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What It’s Like To Live In Sao Paulo, The South American Coronavirus Epicenter


Sao Paulo, Brazil, is the South American epicenter of the novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China. The city has more confirmed cases than anywhere else on the continent. I have been living here for more than two years with my Brazilian husband and our three children.

Some fellow American expatriates have decided to return home. But I’m staying. I believe my odds of survival in Sao Paulo are as good as anywhere else in the world.

The politics about the virus have been crazy, but that’s not unusual for Brazil. At the outset, President Jair Bolsonaro opposed any kind of shutdown. He gave a speech in which he criticized the measures taken by some local governments and particularly questioned the need for school closures.

Bolsonaro believes only those in high-risk groups should self-isolate, while everyone else should go about their business. To show he meant what he said, he went out without gloves or mask to shake hands with supporters.

But he quickly found himself politically isolated, as even his allies disagreed with his approach. His Health Minister Henrique Mandetta is reported to have told him, “Are we prepared for the worst-case scenario, with army trucks transporting bodies through the streets?” Since then, Bolsonaro has tried to moderate his stance a bit, although he subsequently fired Mandetta.

Is Bolsonaro a ‘Coronavirus Denier’? No

International media coverage has tried to paint Bolsonaro as a “Coronavirus denier.” It was widely reported that he called the virus a “little flu.” That is not true. His words were completely taken out of context.

I watched the speech in question. Bolsonaro noted that the risk group for the virus is persons over the age of 60. Since he is 65, he added, “In my particular case, because of my athletic background, if I were to catch the virus I would not need to worry. I would not feel anything more than at most a little flu or cold.”

In the same speech, he talked at length about the measures his government was taking to protect public health. While he opposes shutdowns, he said nothing to suggest he does not consider the virus a significant threat.

Some commentators suggest Bolsonaro only cares about jobs and money, not preserving life. But I believe he is at least partially motivated by humanitarian concerns. Millions of Brazilians live in poverty and barely get by day-to-day. Even a brief shutdown means they will go hungry.

Bolsonaro is a controversial figure. But from what I’ve seen, I think he is a fairly good president. He is doing what he can to bring free-market reforms to an economy mired in corruption and red tape so more Brazilians can find jobs and rise out of poverty.

Bolsonaro faces relentless criticism from local and international media. To be fair, he sometimes shoots himself in the foot with a chaotic leadership style. But overall, I believe Bolsonaro is, to quote William Shakespeare, “a man more sinned against than sinning.”

Thankful for Limited Shutdowns

I’m also thankful Bolsonaro opposes shutdowns. Local governments have a great deal of autonomy to deal with the virus, but I believe they are unlikely to impose draconian lockdowns without any support at the federal level. We live in an apartment with two small children and a baby. Life is already hard enough under the existing restrictions.

The people of Sao Paulo do not seem to have much appetite for quarantine. In late March, our state governor ordered all parks and nonessential business to close. For about three days, the streets were deserted, but people quickly got fed up and started coming out again. Right now, it’s almost as busy as normal.

A big issue particular to Brazil is domestic staff. Nearly everyone employs a cleaning lady. Families can’t manage without their nannies. The official advice is to put staff on paid leave. But I’m still seeing plenty of maids and nannies coming and going in our neighbourhood and they all use public transport.

A friend told me she believes in her building it is mostly older people who still have their cleaners coming in. Maybe they truly can’t manage without them. Maybe they just think they can’t.

Private Health Care Is Great, But Public Is Not

While our family is taking every precaution, if we do catch the virus, I am not worried about the quality of care we would receive. The private health-care system in Sao Paulo is excellent. This is a nation of hypochondriacs. It is hilarious. Whenever Brazilians feel the tiniest ache or pain, they run to their doctor and demand antibiotics.

As a result, Sao Paulo has a huge and well-developed medical sector. I gave birth here in December and our family has needed various medical treatments at times. I have consistently been impressed by the high quality of the care.

I should confess that I have never used Brazil’s public health-care system. Brazilians tell me it varies greatly by region, but it’s usually characterized by long wait lists, bureaucracy, lack of choice, etc. In other words, it’s a public health-care system.

My biggest concern connected to the virus is crime. Local governments have been releasing inmates, including some who are in for violent crimes, from crowded prisons to prevent outbreaks. On April 7, I was taking my baby on an early-evening walk in her stroller when I witnessed a carjacking three blocks from our apartment building. Crime is always a significant problem in Brazil, but now I’m taking even more precautions than usual.

A few days prior to that incident, I was walking home from the supermarket when a police car drove through our neighborhood blasting an automated announcement. It said, “Help stop the spread of Coronavirus by staying at home. The police will protect you.” The car then drove through a red light, thus undermining the message.

Brazilians Are Used to Crises

If you are going to maintain your sanity in Brazil, you need to keep a level head. And most Brazilians seem to be doing that. Our cleaning lady, Rosilda, is now on leave. During the early days of the virus when she was still coming in, my husband asked if she was concerned. She’s in her 50s. She told him, “No. I’ve seen everything in this city in my life. I’m not worried.”

The type of economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus crisis is new to most Americans. In Brazil, however, most adults have experienced a massive economic collapse at least once in their lives—often more than once. The Brazilian economy still hasn’t recovered from its most recent economic crash in 2015-2016. That’s a tragedy.

But if there is an upside, it might be that people here have learned how to stay calm in the face of disaster. For Brazilians, the coronavirus pandemic is another major crisis in this country’s long history of major crises.