Covid-19, food security and emergency aid in Brazil

Stéphane Guéneau* and Catia Grisa**

May 17, 2020

With the arrival of Covid-19 in Brazil, tens of millions of people living in poverty are again facing hunger. Despite emergency measures announced by the authorities, many of those people could feel the full force of the consequences of the crisis.

The Covid-19 health crisis has triggered a standoff between the President and local government. The rapid spread of the disease through the country has led many state governments and city mayors to take strict lockdown measures. Conversely, the country’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, continues to call for a return to economic activity, with selective isolation of “at-risk” citizens.  The judiciary has so far supported the blanket lockdown strategy adopted by local authorities. However, certain state governors have already given in to pressure, for instance in Santa Catarina state, where non-essential businesses were authorized to reopen as of 22 April.

The measures imposed have meant that a substantial proportion of Brazilians, and often the poorest, have lost their means of subsistence, particularly in terms of casual jobs, which concern 40% of the workforce. In a country where 13.5 million people are classed as extremely poor (less than 1 dollar per day), any sudden fall in casual income rapidly triggers hunger issues. Certain rural casual workers in the fishing and agricultural sectors have also seen a sudden loss of subsistence income following the closure of urban markets.

The authorities, mainly on a federal level, have responded slowly, if at all, and the country’s poorest people have rapidly found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Should they stay on lockdown and face misery and hunger, or continue to work and risk contamination, in a country where few people have satisfactory access to healthcare?

To compensate for the sudden fall in incomes among the poor, many local authorities rapidly introduced emergency programmes. They organized the distribution of food parcels containing staple goods (rice, beans, etc). However, although vital, these steps have fallen short of solving the growing food shortfalls. Moreover, the centralized distribution of large numbers of parcels has led to large gatherings of people and increased the risk of virus transmission.

The question of introducing emergency income support for casual workers is therefore now on the political agenda. A law voted on 2 April allows for a monthly payment of BRL 600 (around 110 euros) per person (BRL 1200 per family) for casual workers and micro-entrepreneurs with the lowest individual incomes. However, the President did not sign the necessary decree until 7 April. With the delay in implementing the measure, as of 9 April, the country’s poor had no choice but to take to the streets to look for sources of income to meet their basic requirements, hence increasing the risks of contamination. Moreover, that emergency income support is not universally guaranteed, particularly for people in rural areas. Applications must be registered in a databank, accessible via an app, a dedicated website, state bank branches, or businesses specializing in payment services (“loterias”). Ironically, it is the most severely economically disadvantaged people who have the least chance of accessing such services, particularly since social services are currently at a virtual standstill.

Additional emergency measures could be taken on a federal level, along the lines of those take successfully by the Maranhão state government: state purchasing of products from family farms to make up food parcels for direct distribution to local people, the poor, and restaurants, to ensure easy access for the homeless. In addition to the above measures, the current crisis could prove to be an opportunity to tackle the structural problem of inequality in Brazil. Certain specialists, like the sociologist Arilson Favareto, see it as a chance to rethink the role of the State, embark upon tax reforms and change the economic model in Brazil that has led to such inequality.

Reposted from with permission

*São Luis do Maranhão

**Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre