Brazil ranks second in world in COVID-19 infection rates and COVID-19-related deaths, with over one million cases and more than 50,000 dead from the virus. But Brazil’s leadership global tragedy is not limited to coronavirus rates. South America’s largest country also scores high in murder worldwide (30 per 100,000 inhabitants), averaging seven homicides per hour. The two indices of state failure and inequality are more than just parallel tragedies; increasingly they are intersecting.
When the first case was confirmed in February 2020, Brazil suffered from a lack of political coordination at the federal level, stemming from President Jair Bolsonaro’s administrative incoherence and troubled relations with the Congress and the Supreme Court. To make matters worse, Bolsonaro stubbornly downplayed the disease, calling it ‘just a little flu’ and championed hydroxychloroquine for prevention and treatment (despite any scientific evidence). The populist president has also suggested the adoption of vertical isolation – quarantining just high-risk groups (elderly, those with chronic diseases, etc), while allowing the rest of the population to move about freely for the sake of the economy.
Brazil’s staggering murder rate is boosted by police violence, which accounts for 11 per cent of all murders recorded in 2018, making the Brazilian police force the most violent in the Americas. Despite these tragic numbers, during his first year in office, Bolsonaro approved new gun ownership laws and submitted a bill to Congress decriminalizing homicides committed by police officers in duty. Although the bill was rejected, it sent a clear message to police organizations about how they should deliver their services.
The problems routinely affecting crime and violence in Brazil were further exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis. Given the lack of a nationally coordinated plan to curb the spread of the disease, the 26 states, the Federal District, and the 5,570 municipalities received the burden of dealing with the pandemic. From then on, it was up to the mayors and state governors to implement social distancing measures as well as public safety policies in order to prevent the negative externalities associated with the stay-at-home recommendations.
But the police forces were not prepared for such a change. A recent national survey has shown that only a third of police officers received Individual Equipment Protection (IEP), such as masks, gloves, and alcohol gel to prevent infection by coronavirus while on duty. Police officers also complained about having to perform new duties to enforce the social distance and lockdown policies adopted by certain municipalities, in absence of any training regarding the new patrolling routines. This explains why half of the police officers interviewed consider themselves unprepared to fulfill their new tasks, and why they display such a high rate of infection and deaths by COVID-19, although some states have not provided the means to officially record these numbers. Consequently, it’s quite possible that the size of police forces will shrink due to the unnecessary exposure of on-duty police officers to the disease.
Coronavirus brought substantial changes in social interactions and in the way Brazilians perceive their lives, leading to significant lifestyle changes, which, in turn, has affected crime patterns. Given the growing preference for online transactions and fewer face-to-face interactions, the opportunities for crimes taking place in public places, such as mugging or pickpocketing, were significantly curtailed. In fact, robberies and thefts have declined in almost all Brazilian states. However, the quarantine has led to social interactions in private places, resulting in disagreements, altercations, and even homicides among individuals who already know each other.
In ‘normal times’, two women, on average, are victims of domestic violence in Brazil every minute. Every day the country records seven femicides. Still, the only public policy created to address this serious social problem during the COVID-19 was the possibility of reporting domestic crimes with the use of an app. As a result, since the pandemic has started, femicides and homicides against women have increased 22 per cent, a figure far worse than those observed in other countries.
In addition, Brazil has recorded unusual waves of violent crime when social distancing measures were in force in many states. The intentional violent deaths increased by 11 per cent between March and April 2020 alone, and by 14 per cent when compared to the same period in 2019. These figures indicate that despite the adoption of socially restrictive measures such as closing bars, restaurants, malls and other services, the number of homicides has not declined, a pattern also observed in other Latin American countries.
One of the main explanations for this unexpected increase in homicide rates in Brazil is the conflict settlement between criminal groups. Several research centers have reported that drug trafficking and militias groups have been enforcing social distancing measures and providing financial aid in some areas to increase their support and, therefore, their legitimacy. In areas where some of these groups appear to weaken as a result of the pandemic, disputes became more common. As a result, the use of violence as a means to ensure dominance over these territories and profits has generated more deaths, victimizing mostly young black men.
Another factor behind the increasing murder rates is the unprecedented level of police violence since the pandemic started. In the state of Rio de Janeiro, the military police force has killed 43 per cent more people between March to May 2020 than in the same period in 2019. In São Paulo, the data have shown an upsurge in 14 per cent of homicides due to legal interventions. This significant increase is partially explained by the fact that the oversight mechanisms have been weakened due to the adoption of home office policies by different state agencies in charge of recording and investigating homicides. Moreover, Bolsonaro’s open support for police killings, portrayed as a legitimate and effective violent crime control policy, adds momentum to the upsurge in homicide rates. The situation forced the Supreme Court to prohibit police patrols in the poorer areas of Rio de Janeiro to prevent state killings.
Brazil has become an even more dangerous country during the pandemic through the toxic and tragic combination of crime and a pandemic, a result largely of the country’s historically weak state. Worse still, it may not even have reached its apex yet.