COVID Frontline: Brazil

In February 2020, São Paulo had a major street carnival. I lived in the old downtown area, where the most interesting and absurd parades were held. Even for a person like myself who is not usually into parties, it was amazing to witness the biggest South American city in its most vibrant, happy, and celebratory moment. It felt like a special period of the year when it was acceptable to dress unconventionally, to forget about our jobs and boring routines, and to celebrate life with strangers.

In Brazil, we joke that the year starts only after carnival. However, as the first COVID-19 case was officially reported during the last few days of celebrations, it seemed like we could never fully return to our usual lives.

In the following week, I went to the university for the last time. Deep down I hoped we would be able to return to face-to-face interactions in a few months. Suddenly, work completely changed to a virtual environment without any preparation for students and staff. My apartment felt a lot smaller than usual. I would only leave home fortnightly to buy groceries, returning as quickly as possible.

The same avenues that were once crowded by millions of cheerful people dancing – and were normally busy on any other day of the year – were now unrecognisable: only a few buses with one or two passengers transiting. The silence in the streets was disturbing. It looked like post-apocalyptic scenery.

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It just became clear to me that the situation would not improve any time soon when President Bolsonaro said on national TV that the pandemic was “press hysteria”. He urged the population to get back to their activities and criticized the physical distancing interventions issued by states. That was certainly a turning point.

Bolsonaro supporters started downplaying the severity of the disease and undermined any protective measure as simple as wearing masks in enclosed spaces. Such lack of solidarity and collective responsibility makes it even more painful to see my mourning friends who lost their parents, partners, and relatives to COVID-19. The entire country is immersed in grief. Nearly all my friends are on antidepressants. It is impossible to be minimally conscious about the situation and still feel normal and well.

In September 2020, I moved from São Paulo to my hometown in the south of Brazil. After 13 years studying in different major cities of Brazil and overseas, I returned to my parents’ home. A year later, I still don’t feel quite adapted. As a queer person, it gets overwhelming sometimes to be around the place I experienced the complicated discovery of my sexuality – especially in a small country town. It also triggered episodes of anxiety and impostor syndrome: I am nearly 30 years old with no source of income living with my parents.

I recently obtained my PhD through a virtual thesis defense. The pandemic forced me to completely change my research project. Yet, the greatest impact of COVID-19 on my academic life was the nearly two years of daily interaction with my peers and professors that the pandemic took away. The coffee breaks, the chats about the most trivial and the most relevant topics, the collaborative work – these were the most amazing opportunities to learn and grow.

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