The course of the COVID-19 pandemic has shown a disturbing paradox as to how we deal with the disease. The two countries with the highest incidence and mortality statistics – the United States and Brazil – are the same places where there are large groups mobilizing against social distancing, mainly because of the actions of the respective heads of state, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. The posture of both presidents against social distancing measures is astonishing, and their callous calls to open up the economy in stark defiance of public health experts seem inconsistent with the on-the-ground reality.
This apparent incongruity can reveal different aspects of how society deals with more vulnerable populations. In Brazil, Bolsonaro’s rhetoric against social distancing plays on a dominant mode of thinking linked to the maintenance of inequality as a way of preserving privileges and dehumanizing the socially disadvantaged. This conception is contrary to the principles of the Brazilian public health system defined in the 1988 Constitution, which defines healthcare as a human right. In social welfare sectors, this system operates on the principle of equity – offering more to those who need it most. As in the United States, the Brazilian government’s economic justification to end mitigation efforts abandons the weakest members of society and maintains inequalities. If some can claim a controlled return to economic activities, more vulnerable people have less or no control over work conditions and face exposure to the virus. Once ill, the same people have to struggle to get access in an overwhelmed system.
Two philosophical reflections can help us understand this way of dealing with more vulnerable populations. In the mid-1970s, philosopher Michel Foucault taught a course (later transformed into a book) about how contemporary states control their populations and transform them into tools for different kinds of power. According to Foucault, the modern age has created new ways of dealing with life and death. Governance and power in the medieval world were marked by absolute rulers controlling their subjects by “making them die” or “letting them live.” In contrast, today’s politics inverts the dichotomy, giving life the positive pole: “making them live.” Such an inversion defines public health as a state affair, for example. However, the “making them live” has an opposite action: “let them die.” To determine who we “let die,” we must identify who is different, such as the inadequate or the abnormal. For Foucault, racism marks this identification in the broadest sense, the pivotal way modern societies decide between who should live and who they should let die.
Foucault’s configuration helps us think critically about the proposals for loosening actions to control the epidemic. In the starkest terms, ending self-isolation or allowing any measure that threatens our public health system is a way of sending the weakest to extermination. Who is the first to die? For whom are hospital beds lacking? Who is unable to comply with measures of social distance? The answer relates to a manifestation of power, in Foucauldian terms, in which people are seen only as tools for political and economical purposes. When people are understood to be less useful, they are seen as liable to die. In this context, the old, the poor, and the unemployed must be the first to succumb, the first we must “let die.”
Another philosopher whose thinking helps understanding the question of life and death in the epidemic is Hannah Arendt. In her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, she discusses the ex-Nazi officer Adolph Eichmann. Arendt establishes the concept of the “banality of evil,” how a person can become detached from ethical human experiences and engage in actions against basic social principles, such as the preservation of life. Such detachment is coupled with blind subservience to orders and a complete lack of critical capacity. In Brazil and the United States, the ethical void inherent in the removal of protective social measures, which leads to the death of the weakest, resembles politics mobilized by fascist regimes. In this line of thinking, suffering and death, when imposed on certain groups, lose any sense of cruelty. Recent pronouncements by Bolsonaro and former Secretary of Culture Regina Duarte about the number of COVID-19 deaths are vivid examples of this horror. Bolsonaro asked, “They are dying, so what?” while Duarte belittled the deaths from the epidemic by stating, “People always die.”
If Bolsonaro’s and Trump’s rhetoric and actions are based on an ideology of destroying the more vulnerable, we still need to think about how this ideology becomes diffused throughout society – its banalization. The current trends of uncritical thinking in the face of “evil” is, to some extent, a logical outcome of recent political visions that exclude the different, be it a person or a form of thinking. Previously unimaginable ideas have started to gain public space. Bolsonaro, for example, has suggested eliminating protections for indigenous peoples and has courted neo-Nazi supporters. The elections of Trump in 2016 and Bolsonaro in 2018 were significant landmarks in a transnational emergence of fascism and destruction of the other.
This situation is partly due to the expansion of instantaneous modes of communication through social media, which is ripe for manipulation. The enormous capacity to disseminate different ideas through mobile services (like WhatsApp in Brazil) has increased the possibility of mobilizing people as a herd, supporting “let them die” positions – a banalization of evil. It has also increased the ability for a segment of the population to uncritically propose to a mass audience that state protection is related solely to productive capacity, and that outside of this conception everyone should be responsible for their destinies – a position those in the United States know well. Only those who “pick themselves up by their bootstraps” deserve any help.
Such a view is shared by the middle and upper classes that feel liberated to preach the end of isolation and, in a covert way, authorize the death of the more vulnerable. To repeat such propositions uncritically crosses the line to the adoption of cruelty associated with the banalization of evil. Meanwhile, those who find themselves as the weakest link – the low-paid grocery store clerks, the informal sidewalk vendors, the favela residents – must deal with the concreteness of the fatality: actual death.
Likewise, we must understand the different ways in which the people who represent these weakest links make sense of this painful context they experience. As the French historian Michel de Certeau points out, “it is always good to remember that one should not take others as idiots.” The actions and reactions of people are attempts to get a hold of the situation in order to survive it. A huge portion of the Brazilian and American populations are under- or unemployed, making them potential allies against social distancing and for “saving” the economy. There is no flexibility, no negotiation: the “return to normal life,” as defended daily by the Brazilian and American presidents, is repeated by others in charge, the bosses. This reality is compounded by a government that is unable to provide support during times of crisis and the practical pressures of an empty refrigerator and hungry children.
Economic inequalities, which make life in quarantine radically different based on social status in Brazil, make the banalization of evil by segments of Brazilian society that ask for a return to “daily life” even more alarming. Those hurt most by reopening society are also those who most need society to reopen and are clamoring for it. The pandemic highlights how the discourse of patriotic union and a supposed social balance caused by the virus – synthesized in the idea that “we are all in the same boat” – is hypocritical. This idea reinforces the superficiality of life by translating the problem into an equation between health and economy. It is urgent to deconstruct this false symmetry between people’s lives and economic development, to hold the state responsible for “making people live” and to engage in open criticism of the cruel speeches and actions that have been exterminating the most vulnerable. It is in the banality of evil that we experience our greatest atrocities.