by Marcelo da Silveira Campos

Translation by Anna Paula de Moraes Bennech    Reviewed by Matheus Lucas Hebling Original publication: April 15th, 2020 link


Photograph from the series “Entre Morros” by Claudia Jaguaribe, 2010.

Partial isolation, or vertical isolation as it has been called, consists essentially in only removing from social relations the groups that are most susceptible to mortality by COVID-19, such as people over 60 years old, or diagnosed with diseases as hypertension and diabetes. Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current president, defends this measure, based on the bolsonarist discourse, taking the mass “return to work” as justification. This argument precisely inflated the small (fortunately) motorcades in favor of the “return to work” on March 29th, 2020. However, in constant meetings and pronouncements on the Planalto, the federal authorities admit that there is no study to justify such a direction, which is often contrary to the guidelines of the Minister of Health himself and the World Health Organization[1]. On March 31st, 2020, the president distorted once again the statement of the General Director of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Ghebreyesus, to question the quarantine and state that he is right about how to conduct the crisis.

I want to call attention to the reflection that the idea of vertical isolation, however, is not (and has never been) new in Brazil. It is true, especially when we relate this proposal to vertical citizenship in Brazil. In short, we can say that citizenship is vertical in Brazil because it has always been fundamentally hierarchical. On the one hand, the privileged groups, a small portion of the population, possess the majority of social, legal, economic, and symbolic resources to exercise differentiation and reproduce inequality in public and private spaces. On the other hand, most of the population, the less privileged classes, act at the edge of social assistance networks, mainly working on the domestic labor market, the goods and services industry, the informal market, and health professions. These professionals do not have the same social, legal, and economic resources to exercise rights in the public and private spheres, which means to be and to exercise horizontal citizenship.

The composition of the Brazilian labor market during the 19th century, basically constituted by the massive slavery of black men and women, made a city like Rio de Janeiro have approximately 50% of its population formed by slaves. In the same century, one of the first books considered sociological in the country was written – “Rebellion in the Backlands” by Euclides da Cunha. It describes how, in the new republic, Canudos attracted hundreds of poor northeasterners awakening the wrath of the great landowners and political elite: more than 15 thousand people died in the country, the poor being the vast majority.

These points deserve attention because, in my opinion, they are articulating the socio-political reaction to COVID-19. This articulation constitutes the highest risk to the spread of Coronavirus in Brazil and a new genocide of the Brazilian poor and peripheral population. The political defense of vertical isolation (and its defenders) represents the most significant danger to our democracy as well as the continuity of a verticalized and hierarchical citizenship. Therefore, workers from the upper and middle classes will continue in their horizontal isolation, working in the home office, and taking the non-exposure necessary measures. Nevertheless, vertical isolation will principally affect the residents of the peripheries and favelas of large Brazilian cities, health workers who dedicate their lives to the cutting edge of public health and social assistance, household assistants, the 12 million unemployed, the imprisoned. These people, indeed, will be again exposing their lives to vertical isolation. And, again, the vertical citizenship in Brazil.

Contrarily, the defense of horizontal isolation, therefore, equally distributed to the different groups, sectors, and social classes of the population – with all submitted to the same quarantine measure – is more than necessary. Notwithstanding, unfortunately, it is inconceivable for most of the privileged sectors in Brazil. As Chico Buarque’s song teaches us: horizontal isolation is fundamentally related to a practical conception in the social space – public and private – of the exercise of full citizenship (paraphrasing Parsos in the always essential text about “Citizenship for a Black American”) for all and everyone. In our republican path, it is still an urgent task: full citizenship for Brazilians, especially for black women and men, the peripherals, household assistants, and health workers, which want nothing of vertical. And yet, horizontality.


Marcelo da Silveira Campos holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from USP, is a professor at UFGD, and is a guest professor at USP Medical School. He is also a researcher and post-doctoral fellow at INCT-InEAC/UFF.

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