The reliquary of the Covid-19 pandemic in Brazil

Our “new normal” cannot be a return to our old one, because this would mean erasing injustices such as violence against women, structural racism and the genocide of indigenous people

Gravediggers carry the coffin of a victim of the coronavirus for its burial in Breves in the Brazilian state of Para.
Gravediggers carry the coffin of a victim of the coronavirus for its burial in Breves in the Brazilian state of Para.TARSO SARRAF / AFP

The Covid-19 pandemic is an outrage. What sinner placed this stumbling block in our lives? It was nobody. A virus is a nobody. Hordes of us are dying, 100,000 of us in Brazil. The numbers are outrageous, but they also distance us from those who weep. These 100,000 lives have left heartache at every corner; among almost all of us, someone is mourning a death bereft of a farewell. Our dismay over lives snatched away makes us long for funeral rites. Even if somewhat morbid, these rites are moments for celebrating the memory of loved ones lost. Now there is no time for the sorrow that precedes mourning, because the virus is in a rush, and humans have been careless about taking it seriously.

Our present-day chaos compels us to use our imagination to find ways to bear our sorrow

Whoever says we are all equally vulnerable to the virus is lying. Only in the abstract plane of laboratory immunizations are we made of identical matter. In the concrete plane of immunization afforded by privilege, our bodies are very different – some bodies go outside to clean sidewalks, others to work in drugstores or supermarkets, while others to deliver food or medicine, and many to care for the sick at hospitals, homes or long-term care facilities. These bodies are essential to the Covid-19 pandemic and for this very reason at greater risk of falling ill and, sadly, of dying. Since I could do nothing to alleviate the impacts of this outrage on the lives of so many thousands, I shut myself up at home. I am surviving the social distancing mandate, an order for social isolation. If I can’t do anything for others, at least I can leave the streets to those who must get around to care for all of us.

From my place of non-essential existence in this pandemic, I’ve been imagining forms of care. I began teaching over social media, talking to people unfamiliar to me, people I could only meet through literature or ethnography. These new voices have taught me how others survive the abnormality of unfair rules of life. Our “new normal” cannot be a return to our old one, because naturalizing this normal would mean erasing injustices such as violence against women in their homes, structural racism and the genocide of indigenous people. We are in the throes of disheartenment, both real and allegorical. If our bodies do not succumb to the virus that disheartens our lungs, then our bodies should be wholly disheartened by the burning wound inflicted by our own survival. This is why I have hope in the post-pandemic world.

What encourages this hope? The emergence of feminist solidarity. Born from the disheartenment of grieving, this feminist solidarity will move on to create new forms of coexistence within what is shared. The neoliberal paradigm of individual immunity will not save us as a collective; the pandemic has shown how interdependent we are and, just as importantly, how care is a relational bond that defines us as humans who want transformation. The physical experience of disheartenment, lived by our bodies, each with its own particular existence in the time and space of the false normal, is what will move us to the pivot of transformation.

Balancing between grief and resistance, I imagine a post-pandemic world where there is political room for feminist solidarity

Every day, I search for what this feminist solidarity might look like, assuming care and interdependence as links between our various struggles for rights. Working with the Brazilian artist Ramon Navarro, I created an album on Instagram (@reliquia.rum), where we tell the stories of women who have died in the pandemic in Brazil. Every day we tell a story about one anonymous woman, a woman who in the math of this outrage is a multitude. There have been over 150 so far, a daily calendar dating back to when Cleonice Gonçalves made the headlines as the first woman to die of Covid-19 in Rio de Janeiro. She was a nameless, faceless older woman: “just” a housemaid who had died.

Our present-day chaos compels us to use our imagination to find ways to bear our sorrow. So we decided to recount these biographies scavenged from the news but illustrate them with collages of women from eras other than our own. We formed a community of grief, where private mourning becomes collective mourning for memories bequeathed by an outrage that has claimed 100,000 of us already. From my biased window onto other people’s pain, every day I read, listening to their ache and soothing the children, grandchildren, and fathers and mothers who grieve these untimely losses of loved ones. In my isolation from the world, I connect myself to the discovery of other voices and survivals. Balancing between grief and resistance, I imagine a post-pandemic world where there is political room for feminist solidarity. We cannot leave these months of disheartenment behind to return tranquilly to an old normal buoyed by privileges.

Debora Diniz is a Brazilian anthropologist and researcher at Brown University.

More information