“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex” - Karl Marx


Covid-19 in Brazil: A 21st Century 'Reenactment' of the 19th Century Yellow Fever?

SAO PAULO/ CAMBRIDGE: As the death toll in Brazil nears 30,000 people and is likely to remain on a steady and fast escalade over the next few days, many believe the arrival of the pandemic during a political and economic crisis has turned to looming disaster.

Nonetheless, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro - who called the virus "just a little flu" - and his supporters are still dedicating their time to organising protests against isolation measures to contain the spread of the disease.

But Brazil's history tells us it is not an unpredictable scenario: such reactions owe a lot to the nation's slave-owning past, and the way its elites came to handle economic pressures.

58% of Brazilians still live within 200km of the ocean - a heritage from colonial times. As the exploitation of fertile lands for agriculture grew with demand for its commodities (sugarcane then coffee in the 19th century) Brazil became the biggest importer of enslaved labour in the continent, accounting for 46% of the traffic in slaves from Africa to the Americas.

In 1849, with Britain pressuring the Imperial Government to abolish the slave trade, ships rushed to the Brazilian coast filled with enslaved captives from Africa, meant to fuel the booming coffee and sugar farms, the demand for house servants, and urban commerce.

It is still possible to feel this heritage. Brazil has the most significant African diaspora population in the world, and the social indices still show they hold precarious jobs, in inadequate housing, education and health conditions.

In 1849 one of those slave ships, inbound from Havana after a stop in New Orleans, docked in the old colonial capital of Salvador and let loose some mosquitoes from Africa. Today, Aedes aegypti with its black-and-white stripes is well known to Brazilians as a carrier of dengue fever, zika and chikungunya. On 30 September 1849 however, it brought something unknown to them: the yellow fever.

Six weeks later, on 15 December 1849, the local authorities sent word of the problem to the Imperial Government in Rio, and the nation's best doctors at the Academy of Medicine got together to discuss the matter. They considered that Brazil had a "proverbial healthiness", as one doctor called it, while yellow fever was believed to be something that only prospered in much warmer climates. Such a plague would not flourish in our pleasant weather.

On 23 March 2020, Mr Bolsonaro said the virus would not survive in Brazil's weather as it had in Italy, with "a climate rather different from ours." The virus had been first reported in the country just 26 days earlier.

History and description of the Yellow Fever Epidemic that raged in Rio de Janeiro in 1850

As the ship from Havana followed the coastline down to Rio de Janeiro and the epidemic spread, with hundreds of sick people reported in the capital and other coastal cities, British diplomats were lobbying the Imperial Government. They suggested that quarantine procedures such as closing off ports would be senseless in the fight against yellow fever, arguing that adverse sanitary conditions were to blame for the outbreak.

Meanwhile Yellow Jack, as the disease was nicknamed by the British, was spreading rapidly through the capital's urban tenements.

With doctors suggesting artillery shots and fires to cleanse the air, the next step would be the destruction of these tenements. The freed and runaway blacks who lived there would move to the hills of Rio de Janeiro and build the first favelas (slums). From 1855 onward these places, unsuited to accommodate a large population, would become a recurring epicentre of cholera outbreaks due to a lack of basic sanitation provision.

On 26 March 2020, Mr Bolsonaro stated that the spread of the epidemic wouldn't cause many deaths, considering that the average Brazilian was used to diving into sewage water during floods, a proof of "innate resistance" that should be studied.

With the epidemic ravaging the imperial capital, those who could afford not to work fled into self-isolation in Petrópolis, a tropical and mountainous Versailles just a few hours away from Rio. They kept their slaves working in Rio - noblesse oblige.

Although Africans and Afro-descendants were more resistant to the disease, most likely by accumulated immunities, in truth the rhetoric of the time needed to find ways to defend the continuity of trade and wage-work.

The statistics in Rio did not consider that slaves and free Africans were, as their descendants still are, a population with less access to quality health services. Underreported cases, the denial of information and poor living conditions defined their reality, and define the reality of those who live in Brazil's favelas today, who are having to deal with the Covid-19 crisis on their own, in scenarios where they are about ten times more likely to die from the infection than their counterparts living in better conditions.

Protecting trade became a priority, and in 1850 the ports were kept open and the death toll kept rising, with around eighty people dying per day in January, February and March. Just a few weeks ago, the city of Blumenau in the southern state of Santa Catarina became a global symbol of denial when it decided to reopen commerce against the recommendations of the World Health Organization, with Covid-19 cases spiking 173% after the measure.

In Rio as the fever death toll kept rising, and even the Emperor's son died, the Hygiene Junta discussed a possible cure. Drawing on reports by a French doctor who had treated the fever with quinine sulfate years earlier during an outbreak on board the steamship Gomer, the Imperial experts believed they had found an answer.

Without proper studies and testing, the treatment was implemented and instantly began to fail. People with comorbidities, and there were many given the lack of basic sanitation provision to poorer communities, were undoubtedly the ones most affected by the fever.

Last month Mr Bolsonaro, having ordered the army to produce chloroquine pills, went on to say in a public address that this medication should be used to treat Covid-19, although there isn't to this day a consensus on its effects.

Even after studies of its efficacy were cancelled - after the death of a test subject in Manaus - Bolsonaro's supporters have pressured for its extensive use as a "cure" that would allow isolation measures to be ended, basing themselves on the success a few French doctors obtained in an isolated scenario in Marseille. As a consequence chloroquine has disappeared from the pharmacies, and those actually in need of the medicine have difficulty finding it.

In 1850 as Yellow Jack seemed to be easing its grip, the official death toll was of 4,160 people in a city of 166,000. But the real figures were believed to be much higher, motivating the creation of South America's first service of health statistics the following year.

As an answer to the epidemic - and to British pressure - Parliament abolished the slave trade that year and deemed the measure sufficient.

Epidemics have since become a focus of studies in Brazil, from 19th-century doctors' researches to panoramic works such as Sidney Chalhoub's Feverish City. The constant struggles with such diseases have been the result of political decisions in the field of health, and an absolute disregard for the most impoverished communities.

In the following decades, as no vaccine was discovered and no extensive public policy plan was laid, yellow fever would return in wave after wave with devastating results, until a vaccine was found. Countrywide campaigns would succeed in eradicating it only in 1942, almost a hundred years later.

Although today scientific advancements allow for faster vaccine development, in today's Brazil the authorities continue to ignore the warnings of 1850, while following its mistakes with diligence.

With the government's continued failure to organise a broader system of financial aid, food supplies and improved sanitation provision, especially for those in the favelas, we are led to ask ourselves, will the Covid-19 crisis in Brazil become the biggest historical reenactment on the planet?

Paulo Henrique Rodrigues Pereira is visiting researcher at the African-Latin American Research Institute and the Department of History at Harvard University and Caio Henrique Dias Duarte is researcher at the Law School of the University of Sao Paulo    


  • The Taj That is India
  • The BJP and Triple Talaq
  • Rohingya: A People Condemned!
  • 9 Key Qs Raised on First Day of Aadhaar Hearing in the Supreme Court
  • A Critical Analysis of Delhi's Human Development Index
  • 3 Army Divisions For 300 Terrorists In JK But No End to Violence: Certainly the Answer Does Not Lie in Force
  • 'It is Not the Left But the Congress That's the B-Team of the BJP'
  • Kasganj: A Story of People's Unity Fractured by Engineered Hate and Violence
  • Invisible Children Of Delhi
  • India 81 in Corruption Index, Amongst the "Worst Offenders"
  • Economists Hit Out Against Move to Privatise Public Sectors Banks
  • Tripura Trades Decency For False Eldorado
  • Syria's Bloody War
  • Pakistan And China Fill Space In Maldives Willfully Vacated By India
  • The Big Private Crop Insurance Scam: Farmers Par Premium of Rs 482, Receive Rs 5 as Insurance!
  • US Attack on Syria Violates International Law, Total Hypocrisy
  • Death Penalty Is Not The Answer To Sexual Violence: Implement Justice Verma Committee Report
  • Walls on Every Side: Trying to Get Data in India
  • The Ascent of Multi-Politics In Malaysia
  • Why the Objections to Marxism are Mistaken
  • The Rise and Fall of the Malaysian Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim
  • BDS Has Placed Israel on Notice
  • Can We Promote Peace in India, Today?
  • Burying The Two-State Solution
  • Corruption And Class Rule
  • Is Ethnic Cleansing Coming to India
  • Our Real Heroes
  • Confronting Journalism's Misogynistic Trolls
  • After 17 Years of War, A Peace Movement Grows in Afghanistan
  • Taking Play Seriously: Time to Make Sports A Fundamental Right!
  • Law Commission Publishes Consultation Paper on Sedition
  • Foreign Policy: Between Folly and Foibles
  • Suu Kyi's Continued Denial And Bangladesh's
  • Economy Crumbles as Fuel Prices Skyrocket, Household Budgets Hit
  • Rupee's New Low: A Dangerous Drift
  • Are We Still Ruled by The British?
  • From Anti-National to Urban Naxal: The Trajectory of Dissent in India
  • Learning the Power of Lies: Facts vs. Falsehoods in the Age of Trump
  • The Indian Economy is in a Tailspin
  • China Walks a Tightrope on The Uighur Muslim Issue
  • Is Ram Mandir a Mere Election Strategy of the BJP?
  • The Harsher Counters of India's Drug Legislations
  • BJP's Election Strategy: Data is the New Opium
  • Geographical Indication - India's Untapped Resource
  • Climate Change to Make Prediction of Furious Storms More Difficult
  • Mountain echoes for India
  • Maldives: Has the Wheel Turned Full Circle?
  • President Sirisena Needs to be Reached Sooner Rather Than Later
  • Plastic Pollution in India
  • Prejudice by Any Name
  • 29 Years After Fall of Berlin Wall, Europe Has 1,000 Km of Walls to Stop Migrants
  • The Leftover Women of Afghanistan
  • Harmony of Music and Politics of Silencing
  • The Economics of Policy: Prohibition and Free Water Supply
  • Threat to Democracy in the Age of Social or Anti-Social Media
  • Intellectual Property- A Vital Discipline
  • What Happened in Britain, and What's Next
  • Assembly Debacle: BJP Got Taken in by Its Own Fake News
  • India: Secular Democracy or Hindu Rashtra
  • Adani is Byword for Government's Climate Inaction as Australia Gears for Elections
  • How The Modi Government is Killing Off MGNREGS
  • The Year of the Gazan
  • Assembly Polls: Ten Crucial Takeaways Ahead of 2019
  • The Real Effects of Fake Propaganda on Migrants
  • Why NGOs in Pakistan Are at The Brink of Extinction
  • Dogged by Brexit
  • In My Own Voice: Citizenship Amendment Bill And You
  • Oil Giant Shell Finally Faces Its Day In Court For Complicity In Rapes And Murders in Nigeria
  • The Geopolitics of Pulwama
  • Shah Faesal Cuts Through Calls for Blood and Lays Out a Roadmap for Kashmir
  • Modi's ABC: Avoiding, Burying, Confusing
  • The Kashmir Question: A 'Made in India' Problem
  • Opposition Must Take a Stand Against the War Politics of Hindutva
  • 'Patriotism' Made Easy in Times of 'WhatsApp Elections'
  • Urban Poor Have Set Agenda for 2019 Elections
  • Will the US End Up Putting Sanctions on Every Country That Doesn't Bend to its Will?
  • Minority and Indigenous Women Human Rights Activists More Prone to Harassment UN Report
  • Tribute to Speaker Rabi Ray (1926-2017)
  • International Participation is Necessary Where State is Part of The Problem
  • Italy Takes Belt and Road to The Heart of Europe
  • The Legacy of Shaheed-e-Azam
  • In My Own Voice: Heroes or Hiroshima
  • The Modi Years
  • Election in Israel: A Race to the Bottom
  • Why Bangladesh Overtook Pakistan
  • Digital Monopoly Platforms, Modi Regime and Threat to Our Democracy
  • Elitism and Development
  • Jawaharlal Nehru and Organised Religion
  • A Brief History of the IUML and Kerla's Muslims
  • The Immunisation of Human Rights
  • How Can India Win The Struggle on Poverty?
  • The RSS's Chanakya Neeti
  • Diversity, Belonging and Multiculturalism
  • The Chinese Ambition
  • The Role City Govts Can Play in the Health of Citizens
  • Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew: Forgotten Warrior of Our Freedom Movement
  • Fighting Climate Change, Building Resilience
  • Mridula Sarabhai(the orignal anti-national)
  • Right to Education: A Dream Half Forgotten
  • Decoding One Nation One Poll
  • Tunisia Heads for Polls Amidst Economic Slowdown, Squsbbling and Crack Down on Islamic Extremist
  • Lynchings, Litchis and No Water: What the International Media is Saying Abount India
  • Blood in the Nile
  • Will the BNP Ever Again be a Major Political Force in Bangladesh?
  • 'Real Estate Brokers' Cannot Dampen The Palestinian Spirit
  • The Indian Liberal's Conundrum
  • Hope For Democracy in Sudan
  • In Depth: Water Crisis Looming Across Tamil Nadu
  • Missing Secularism in New Education Policy
  • Religion, Nationalism And Insurgency in Balochistan
  • Dim Lights, Closed Blinds: History Lessons From a Party in Power
  • Loan Waivers Need Better Designing to Prevent Farmer Suicides
  • Makimg Best Use of Sri Lanka's Strategic Location
  • FDI in Coal: Look Who's Coming to the Party
  • Weapons and the Never Ending Space Race
  • Thirty Years the Berlin Wall Brought Down
  • Reclaiming the Opposition and Political Space in India
  • An Interreligious Conference to Build Bridges in Sri Lanka
  • On 'Correcting' History and Akbar's Invasion of Kashmir
  • The Evolution of the 'Nobel Prize' in Economics
  • Close Coordination Between Turkey and Russia in Syria
  • Sri Lanka's Election Time Promises Costly to Keep
  • The India Economy and The Cobra Effect
  • Fascism: Is Liberal Use "Trivialising" This "Destructive Phenomenon?"
  • Treating the Poor as Development Guinea Pigs
  • A Not sp 'National Education Policy: Analysis Reveals Exclusion in Education Sector
  • University Fee Hikes Pave the Way for Selling Public Assets
  • The Truth About Middle Class 'Revolutions?
  • 50 Years of US Arms Trade: The Lasting Impact on West Asia
  • India Abjures Secularism in Bangladesh's View, Will Regional Cooperation Take a Hit?
  • Amidist Resistance to "De-Tribalisation", A Look at Why Jharkhand Polls are More Critical Than They Appear
  • The Dangerous Game of Citizenship: BJP Creates Divisive Agenda Through NRC
  • Revealed: US Losing Aghan War Due to "Fatally Flawed" War Strategies and Lack of Clear Objetives
  • 'Politics and Prejudice': Can Dalit-Bahujans and left Progressives Join Hands?
  • State Power's Attempts at Rewriting History
  • Afghanista's Tumultous Fourty-Year Journey
  • Nepal: Citizen's Needs Remain Sidelined as Turbulent Game of Politics Continues
  • "Enough is Enough": Secular India Revolts Against a " Majoritarian State"
  • Looking at Cuba's Revolution 61 Years On
  • Soleimani Murder Set to Spiral Out of Control, US Expected to Pressure India Under LEMOA
  • The Rise of Digital Media and The Viral Phenomenon of "Nowledge"
  • Thus Spake JP: Beware the Writing on the Wall
  • Sri Lankan Government Must Pay Attention to Problem-Solving in the North
  • Drowning Nation Clutches at Military Might?
  • India's Neighbourhood First Policy Crumbles
  • A Gobal Assault by the Far-Right
  • Delhi Riots: Historical Patterns, Complicity of Forces Point to Planned Violence
  • Behind The Protests Defending Public Education
  • Putting The Judiciary on Trial
  • "Sanctions Are a Crime": During Coronavirus Pandemic, Sanctions Against Iran, Venezuela Causing Medical Shortages
  • Social Messiahs or Smart Entrepreneurs?
  • Justice Gogoi Joining Rajya Sabha Points to a Constitutional Crisis
  • A Russian "Plays Long Game" Firewall for Venezuela Against US Sanctions
  • RSS and the Question of Morality
  • Establishing COVID-19 Hospitals in Record Time
  • A New "Medical Internationalism" Needed: Cuba At the Pandemic Frontlines Even As Wealthy States Neglect Healthcare
  • Why They Suffer: The Human/Animal Conflict
  • More Books and Snowy Mornings
  • Statesmanship Required to Avert Constitutinal Crisis in Sri Lanka
  • Combating 'Hate Virus': Communal Forces Divide in times of Global Pandemin
  • How Biometric Authentication Has Excluded MAny From The Public Distribution System
  • Lessons From Iraq: Before Trump Sues China, US Must pay for Unjust War on Iraq
  • The American War System And The Global 'War of Error'
  • Demilitarising Patriotism in The Covid Fight
  • Muslims Need a Fair Media
  • Sri-Lanka: Shock of Covid-19 Wanes, Nationalist Sentiments Rise as Elections Approach
  • Covid-19 in Brazil: A 21st Century 'Reenactment' of the 19th Century Yellow Fever?
  • Iran's Fuel Tankers for Venezuela Sail to Safety Under 'Chinese Shield'
  • US Protests Bear Lessons For Sri Lanka
  • India and Nepal in For A Prolonged Standoff?
  • The Fifth Schedule: Tribal Advisory Councils and International Perspectives
  • The Asian American Response to Pandemic-Era Racism Must Be Cross-Racial Solidarity
  • Is Police Brutality Exclusive to the USA?
  • Libya's Future Seema to Rest on Arrangements Between Russia And Turkey
  • China's strategic Mind And Method: "Long-Term Planning" Behind Country's Geo-Political Moves
  • Returning Migrants: A Boon For Rural Industrialisation?
  • Why Refugees in Greece Are Afraid of the Word 'Camp'''
  • Black Lives Matter Movement And Its Lessons For India
  • US Provocations Trigger Tension in Sino-American Relations
  • Inclusive Representation Required In Sri Lanka's Decision-Making Bodies
  • Humanists At Risk: Demonising Dissent, Infantilising Society
  • Putin Anticipates 'Cascading Tension', Hints At Need To Rest World Order
  • Why the Neoliberal Agenda Is a Failure at Failure at Fighting Coronavirus
  • Covid-19 Underscores Importance of Local Planning
  • BRI Drive Post-Covid-19 Global Economic Recovery', Claims China
  • Are We Mainstreaming or Simply Trivialising Biodiversity?
  • Is Iran's Influence in Iraq Waning?
  • Green Economic Recovery: A Firm Commitment Required
  • Ease Of Doing Business VS Human Development
  • Provincial Councils The Best Option For A Peaceful Sri Lanka?
  • Revisiting the GDP Paradox
  • Coverange of Ayodhya Sparked "Convenient Collective Amnesia"
  • Prashant Bhushan And The Case of Contempt: "An Example of How Not to Write A Judgment"
  • Strengthening the Capacity of Gram Sabhas
  • Far Right Authoritarian Leaders Have Intensified The Pandemic in Their Countries
  • Congress And The Hindutva Campaign: "The Middle Path is Fast-Disappearing"
  • Trump Faces Backlash at Attempts to Suppress Mail-In Voting
  • Meeting the Covid Challenge to Define Our Nationhood
  • Capitalism's Political Problem: In Constant Conflict With Democracy
  • Anti-CAA Movement: How The 'OutSider' Discourse Dismisses Dissent
  • Centre Shirks Responsibility, "Abandons States" For Political Gain
  • Healing the Health System
  • Emerging Challenges for the International Labour Organisation
  • After Ayodhya, Kashi-Mathura On Temple Politics Agenda?
  • Unlike Today's Farm Bills, Even Britishers' Champaran Agrarian Bill Underwent Legislative Scrutiny
  • Science in Industry and the Academy
  • The US Supreme Court Has Never Been Liberal
  • Coronavirus Pandemic and Recessions: Disastrous for 'White Collar' Jobs
  • What Does Justice Mean Today?
  • Bihar's Political Ennui Can Only be Overcome by the Left
  • Gender Budget: Kerala Leads the Way, The Centre Should Follow
  • The Fight for Right to Information
  • Will Swing Voters Make Bihar Elections a Closer Contest Than Anticipated?
  • AMY Coney Barrett Sworn in as us Supreme Court Judge: Major Victory For the Right Wing
  • Thailand Protests - Youth Demand Greater Democratic Freedom
  • Unemployment a Key Issue in Bihar Elections
  • Capitalists Hungry For Land in Developing Countries Are a Threat to Indigenous Communities
  • Signals From Bihar: BJP and Left 'Sure Winners', Congress 'Neither Here Nor There'
  • Trump Lost But May Continue to Wield His Weapons of Destructions
  • Healing Divisions Post Election is The Challenge
  • 8 'Fruitless' Talks Later: XI Refuses to Budge, Modi in 'No Mood to Ruffle Feathers'
  • A Biden Presidency Hails The Return of The 'Ancien Regime'
  • Locating Nehru's Place In History
  • Why The BJP Has Shifted Focus From 'Congress Mukt Bharat' To Regional Parties
  • As People's Distress Grows, BJP Government is Busy Else where
  • The West Asia Trump Leaves Behind
  • Ambedkar's Vision Stands In Agonising Contrast to the Babri Masjid Demolition
  • Diversity in Nation Building: Recognising the Role of The Minority
  • Farmers Turn the Spotlights on Big Business
  • America's Vaccine Paranoia
  • Afghanistan: Despite US-Taliban Agreements, Peace Remains Elusive
  • Kisan Protests Are More About Survival of the Peasantry
  • Kamalji - Goodbye My Friend!
  • Condolence Message for Mr Kamal Morarka
  • Global dynamics in 2021
  • Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan: Muslims for Composite Indian Nationalism
  • Rajapaksas Regime Under Multiple Pressures
  • Coup Attempt in Jordan Leaves a Trail
  • What Kind of Political Candidates Did Gandhi Hope Voters Would Support?
  • Are Indian Students Losing Out on Past History as Textbooks are Being Changed?