'It’s just a waiting game I guess': Irish people living in Brazil await Covid-19 surge

Brazil’s response to the Covid 19 crisis has left much of the global community non plussed. None more so than the small community of Cork expats who call the South American country home. Ciaran Sunderland, spoke to a few of them.

'The thing here is much bigger I believe than they are admitting to,' Paul Soden is very concerned at the Brazilian state's ability to deal with the virus outbreak and the aftermath. Picture: Paul Soden.
"The thing here is much bigger I believe than they are admitting to," Paul Soden is very concerned at the Brazilian state's ability to deal with the virus outbreak and the aftermath. Picture: Paul Soden.

Brazil’s preparations for the Covid-19 pandemic have not filled Irish writer Patrick Holloway with much confidence. “It’s a bit of a joke to be honest,” he said with a nervous laugh.

From Crosshaven in Co Cork, he runs an English school in Porto Alegre, the capital city of Rio Grande do Sul in South Brazil. He has one young daughter and another on the way soon. He has lived in Brazil for eight years.

The writer watched the growing international spread of the disease and bought extra baby supplies from the supermarket. His wife and mother-in-law thought he was “just being dramatic” at first, but have joined him now at home in self-isolation.

The family has been inside for more than two weeks.

Patrick still pays their childminders and the teaching staff of his school, which is now temporarily closed. He finds teaching online classes from home and looking after his family difficult.

“I’m exhausted, it’s hard like,” he said, but is aware of his good fortune.

“Nobody wants to complain,” he said when describing his quarantine discussions with friends. “We’re not really suffering and we know there are people who are in a lot worse situation.”

Brazil first hit the international headlines when news emerged that criminal gangs in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo were enforcing social distancing measures.

Meanwhile, President Jair Bolsonaro’s very public disagreements with Brazil’s state governors on how to deal with the public health crisis of Covid-19, and a fractious relationship with his own Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, has led to an uneven response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Further north, the prospects of Brazil’s ability to deal with the Coronavirus outbreak seem even less likely to Paul Soden, a farmer based in the countryside outside of Rio de Janeiro.

He is doing well but under no illusion of the severity of the situation. “So far, so good - just waiting for the shit to hit the fan basically,” Paul said.

A picture of an empty Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro. The iconic sands are absent of footfall this week. Picture: Joseph Morgan
A picture of an empty Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro. The iconic sands are absent of footfall this week. Picture: Joseph Morgan

Originally from Glanmire in Co Cork, he has lived in Brazil for more than 20 years and runs an eco-farm in a community with his wife and young family. “The thing here is much bigger I believe than they are admitting too,” he said.

“The Covid thing hasn’t really hit here yet; we’re well behind the wave that hit Ireland,” he said.

Paul said that he lives in a very small community of 1,000 people and that when the coronavirus reaches them “it is going to be devastating because there won’t be anyone not affected.”

Everyone is family.

“I am trying to be as independent as I can, growing more than I need so I can help our neighbours and friends.

Paul is very frustrated with the Brazilian leader's public conduct during the outbreak and describes the President's tendency to belittle public officials and other politicians who raise concerns about the coronavirus as a major problem. “The President coming out and calling people a bunch of girls doesn’t help,” said Paul.

'Trump of the tropics'

“The Trump of the tropics,” Fiona Murphy said when discussing the Brazilian leader. A teacher at the American School of Brasília, and originally from Youghal, Co Cork, she has lived in Brazil for seven years.

She is frustrated at the lack of direction from the national federal government and dismayed by the President’s dismissal of the coronavirus. He called it a “gripezinha” or “little flu”.

Fiona said that “people are observing social distancing here” but has seen some small local businesses, such as hair salons, remain open despite local state advice.

She said: “I am scared, I have one child at home with me and I am worried for him, my husband too."

Fiona's husband had a heart problem and recently had stents fitted in February.

"If the hospitals get overwhelmed and we have a problem," she said. "I know that will be difficult too.

“I have seen some people wearing personal protection in public. I tried to buy some masks myself but there was none, I couldn’t get any hand gel either."

Fiona teaches her classes online and her 16-year-old son takes his lessons online too. Her husband, Antony Boadle, is a Reuters correspondent and is also working from home.

Anthony said the ongoing political division surrounding Brazil’s official response to the Covid-19 outbreak is mainly caused by President Bolsonaro.

The leader’s attacks on state governors taking action to contain the spread of the virus are mainly motivated by political self-preservation, he said.

He said that the President knows the economic fallout will be severe in Brazil and he wants to show that he tried to preserve the economy’s normal functioning when he runs for reelection.

Reality will impose itself.

This position does carry support, however, Anthony said this may not last when the casualties begin to rise. “Reality will impose itself,” he said.

The Epicentre: São Paulo

Viral drone footage published at the end of March captured the silence and serenity of São Paulo under quarantine.

Brazil's most populous city is one of the hardest-hit regions of Brazil by the coronavirus and was one of the first cities to react to the virus.

Their state governor, João Doria, a former ally of the President, is now staunchly at odds with Brazil's leader. He has directed the closure of schools and public facilities, and advised businesses to shut.

“It has definitely quietened down a huge amount,” said Órlaith Mannion, a data scientist from Galway living in Brazil for two years.

She lives in São Paulo with her Brazilian partner. She said there is some traffic still on the roads "but it has definitely quietened down”. Órlaith said she is glad Doria took "such a firm stance on it[quarantine].”

“I don’t leave my house much; I’m really following the Irish guidelines,” she said. In isolation for more than 10 days, Orlaith said she had observed some Brazilians carrying on as normal.

"I see little groups sitting outside the petrol station, drinking their cans and a lot of people thinking 'we’re fine,’ I see a lot of old people out on the streets still."

In her own social and age group, Orlaith said that people are taking it seriously although she is concerned that she is "kind of in a bubble" from her work.

She said that her friends and family are “keeping in touch and making sure everyone is ok and checking in.” One friend needed to isolate with an unconfirmed Covid-19 case and was not tested.

“I don’t think they are doing a huge amount of testing in the grand scheme of things,” said Orlaith.

The roads of São Paulo are now eerily quiet. Picture: Julie Collins.
The roads of São Paulo are now eerily quiet. Picture: Julie Collins.

Jeff Cronin lives closer to the city centre in Higienópolis and runs a bar, the Little Cronin, just off Paulista Avenue, one of the principal thoroughfares of the city.

From Midleton in Co Cork, he closed his bar the weekend before St Patrick's day and has been in isolation since with his wife and young child.

He thought it best given that his small premises does not have much space and his staff need to travel on crowded public transport to work.

He continues to pay his staff and has reached agreements with suppliers and his landlord on the bar's rent. He said that people have been helpful but said the only state support has been in the form of delayed taxes.

Jeff said that mostly, the people of São Paulo are doing their best to observe social distancing, at least in his area and that he sees people wearing personal protection equipment (PPE) in public and when supermarket staff makes deliveries.

He said: “I’m talking, texting with my friends, they are staying at home, they are trying to isolate, doing everything they can.

“For here in São Paulo sure, they are aware if they don’t do something it will get worse and worse.”

A crashing din interrupted Jeff's interview as the residents of São Paulo conducted their nightly protest against the President.

During the evening news broadcast or when Bolsanaro gives press conferences, Brazilians bang pots and pans from their windows in protest. The tradition stems from Brazil's history as a dictatorship and is not a result of the restricted movements due to quarantine.

Jeff emphasised again that it was his local governor and mayors that directed the social and business restriction measures, and not the federal Government.

“It is the state that is telling us to do this - not the federal Government," he said and mentioned Bolsonaro's previous dismissal of Covid-19 as a severe cold.

“But people are aware that it is not[a severe cold], that it is something serious.

“People are looking at the rest of the world, regardless of what the Government says, people can see themselves.

“It’s just a waiting game I guess.”

Normally packed motorways into the city are now empty due to the city shutdown. Picture: Julie Collins.
Normally packed motorways into the city are now empty due to the city shutdown. Picture: Julie Collins.

As a business owner, Jeff is very pragmatic about the lockdown and the economic consequences. As he puts it: “At the end of the day for the economy to work, you need people fit and healthy to work.

"If people continue to work, more people and more people will get sick, then the economy will suffer more."

He is worried for his family in Brazil and in Ireland and mentions that his mother is elderly with lung issues. However, he is hopeful that the pandemic will bring the best out in people.

I can see people coming together, helping each other and supporting each other.

'What does Covid-19 do to a country that was close to the edge anyway?'

Every interviewed Irish person living in Brazil mentions the poverty and inequality that is in the country.

“It’s a different level of inequality here, there are wild extremes, there is extreme wealth with homes the size of Kilkenny castle and then there are the Favelas and people taking the bus to work,” said Joe Morgan, originally from Carlow and living in Brazil for six years.

He has been living with his partner and mother-in-law in the countryside outside of São Paulo for two weeks. A holiday turned into a semi-permanent situation once the city entered lockdown.

Joseph Morgan and his partner chose to stay away from São Paulo. Picture: Joseph Morgan
Joseph Morgan and his partner chose to stay away from São Paulo. Picture: Joseph Morgan

“Many people in Brazil work today to eat tonight,” said Joe. He said that Government welfare supports are not nearly enough.

Informal workers, domestic servants and manual labourers mainly, receive 600 reais (about €104) a month from the Government during the Covid-19 outbreak. However, it can be difficult to prove this employment status for a sum of money that does not go very far.

“I think the people who it will worse hit, the people who are the lowest level income-wise, are going to suffer the most," said Orlaith Mannion.

"People without running water, really basic things we would consider that are necessary for people’s safety. They don’t have it.”

The vulnerability of Brazil's poorest citizens to the coronavirus means a country that recently struggled with protests due to political turmoil could descend again into civil unrest.

“If the Federal government abandons its own people then you could easily image civil unrest,” said Joe.

"An alarm bell from home"

Each of them is also aware of their own good fortune and ability to self-isolate. They have savings and can continue to work from home.

However, distance is something that is not easily overcome and many talked about family and friends in Ireland.

Patrick Holloway said that his mother is at high risk to Covid-19, Jeff Cronin shared his worries about his mother too.

At times like these, it is easy to feel distant from Ireland. "I was particularly touched by the speech Leo Varadkar gave," said Joe.

"It was St Patrick's day in Sao Paulo and instead of being in Finnegans or O’Malleys or one of the Irish pubs with my Irish friends,

"I was at home making a shepherds pie and trying to make a celebration of the day.

"I was listening to John Creedon on the radio and it came on and I wasn’t really expecting it and it blew me away, I felt a long way from home that way.

“For some reason, it just came back as an alarm bell from home that I couldn’t respond to.”

At this time of writing, Brazil has 9,056 cases of Covid-19 and 359 recorded deaths.

President Bolsonaro has begun to tone down his rhetoric this week but the damage perhaps may already be done.

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