Society for Sick Societies is a diagnostic project. Built as a series of episodes, each one of its vignettes sets out to analyze an expressed symptom of a sick society–a practice, pattern, gesture, proverb, or technique that seems to encapsulate social malaise in pseudo or post-democratic societies. The triple S is critical theory’s first aid to a state of crisis, probing sickness as both real and symbolic, affecting the biological body, the social body, and the body politics. The series is edited by Laliv Melamed.
A common adage in Brazil is that the country is “not for beginners.” The saying is supposed to indicate the surreal complexities that make up the country with a tinge of self-deprecating dismay. The causes of Brazil’s malaises may be difficult to parse out but some of the country’s symptoms are awfully easy to detect no matter how diligently it naturalizes, euphemizes, disavows, aestheticizes, commodifies, or fetishizes its injustices. Such inequities are inscribed in hyperbolic terms in the burning of Indigenous lands, the topology of Brazil’s cities, the Nordic blondness of its stars, the body count derived from its police brutality—Brazilian police killed seventeen times more Black people than the American police in 2019—and in the omnipresence of “service elevators”–lifts in the back of residential buildings meant to social-distance white families from their Black and brown domestic workers’ cooties in pandemic and non-pandemic times.
Although the symptom can be defined as that which repeats, and Brazil’s symptoms have never stopped repeating hysterically for all to see, the country’s encounter with the novel coronavirus provides us a renewed opportunity to see the mechanics of its cataclysm—the viciously arranged topography of segregation, the retaliatory resentment over bodies that don’t matter slipping into spaces reserved for those that do, and the outsourcing of any and all labor—nakedly.
It is widely known that the Brazilian elite functioned as the gateway for the early outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country. From upper-middle-class folks returning home from holidays in Rome to a presidential delegation that met Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, the early vectors of the pandemic were the superrich. These early patients insisted on attending parties, social-kissing as a form of greeting amongst those from the same class, and being served by their army of maids, gardeners, and handymen, even as self-isolation had already become a matter of urgency. The mega-moneyed first patients in Brazil, consequently, “exposed others to the illness by failing to properly isolate or quarantine themselves–perhaps believing their economic status meant they were above such mundane measures,” all while voicing their support for the country to re-open before it had ever properly closed so they could save their businesses, their way of life, their skin.
Instagram videos of outraged Brazilian “Karens” lecturing their followers from their beachfront penthouses on how unemployment would kill more than any virus were a dime a dozen. The then-Secretary of Culture, disgraced soap opera actress Regina Duarte, gave an uncanny interview to CNN Brasil where she linked pandemic times to dictatorship times, unprompted, only to laugh off the severity of both and dismiss their resulting corpses as just another history chapter too morbid to be discussed. “I don’t want to drag a cemetery of dead bodies on my back,” she said. “I am light, I am alive, we are alive! (…) Why look back?”
Before recently admitting to have caught the virus, president Jair Bolsonaro famously claimed COVID-19 was nothing more than a little flu and proposed what he called “vertical isolation,” a farcically phallic proposition where the precariat remains vertically engaged as manual labor while the elites and other “risk groups” stay horizontal on their daybeds. It is impossible not to think of this as a less pornographic version of the cuckold fantasy, a staple of professional and amateur porn in which white men protect themselves from the risks of acting out their own phallic claims by casting Black men to do it for them. Especially considering Bolsonaro declared that if he ever got infected with the virus he wouldn’t be affected by it given his “athletic background”—a speech mocked in social media when juxtaposed with archival images of the president doing pushups in the most pathetic way possible, flailing his head up and down as if to make up for the fact that he didn’t have the strength to lift his body with his puny arms. In the cuckold fantasy the often-decrepit white husband has the means but not the prowess to perform the sexual act in spectacular fashion. He outsources the hard labor of the phallus to Black strangers’ penises, with the Black men invited to the middle-class couples’ domestic spaces to fuck the wives. The fantasy taps into into the figure of the “black cumjoy,” theorized by Rinaldo Walcott, whose services are requested in the condition that he be the bearer of animality and death: “‘the Black’ might murder you or ‘the Black’ might fuck you to death.” The anemic white husband commandeers the show from his La-Z-Boy chair with the bossiness of a child returning to the primal scene with directorial and casting privileges. He only moves his body to let the strangers in and to chuck them out. The Black strangers are, after all, completely interchangeable and “vertical” service providers. They, in fact, provide the vertical service and the vertical goods because, in the fantasy, the Black strangers aren’t people, they are goods. And finite goods at that, only useful inasmuch as the horizontal few can enjoy them, perished after the money shot.
The economic boom of the Lula years that preceded the country’s 2016 coup produced great anxiety in many a Brazilian citizen forced to share airplanes with bodies that had historically been confined to the back entrances of buildings and too disenfranchised to fly. This bringing together of bodies meant to occupy parallel structures led at least one celebrity to voice in public what had become a crying refrain amongst the elite: “Airports look a lot like bus stations now, don’t they?”
Paradigmatic shifts tend to accelerate the repressed in doing what it does best and most consistently: returning. The return of the repressed is often catastrophic not because it couldn’t have been predicted. Quite the opposite. The repressed is rigged to return. Its resurfacing is so horrific because it comes back with a vengeance and in the most maladroit ways. Although it may yield new symptoms they all point to the most ancestral of tragedies.
When the Brazilian repressed returns even its monarchy comes back. An early COVID-19 outbreak was triggered by the engagement party for heiress Alessandra Fragoso Pires and Pedro Alberto de Orléans e Bragança—the great-great-great grandson of Brazil’s last emperor, Pedro II, at Rio de Janeiro’s Country Club, a ritzy beachside retreat founded by British executives in 1916 and “to which just 0.00041% of the country’s citizens have the keys.” Members are allegedly chosen by secret ballot and it costs around $90,000 to join, besides the monthly fees. This oasis was the site of the royal festivities in the midst of a pandemic where half of the jet-setting attendees, many flown in from England, Belgium, and the United States, turned into COVID-19 patients and vectors, including Prince Alberto of Orleans and Bragança and his wife Princess Maritza. The bride’s father, sixty-two-year-old businessman Rafael Fragoso Pires, nicknamed “Prince Charles” and described as “a lover of horses and shoes,” passed away due to the disease soon after.
The Rio de Janeiro Country Club, located in Ipanema, is the sight of the eruption of the Brazilian real in more ways than one. Soon after a major coronavirus cluster was traced to the location, the newspaper O Globo published a report on the club’s “invisible norms” prohibiting nannies, donning pristine white uniforms, from using the women’s restroom. Whether they needed to wash their hands or their bosses’ babies’ bottoms, the nannies were only allowed to use the restroom reserved for children under ten, a “service elevator” of sorts, as a courtesy. O Globo noted that one of these nannies had been kicked out of the women’s restroom while she gave her employers’ three children a bath.
El País later ran an article on the club and tried to find out the rationale behind the prohibition of nannies using the women’s restroom. One of the employers seemed to suggest horizontally predisposed Brazilians have learned their lesson after seeing their airports sullied by a wave of previously indigent folk turned consumers through the socio-economic policies of the Lula years, during which forty million people are said to have climbed to the middle class. They are not having their country clubs turn into bus stations too. The employer claimed the nannies are their “girlfriends” given that the same nanny babysits different generations of the same family but that, “Here there has got to be an order.” Not being able to use the restroom, she said, is not a policy meant to humiliate them, but “to avoid chaos. Some nannies have no manners.”
One of the millions of Brazilian workers expected to remain vertically engaged so society could function as normal for the horizontal few was Cleonice Gonçalves, a sixty-three-year-old maid who worked for the same family in Rio de Janeiro’s affluent Leblon neighborhood for twenty years. Domestic workers in Brazil are often passed on from generation to generation and referred to by employers as part of the family. Gonçalves worked as a maid from the age of thirteen. She became the first fatality of COVID-19 in the Rio de Janeiro region in March, 2020, after being infected by her employer. The employer had just come back from holiday in Italy and was suspected to have the disease but never shared this information with Gonçalves, who went on about her work around the house, commuting three hours from her own home in the town of Miguel Pereira, forty miles from swanky Leblon, every day.
As yet another indication of the perverse ways in which Brazil is certainly not for beginners, especially for those without proper access to care, doctors at the intensive care unit determined that Gonçalves had “a urinary tract infection, high blood pressure and diabetes,” all of which had never been previously diagnosed. She was buried in the municipal cemetery “in a simple white structure, where bodies are stacked one on top of the other. Local workers call the structure ‘the vertical.’ Most graves are unmarked.”
If even small systemic shifts can feel seismic for those in the horizontal position, let us imagine a complete, however brief, swapping of roles. This is what happened at one of the luxury buildings eerily known as the Twin Towers in downtown Recife in June, 2020, where Mirtes worked as a maid for Sérgio Hacker, the mayor of the city of Tamandaré, and the city’s first lady, Sari Corte Real, whose last name literally translates to Royal Court. Mirtes had taken her five-year-old son Miguel to work because the boy had no school or childcare due to COVID-19-related provisions. She had continued working for the family despite the fact that domestic employees were not considered essential workers. When Mirtes was told to walk the family dog she asked her employer, Corte Real, to watch her son Miguel until she got back.
At some point while Mirtes walked the dog around the neighborhood Miguel asked to see his mother. Corte Real was busy, as a manicurist was doing her nails in her apartment. Miguel began to cry so Corte Real decided to take him downstairs and look for Mirtes. Surveillance footage shows that Corte Real took the elevator from the fifth floor with Miguel but once on the ground floor she left the child alone inside the elevator after pushing one of the buttons. The child ended up on the ninth floor and lost. Miguel made his way to a hallway. He eventually climbed an aluminum windowsill close to an air-conditioning unit, which broke off, chucking the boy’s body out of the window and down to the ground.
When Mirtes came back to the Twin Towers with the dog the gatekeepers told her that “someone” had fallen from the top of the building. When she went to check who had fallen she saw Miguel’s body flat on the pavement. His eyes were no longer blinking but, for a few moments, the boy seemed to struggle to breathe.
“The first and only time I entrusted her with my child she let my child die,” Mirtes said to the press. She, Sari Corte Real, attended Miguel’s funeral with her husband, inoculated by the idea that what had happened had been an accidental tragedy and not the predictable outcome of a system designed to eject Black children’s bodies from the top if ever they dare reach it. Brazilian class will be mobile as lethal downfall and lethal downfall alone. The funeral took place before the surveillance images were made available.
Since then, the press has reported that Corte Real’s husband, the mayor of Tamandaré, used Miguel’s mother’s and grandmother’s names in a city hall fraud scheme. The first lady’s name also appeared on the list of those who requested the Brazilian government’s stimulus check for a hundred and fifty dollars, reserved for citizens who occupy a precarious socio-economic position.
Corte Real later penned an open letter to Mirtes asking for forgiveness, writing: “Miguel is and always will be an angel in your life and in that of your family.” The first lady was eventually arrested for manslaughter. She posted four-thousand-dollar bail and was promptly released.