International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: COVID 19, Environmental and Structural Racism

Today (21 March) is registered on the global calendar of struggles as International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

The creation of this commemoration, proposed by the United Nations, was driven by the memory of the Sharpeville Massacre, which took place on 21 March 1960.

On the day, approximately twenty thousand people protested against the “pass laws” in Johannesburg in South Africa (a country living under the apartheid regime at the time).  The law obliged black people to carry identification documents which limited their ability to move around the city.

Apartheid military soldiers attacked protestors, killing 69 people and wounding hundreds of others.

In homage to the struggle and in memory of those protestors, International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is commemorated on 21 March.


The pandemic and environmental racism

This year the date falls within a period of global concern about deaths arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. In Brazil, the perspective is one in which impoverished and vulnerable people will be most affected, due to the collapse of Brazil’s public health system, which the authorities are projecting to occur in April.

Black populations will be the main targets of the pandemic, exposing one more facet of racism: environmental racism.  This term was coined in 1981 by the black civil rights leader in the United States, Dr Benjamin Franklin Chavis Jr, based on his investigations and research into the relationship between toxic waste and the North American black population (Source: Geledés.)

In his words, “environmental racism is racial discrimination in the deliberate targeting of ethnic and minority communities with exposure to toxic and hazardous waste sites and facilities, along with the systematic exclusion of minorities from the formulation, application and remediation of environmental policies”.

For Maria Malcher, from the Centre for the Study and Defence of Black People of Pará (Centro de Estudos e Defesa do Negro do Pará: CEDENPA) one concern is that the black Brazilian population daily confronts a high degree of vulnerability due to a lack of access to quality health care and equipment. When we talk of a pandemic context we recognize that this difficulty will tend to increase exponentially.

“With the number of cases spreading significantly across the nation, it is possible to think of and create mechanisms aimed at the majority of the Brazilian population, principally the black population, which represents 55.8% of the total, and which, in turn, constitutes 80% of patients served by the Unified Health Service (Sistema Único de Saúde: SUS), according to data from the 2018 National Household Sample Survey,” reflects Malcher.

Her assessment is in line with formulations being designed by community leaders in other corners of the country. Without a government plan specifically focused on the lives of more than 13 million people who live in low-income communities around the country, the poorest run the risk of being treated, in the near future, as the main villains of the pandemic.  This prediction comes from Gilson Rodrigues, community leader and president of the Union of Residents and Traders of Paraisópolis, a community in the southern zone of São Paulo which has approximately 100 thousand inhabitants.

“The location in which most cases [of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus] will be registered will be the favelas.  Because how is an old person going to enter into isolation in a house with ten people and two rooms?  This isolation is for ‘foreigners to see’, for the rich.  Poor people don’t have the living conditions to cope with this.  There will be many losses in the favelas, sadly”, warns Rodrigues, who says that his concerns reflect the views of favela leaders around the country.

He gives the example of alarming situations, such as the Complexo do Alemão favelas in Rio, where residents report that they have had no water supply for 12 days and cannot take adequate hygiene measures against the virus.  In Salvador (Bahia), the situation is no different.  According to information from the A Tarde newspaper, on Friday 20 March the Bahia Water and Sanitation Company (Empresa Baiana de Águas e Saneamento: EMBASA) reported that, following a voltage drop in the electricity supply, water capture pumps at the Joanes 1 dam have stopped working.  Because of this, there will be a reduced water supply in certain areas of Salvador, with service interruptions.  The areas affected are those in the city’s peripheral neighbourhoods and no prediction has been given about the return of the normal water supply.


Black women and COVID-19

Another aspect that the pandemic exposes is the structural racism in our society.  The current guidance (to stay at home and avoid social contact), despite being the principal measure to minimize the health effects of Covid-19 and control the spread of the virus, is a privilege, asserts Maria Malcher of CEDENPA.  Most black women, she notes, are in “complex situations of ‘precarious work’, ‘unpaid work – including care work’ and other ‘domestic service’.  Not moving around the city and not going to work means not guaranteeing the maintenance of basic survival needs” she stressed.

“This week, we have already observed that there will be drastic socio-economic effects of the Covid-19 on the lives of black women, who represent the majority of the population working in domestic service (92% are women, the majority black), micro-entrepreneurship, and self-employed and salaried services, who cannot opt to work from home” added the CEDENPA leader, who is also a lecturer at the Federal Institute of Pará (Instituto Federal do Pará: IFPA).

On this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Ecumenical Coordination of Service (Coordenadoria Ecumênica de Serviço: CESE) reasserts its commitment to the defence of the rights of black men and women and the fight for a world where racial equity prevails.

In these times of Coronavirus, CESE will continue supporting projects, albeit more slowly, and the communications team is working on promoting and constructing campaigns for protection and self-care strategies for the most vulnerable populations, such as traditional and original peoples and black men and women.

The cycle of recommendations has already begun, follow the hashtag: #CoronanasPeriferias (Corona Peripheries) on social networks.  The national coalition to confront the coronavirus unites a range of communicators ready to use communication as a tool for struggle at the service of the population most affected by the absence of public policies and therefore most vulnerable to the Coronavirus.

(Information from Geledés, BBC News and A Tarde Online)

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