COVID-19 in Brazil: memory as a form of resistance

This story was originally published on Meedan.

To wake up in Brazil in 2020 is to confront daily headlines that send us back to 1968, our years of military dictatorship. We see headlines such as: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro suspends publication of number of deaths; the government demands a recount of the death numbers saying they are “inflated”. Meanwhile Brazilian scientists estimate that the number of underreported victims of COVID-19 is seven times higher than what has been reported. This means that according to the official data,every minute, a person dies from COVID-19 in Brazil.

In Latin America the erasure of data and memory, lack of transparency and the rise of scientific and historical denialism is nothing new, much less in Brazil. For a brief period of time this week, Brazil was removed from the Johns Hopkins University ranking that globally counts the number of victims of the pandemic. This was a result of the decision taken on June 2nd by Bolsonaro to take down the website that provides data on deaths by COVID-19 in the country. Upon making them available again this Friday, the government decided that it would focus on the number of victims recovered and those who have died in the past 24 hours. A breakdown of the data by region, and by total number of deaths will no longer be available.

The government also decided to recount the dead and check the math as it believes the numbers were “made up”. It is not the first time that this government has questioned the data provided by scientific organizations. In July 2019, when asked about the exponential growth of deforestation in the Amazon,the Chief Minister of the Institutional Security Office, General Augusto Heleno, said that the data was “manipulated” by the National Institute for Space Research (INSPE). More recently, this scientific denialism has manifested in the firing of the Women’s Health Coordination Team at the Ministry of Health, due to the publication of a technical note that addresses access to sexual and reproductive health in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Several organizations denounced this decision, among them Visibilidade Feminina (Feminine Visibility), a non-profit civil organization that aims to promote the role of women in public and private spaces of power.

The majority of the victims in the COVID-19 pandemic are black, according to a survey by Agência Pública, and they are victims of a racist and genocidal policy imposed by the Bolsonaro government which plays down the effects of the pandemic. The number of black victims with low literacy is four times higher than that of white people with a higher education level, as revealed by the research carried out by PUC-RIO. And this week we also learned that the virus is twice as lethal to the Yanomami tribe, and due to the mining and deforestation activities supported by Bolsonaro’s government in the Amazon forest, they are even more vulnerable. Scientists currently estimate a 6.45% death rate among the Yanomami population, according to a study conducted by the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) and the Federal University of Minas Gerais.

Learning from our recent past

State violence, such as what we are living through today, generates trauma in the fabric of society that needs to be repaired to avoid a repeat of our recent past, where there has been an erasure of popular history of collective resistance. After the transitional justice process post-dictartorship was done we did not, for example, hold the military to account.

One lesson we did learn was the importance of memory as a practice of resistance. By preserving historical artifacts such as testimonies, documents, images and videos during and after the dictatorship period we were able, more or less effectively, to carry out recovery processes through the National Commission of Truth that addressed missing persons, the exiled and victims of political crimes. After the dictatorship, the Brazilian Constitution of 1988 sought to heal some secular wounds as a result of the efforts of civil society that demanded the creation of SUS, our universal health system which provides access to health for the Brazilian population. It is this same system that during the COVID-19 pandemic is collapsing in several states of the country, proving that it is underfunded, even while being essential.

The cruelty of this historical moment becomes acute, when, in addition to burying our dead in collective graves, remembering their lives, and surviving a pandemic, we still urgently need to preserve data and documents, in order for compensation to be possible in the future to the families of the victims of this policy.

Acting while we suffer: online collective mourning and self-organizing

Memory as resistance is being articulated by the Memorial of Victims of COVID-19 in Brazil, a Facebook page that aims to honor victims and tell their stories. And it is one of the initiatives of the Support Network for the Families of Fatal Victims of Covid-19 in Brazil, an emergency network made up of volunteers, professionals and people in solidarity with the families of victims in the country, in their honor. The network’s objectives are to: provide guidance for funerals, burials and farewell rituals and to create channels to guarantee the right to memory and wakes (even if virtual) and due tribute to the dead.

News portal G1, has responded to this collective need of mourning by creating an online memorial with the victim’s obituaries. Another example is Inumeráveis (Innumerable) a collaborative and volunteer virtual memorial effort with the premise that no one likes to be a number, according to them, people deserve to exist in prose. Their editorial process involves families of the victims, journalists and researchers. It was built as a space to celebrate life.

To articulate how self organizing is important for the indigenous population in Brazil in challenging the state narrative you only have to compare the numbers of confirmed deaths recorded by families and communities with the official numbers that the government shares from the Special Indigenous Health Secretariat (Sesai). In some cases they are three times higher according to Articulation of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil (Apib) their aim is to preserve victims’ memory.

Preserving memory as a path forward

“Memory is, in itself, an end, a strategy to repair the damage caused to human rights and is a way to reconcile a society” comments Professor Isabel Piper Shafir, from the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Chile, about the post-dictatorship reparation processes in Chile.

To ensure that we can use memory as a strategy for reparation, the work of civil organizations, activists, technologists, historians, researchers and journalists is essential to the archiving and preservation process.

Understanding our current information ecosystem can be part of the strategy for the sustainability of these archives and collections of data. The memorial of the Covid-19 victims in Brazil is hosted on Facebook’s platform; in practical terms this means that the content, those collectively woven threads of memory, are being stored and held by a corporate social media platform. These corporations are becoming the record keepers of a country’s history while there is still a total lack of transparency regarding their content moderation policies. Often we don’t know why they take something down, leaving their motivation unclear and leaving us to wonder: was this content censored? Was it a technical error? Or did it infringe the platform’s policies?

A possible response is using open source technology to contribute to ongoing efforts to archive and safeguard content and history, helping to preserve context and ownership, as well as ensuring data collection and transparency for future accountability.

There are several formats of how civil organizations and open source communities can cooperate in these efforts some examples are: creating open source investigations to collect data on the victims of COVID-19 using Check, or using archiving software such as Huridoc’s Uwazi to curate and publish human rights documentation that could make important, public information more accessible, as well as using the OpenArchive’s app Save to streamline media workflows to facilitate rapid response and reporting while encrypting the media. Another open source approach comes from DocNow whose focus is on archiving social media activist content, they do this by engaging directly with communities and co-creating through workshops solutions that are customized to their needs and workflows.

Let’s learn from our past historical erasures and organize ourselves to use current technology to safeguard our memory but also to understand the limitations of certain tools and products. Perhaps this time around, we can say that in spite of our collective shock and loss we honored our loved ones by mourning, remembering and saving space for future reparation. And hopefully as we walk on the coronavirus-free streets again we will do it in spaces that, different from today, are liberated of rotting statues and avenues named after the generals that were responsible for digging mass graves in times past.

Program Manager for Latin America @Meedan. Activist. Journalist. Used to build products with teams and now builds programs with communities.