelas, possibilities of social distancing are almost nonexistent. In many places, there is not even water to wash hands as required by minimum hygiene standards. There is no money to by soap, masks or sanitizer gel, while the number of families starving in urban, rural and indigenous areas is growing at alarming rates. That is when more than 100 grassroots organizations, among which many Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung partners, are taking action.


As soon as the effects of the pandemics were felt in vulnerable areas, the two main fronts coordinating popular movements in the country, Frente Brasil Popular (headed by Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra/Landless Workers Movement) and Frente do Povo sem Medo (led by Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto/Homeless Workers Movement/), launched a common initiative, the “Vamos precisar de todo mundo” (“We are going to need everybody”) platform (, converging newsfeeds and general information on solidarity campaigns, publicizing live debates, online donation and participation tools and calls to action from all across the national territory. Leaving their differences aside, the two frentes were able to build an aid network uniting peasant’s, indigenous, quilombola and black people’s organizations, women’s organizations, migrants’ groups and trade unions, among others. Thus, many organizations, both individually and coordinated through this national initiative, have taken solidarity action as their main political task against the pandemics in Brazil.

MST – The Landless Workers Movement, born in 1984, is the main organization in the struggle for land reform in Brazil and it is active in almost every part of the national territory. Since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, the MST has donated more than 1,500 tons of food – most of it produced by the movement’s settlement farms. In practically every state, the movement’s militants have been collecting food produce to assemble “land reform food baskets”, organizing transportation and distribution to vulnerable families in urban and rural areas. Along with this actions, the movement promotes debates on the importance of agroecological food, peasant production and basic income as an universal right, also sharing information on personal hygiene care. In large urban centers such as São Paulo, Curitiba and Recife, the MST has distributed more than 50 thousand packed meals to homeless people.

SOF Sempreviva Organização Feminista (Sempreviva Feminist Organization) is an NGO connected to the World March of Women. It is active in many parts of the country, focused on women in urban and rural areas, carrying out training and political formation initiatives on the topics of agroecology, culture, feminist economics, public policy and more.

During pandemics, SOF has helped RAMA – Rede Agroecológica de Mulheres Agricultoras (Women Farmers Agroecology Network) to keep marketing products from their farms in upstate São Paulo to consumers and agroecologic businesses in the capital. In a joint effort with consumer groups, they were able to receive and distribute the products while keeping social distancing protocols. SOF also made agroecologic food donations to philanthropic associations, to Guarani indigenous communities in the outskirts of São Paulo and to low-income (and some no-income) families. Part of the donations was made to AMESOL (Associação de Mulheres da Economia Solidária de São Paulo), a women’s solidarity economy association whose members where left with no income as all fairs and events where they sell their projects have been suspended. In support of AMESOL members, SOF also organized an online campaign with the goal of donating 300 reais to 50 women for two months. Another part of this collaboration is supporting the production of face masks to be donated and sold, and to marketing AMESOL products on social media.

PACS – The PACS – Instituto de Políticas Alternativas para o Cone Sul (Institute of Alternative Policies for the Southern Cone) works on political formation, supporting the mobilization and organization of women workers in agriculture in periurban and peripheral areas, mostly in Rio de Janeiro but also having partner groups in Recife, Belo Horizonte and Salvador. The Institute promotes the dissemination of backyard food gardens in favelas and peripheries as means to strengthen food security and food sovereignty, training in agroecology, expansion of organic farmers markets, mutual aid networks and grassroots feminism.

In Rio, as street markets (the main source of income for these women) have been suspended because of the pandemics, PACS is taking advocacy action along with parliament members of PSOL (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade/Socialism and Freedom Party), aimed to approve the use of resources from the municipal emergency funds for purchasing women’s food products to be donated in the urban areas most affected by famine.

PACS also supports organizing the distribution of organic food baskets for consumers in central areas of the city. In partnership with urban agriculture movements, the Institute works with self-employed women workers to raise awareness about backyard food gardens as a way to alleviate famine for families and communities. Lastly, PACS is organizing a solidarity network connecting women from the four states where their projects take place. In the purpose of strengthening bonds and cultivating hope, these women send one another short comforting self-care videos, with ideas on how to make life better: taking care of the body, recipes, hair care, how to use medicinal plants, etc.

Missão Paz – Missão Paz (Peace Mission) is a philanthropic institution working for the support and reception of migrants and refugees. The institution coordinates the Casa do Migrante (House of the Migrant), a reception center for up to 110 people, offering meals, documentation services, language courses, physical and mental health care, legal and job placement support, among other initiatives. During the pandemics, the situation of immigrants and refugees is aggravated as there are serious difficulties for reorganizing people’s lives in times of restrictions on movement and social distancing. In response, Missão Paz has organized the collective quarantine of all foreigners residents at Casa do Migrante in São Paulo, while creating a fundraising a campaign to provide food and personal hygiene items.

In politics, Missão Paz is active in the defense of immigrant’s rights against setbacks, putting pressure on the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies to stop the processing of any old or new projects not strictely related to the COVID-19 issue. Their statements also demand that, in case of any urgent projects related to the pandemics, civil society and social collectives must be heard through online hearings.

CIMI – The Conselho Indigenista Missionário (Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples) is a social organization of the Catholic Church, active across Brazil in defense of the indigenous peoples, supporting diverse groups in their political and legal struggle for their land, resisting the attacks to their constitutional rights and denouncing aggressions perpetrated against them (murders, land grabbing, death threats, political attacks) to the national and international public. During the pandemics, given the extreme vulnerability of indigenous communities to contagious diseases, CIMI has produced a vast amount of material about the protocols of protection and solidarity campaigns, while monitoring and reporting the cases of contagion and deaths on a hotsite ( In almost every state, CIMI is leading strategies for fundraising and distributing food and face masks to the communities. In the state of Mato Grosso do Sul where the rates of conflict and violence against indigenous communities are high, for example, CIMI is seeking international support to buy water tanks for the villages and camps. They have also been building capacity among young indigenous people to take over the work of producing communication pieces for information and prevention of the contagion. Along with other indigenous people’s organizations, CIMI is also taking action against Government projects aimed to allowing the invasion and sale of indigenous land by big landowners and others.

MTST – The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (Homeless Workers’ Movement) is an organization campaigning for urban reform and for the right to decent housing, having among it’s many members Guilherme Boulos, the former presidential candidate from PSOL. During the first two months of the pandemics, the MTST was able to distribute 100 tons of food, hygiene and cleaning items, sanitizer gel and medical supplies, reaching about 12 thousand families in the peripheries of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Rio Grande do Sul, Alagoas, Pernambuco, Sergipe, Ceará, Roraima, Goiás and Distrito Federal. In a campaign launched online, the movement has raised 900 reais to buy and distribute this products. Now, in a second stage of the campaign, the movement expects to raise more than one million reais. Among other initiatives, the MTST also organizes community based catering and legal support to help people in vulnerable areas to get access to emergency social programs.

MSTB – O Movimento Sem Teto da Bahia (Homeless’ Movement of Bahia) is an organization fighting for the right to housing, mainly in the city of Salvador. The movement works along with  the poor, black people living in peripheral areas, occupying large vacant lots where they build camps and small agroecologic gardens. The MSTB also works on political formation and culture, in projects such as Territórios do Bem Viver and Theatre of the Opressed. During the pandemics, their first action was a massive campaign to collect and distribute food to movement member families and others in situation of great vulnerability. As most of the shacks in the camps don’t have running water, the MSTB has installed sinks at the entrance of all camps, so the people in the community can wash their hands. The women in the movement got organized to produce face masks for adults and special ones, colorful and attractive, for the children, to make it easier for them to keep protected. To prevent the rise of domestic violence during confinement, the movement has prepared the community for blowing whistles to call attention and helping women in case of aggression, also carrying on pedagogic or repressive measures towards the aggressors.

UNEAFRO – Uneafro is a network promoting political articulation and education for young people and adults in urban peripheries across Brazil, offering pre-university preparatory courses, labor market training, anti-drug programs, legal development training and political formation on gender, sexual diversity and anti-racist politics, and more. During the pandemics, in partnership with Coalizão Negra por Direitos (Black Coalition for Rights, bringing together black people and black women’s movements organizations at the national level), UNEAFRO is doing advocacy to call attention to the immediate need for protecting the black population, demanding the inclusion of racial disparity indicators in the official statistics of contagion, deaths, treatments received by infected patients, medical and welfare care.

UNEAFRO has also advocated for the approval of an emergency universal basic income policy (in the amount of R$ 600, directed informal sector workers) and led the debate organized by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, along with the CEBRAP (Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning) Education and Research Group for Gender, Race and Racial Justice, assessing what data is needed to build deeper race and gender analysis during the pandemics. Thus, UNEAFRO has been active in mapping the COVID-19 emergency measures in partnership with Grande ABC University (in a region nearby São Paulo) and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

The network is also offering support to people who lost their income sources, providing food and hygiene items so they can keep following the protocol of social distancing. More than 80% of the UNEAFRO militancy (teachers, students and coordinators) have lost their source of income and are depending on this initiative. About 4 thousand families have been reached (more than 15 thousand people) in 39 places, where 45 tons of food products where distributed.

Given the rapid growth of contagion in low-income urban peripheries, while it is known that the hospitals will not be able to provide enough beds, UNEAFRO is also developing direct actions in healthcare, carrying on online training for healthcare workers who will attend to the moderate cases of illness (in between the mild cases and the severe ones, which need of hospital beds), taught by doctors of different specialties. This initiative includes the production of communication pieces and booklets aimed to healthcare workers and a campaign to raise awareness about institutional racism in hospitals, both to educate healthcare professionals and to encourage the denouncing of racial discrimination in healthcare units, thus to ensure the quality of health service.

Diálogos Insubmissos de Mulheres Negras – Diálogos Insubmissos de Mulheres Negras (Black Women’s Unsubmissive Dialogues) is a literary platform connecting black women writers, based in Salvador, Bahia. For three years the platform has been creating its own activities focused of black women’s works, in line with other forms of artistic expression, as well as joining literary national and international events. Diálogos main activities in 2020 were planned to take place during the largest literary event in Brazil – the International Literary Festival of Paraty (FLIP), in a space called Casa Insubmissa de Mulheres Negras, but all has been canceled because of the pandemics. Nonetheless, the platform is preparing an online educational and entertainment program to encourage reading, focused on black women’s literary production. This initiative includes thematic podcast debates on literature topics, featuring black female writers and researchers and an online course on the works, lives and critical studies of black Brazilian women writers, as well as generating interactive content on social media.

Marcha de Mulheres Negras de São Paulo – The Marcha das Mulheres Negras de São Paulo (Black Women’s March of São Paulo), a body bringing together diverse collectives and organizations, has launched a fundraising campaign called Fundo Solidário (Solidarity Fund), aimed mainly to support black women whose position of social vulnerability is aggravated by the  COVID-19 pandemics. In view of the social distancing protocol, the Black Women’s March is investing in online communication initiatives such as a new website and a new work plan for producing and posting content.

FASE – A Federação de Órgãos para Assistência Social e Educacional (Federation of Organs for Social and Educational Assistance) is one of the oldest NGOs in Brazil, active today in six of Brazil’s states, promoting issues such as the right to the city, food sovereignty and agroecology, environmental justice, the defense of commons, land rights and women’s organizing. During the pandemics FASE is collecting and distributing food and hygiene items for donation. In the state of Pernambuco, for example, the NGO has coordinated the creation of an emergency fund in support of about 850 families. In the state of Pará, in the Amazon region, FASE is producing videos, Whatsapp audio messages and cards to contribute with the diffusion information and mobilizing communities to fight the pandemics. In this region, Fase also participates in efforts of donating food baskets, face masks, hygiene and cleaning kits to families in communities along the lower Amazon and Tocantins rivers. Tho help boost families income, the masks are bought from women producing them in the same communities.

NPC – The Núcleo Piratininga de Comunicação (Piratininga Media Center) has been working in popular and labour media since 1997. During the pandemics, NPC has joined popular media projects in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, encouraging their network of media creators to constantly generate news on the pandemics spread among poor communities, solidarity campaigns and self-care procedures.

Brigadas Populares – The Brigadas Populares (Popular Brigades) are a militant organization taking action in urban peripheries, supporting urban occupations for the right to housing, urban agroecology initiatives, organizing Comuna groups, political formation and more. The Brigades are also politically active in PSOL (Socialism and Freedom Party), having elected two representatives in the state of Minas Gerais. During the pandemics, as did many national social movements, the Brigadas Populares carried out large fundraising campaigns to distribute food and hygiene items to the communities they work with, mainly in the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and Ceará. In Rio, the Brigades created the campaign “Even though distanced, I’m by your side”. Besides fundraising and creating information material, the campaign organized an “awareness funk dance” at Favela da Rocinha. Inspired by the performances of musicians and artists on balconies seen in Europe and high class neighborhoods of Rio, the baile funk dance took place in the favela in a decentralized way, on the rooftops. From each rooftop people could follow the performances and political speeches happening on their neighbours housetops.

Political bonus

As coronavirus crisis deepens in Brazil, Bolsonaro’s government sees the pandemics’ forced restrictions as opportunities, not only to openly declare their extremist positions, but to attack the National Congress and the Judicial institutions as well.

Meanwhile, popular movements face aggravating degradation of institutional democracy coming along with the imperative of social distancing. Massively taking to the streets, one of their main instruments in the struggle, as well as other forms of political collective process, are now made practically impossible.

Given this scenario, solidarity actions gained a connective character, becoming a powerful tool for strengthening grassroots bonds: there has been a change of paradigm in the political imagination of peripheral communities, by which the responsibility of care is less seen as a responsibility of institutions towards individuals, and more as responsibility of collectives towards collectivity.

There is also a growing trend of “territorialization” of social movements, in the sense that, both in rural and urban areas, territory and struggle for land are gaining deeper meaning: being on a territory, inhabiting that territory and building alternatives from there is becoming a prevailing field of concrete actions.

This doesn’t mean social struggle and political action stricto sensu have gone numb. Although for social movements the moment is favorable to introspection and self education, the virtual pressure of misgovernment grows and has shown it’s effects in many occasions, especially at the National Congress. Nonetheless, the COVID-19 pandemics has been teaching us one should not belittle the healing and political power of a warm meal, experienced by the people who grow the food, by those who collect, prepare and distribute it, as much as by those who receive it.