3/30/2020 2 Comments
On March 19th, the metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro announced its first death from the COVID-19. She was a 63-year-old hypertensive and diabetic domestic worker who was taking care of her employer, a 62-year-old woman who lives in the upscale Leblon neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. The employer had just arrived from Italy—one of the countries hardest hit by the virus so far—and did not advise her domestic worker that she was sick. Although the woman was in isolation after her trip (“selective confinement”), she still relied on her domestic worker to come in, clean and take care of her—an aspect of social distancing that few are discussing. As the Coronavirus pandemic paralyzes the world, poor Black women in Latin America are particularly vulnerable to the disease and no one seems to care.
At first, it seemed as if Coronavirus was primarily impacting the white, the rich, and the elite. Yet, over the past week, stories out of Brazil reveal the vulnerability of those who take care of those who are infected (with our without symptoms) beyond hospitals. In Brazil, Black women disproportionately work as domestic workers, and domestic workers are particularly vulnerable, and invisible in our discussions of the dangers of the disease.
Several recent cases across Brazil reveal the risk that domestic workers face. A businessman from Rio de Janeiro received the news from his doctor that his test was positive for CODVID-19 by telephone. The man infected was in a steakhouse, surrounded by friends and his wife, who was later infected as well. Although the two went into isolation, their maid-- the only person who lives with the couple, and who now works in "gloves and masks"-- did not count as someone that should be put in isolation.
In Bahia, my home state in Brazil, this pattern repeats itself. The first case of a person infected was in the city of Feira de Santana. The first person infected, a 34-year-old womanreturned to Brazil from Italy carrying the virus with her. She was tested for the virus in a private hospital. However, despite orders to remain "in isolation", and monitoring by the state health secretary, the woman’s42-year-old domestic workeralso became infected. The domestic worker’s 68-year-old mother became the third infected.
Historically, Black women have been the hands that clean up after the world. However, recently two trends have made this work more precarious. On the one hand, neoliberalism has continued to devalue domestic, leading to less stability and continued low pay. On the other hand, austerity measures have meant that funding for cleaning at the state level (in schools, universities, public places) has been cut drastically in places like Brazil, putting us all at risk. There is a direct connection between austerity, the risk we face with public hygiene, a reduction in public services like funding for university education, and the vulnerability of domestic workers. Here in Brazil, our university campuses get dirtier by the day. In 2016, the federal government cut public spending and investment in health care and education drastically. One of the first signs of this cut was the outsourcing of cleaning staff. Composed mostly of Black workers, government-contracted cleaning teams that were not fired became overloaded by extra shifts and extra work.
Now, as the world waits for a Coronavirus vaccine, personal hygiene and aggressive cleaning of public spaces are the most effective way to fight the proliferation of the virus. Most often this means that our health and our very lives are in the hands of the domestic workers who clean our public and private spaces—and across the Americas that frequently means Black women.
Last Saturday I was on the campus of the Federal University of Bahia and one of the bathrooms was spotless. A Black worker, alone, almost compulsively cleaning the men's and women's bathrooms at the same time. Yet while this one woman was working above and beyond to try to keep us safe, at my campus outside of the city limits, the bathrooms remain dirty because the workers who once cleaned them have been laid off. My university, the Federal University of Recôncavo da Bahia, has suffered from recent federal government cuts in education. Most of the classrooms smell like mold and have no ventilation. Oftentimes we do not have running water or hand sanitizer. Undervaluing domestic work has a direct impact on our health.
Cleanliness has a race, gender and class. The other day I was watching a popular news program. One infected and isolated interviewee said, "The worst thing about quarantine is having to cook your own food." Another claimed that she had never imagined herself infected with a virus like this. In other words, many of the privileged elite who contract the virus believe that getting sick from epidemics is a thing of the poor. It is as if it were an “uppity virus" , that blindly disrespects social hierarchies, throwing everything upside down.
What did the privileged expect from this pandemic? They expected COVID-19 to be like dengue fever, zika and chicungunha-- “poor people’s” diseases that afflict spaces neglected by the state (these diseases are linked to basic sanitation issues like access to clean, running water). When poor and Black people were the disproportionate victims of rabid disease, no one seemed to care. Now that the white elite are particularly in focus, the sense of social responsibility has shifted, yet Black women still remain particularly at risk.
Domestic workers depend on Brazil’s university health care, use public transportation, live with their families daily, and cook their own food. Many of them work informally and do not receive sick leave or qualify for unemployment should they have to stay at home. What happens when their kids' schools close? Are they allowed to stay at home? If isolation means that infected people are distant from other people, why don't they count? It is time for us to consider the race, gender, class dimensions of this global pandemic.
* Credits: A mão da limpeza (The Hand of Cleanliness) is a composition by Gilberto Gil and is on the album A raça humana - The human race, which by the way is very relevant for the moment and we should listen all these days that we are at home… for those who can afford to work From home.
Luciana Brito is an historian, member of the Black Women's Network of Bahia, and identifies herself as a black intellectual and working-class feminist. She is a professor in the Department of History at the Federal University of Recôncavo da Bahia-Brazil, specializing in the history of slavery and abolition in Brazil and the United States. She is also interested in the areas of race, gender and class in the Americas. She is the author of several articles and the book Temores da África, which will soon be published in English. Instagram: @lucianabritohistoria