A New Comic Exposes Racism Amid the Pandemic in Brazil
“Confinada” critiques the disproportionate toll the coronavirus has taken on poor and Black Brazilians—on top of ongoing systemic inequality in the country.
RIO DE JANEIRO—The first recorded victim of the coronavirus in Rio de Janeiro was a Black domestic worker whose employer brought the coronavirus back to Brazil after a vacation in Italy. The wealthy woman had recovered quickly. Her maid, 63-year-old Cleonice Gonçalves, died after she, too, fell ill in March.
It was the stories of vulnerable domestic workers like Gonçalves that drove Triscila Oliveira and Leandro Assis to create a new comic series that sharply critiques the disproportionate toll that the pandemic is taking on poor and Black Brazilians. “There is nothing more symbolic of Brazil than this—for the first person to die of COVID-19 to be a Black domestic worker,” said Oliveira, a Black feminist writer and cyberactivist. “Sadly, we needed a pandemic to show just how sick our society is.”
The series—called Confinada, meaning “Confined”—aims to reflect the starkly divergent realities that Brazil’s rich and poor have faced during the pandemic. It tells the story of Ju, a fictionalized Black domestic worker from a favela who is forced to quarantine with her wealthy employer, a digital influencer living in a luxurious penthouse in Rio’s beachfront São Conrado neighborhood. The series, which launched in April, is published on social media networks such as Instagram, where it generates hundreds of thousands of likes.
“We knew we had to talk about this subject,” Assis said in July. He is a screenwriter-turned-illustrator who first joined forces with Oliveira earlier this year. Together, they produced another series that tackles broader economic and racial inequality in Brazil. The reason for the new project? “We were seeing that, really, the pandemic was making even more clear the social inequality that we have in Brazil,” Assis said.
In one recent comic strip, a domestic worker employed by the influencer’s aunt contracts the coronavirus from guests the family invited for a birthday gathering. The uncle survives the virus thanks to top-notch private medical care, and his wife blames the maid for infecting him. “You know how it is in the favela, everyone crammed in,” she says in the comic. “She brought COVID to us.” The domestic worker dies in a run-down public hospital and is promptly replaced by a new one. “I have to teach her everything,” the aunt laments. “How annoying.”
Brazil currently has the world’s second-worst outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which has infected over 2.7 million people and killed more than 94,000 there. But the pandemic has also exposed the deep racial and economic inequalities plaguing the country. The virus has hit poor, informal settlements—including favelas—particularly hard, where the spread is sped up by crowded housing, lack of running water, and poor sanitation. Public hospitals were overwhelmed in April and May, with residents in poorer communities struggling to access care.
The government response, meanwhile, has been slow and chaotic. President Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed the threat of the virus, railing against quarantine measures and urging people to go back to work. Although the federal government approved an emergency aid package for informal workers in April, the meager sum has done little to ease the financial hit on the country’s poorest.
Faced with economic necessity, many domestic workers—often employed informally, without any contract—have been forced to keep showing up to work. In the northern city of Belém, local authorities even went as far as declaring maids to be essential workers who could continue working through the quarantine. “People have to expose themselves to this virus, which is killing every day, because they need to eat, because they need to pay their bills,” Oliveira said. “You either die of COVID or you die of hunger. The poor don’t have a choice.”
The struggles faced by Black domestic workers in Confinada are deeply familiar to Oliveira. She was born and raised by a single mother in Niterói, a city that overlooks Rio de Janeiro’s famous beaches. Her mother toiled as a domestic worker for 50 years, building their home, little by little, on a hill that was once a sugar cane plantation. Her seven aunts spent years working as maids, some of them as virtual slaves receiving no payment. Oliveira, too, began cleaning homes when she was just 12 years old.
Oliveira and Assis’s Confinada comes as Brazil’s own Black Lives Matter movement is gaining momentum, partly fueled by the coronavirus’s devastating toll on Afro-Brazilians. The collapse of public hospitals in April and May disproportionately affected them. They make up 67 percent of those who rely on the overburdened public health system. Even though Black and multiracial Brazilians make up 54 percent of the population, recent figures suggest that they represent 61 percent of those dying from COVID-19.
Surging police violence in poor, predominantly Black favelas during the pandemic has also claimed lives and fueled anger. In Rio, police killed nearly six people per day during the first five months of the year, a number not seen for over two decades. Public outrage over racial and social inequality swelled further in June, when a 5-year-old boy in the north of Brazil fell from a nine-story luxury building after his mother—a Black domestic worker—entrusted him to her wealthy boss while she walked the family’s dog.
“The violence and erasure that is part of our history, unfortunately, ended up getting worse during this pandemic,” said Marcelo D’Salete, a comic book writer and illustrator.
Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888. Afro-Brazilians make up more than half of the country’s population but still face significantly worse health, employment, and education outcomes. White Brazilians earn 74 percent more than their Black and multiracial counterparts, figures from the country’s statistics agency show. Afro-Brazilians are also victims of homicide at nearly three times the rate of whites, and they are vastly over-represented in prisons. Black and multiracial Brazilians accounted for just over half of students attending universities in 2018, in large part thanks to a quota system put in place less than a decade ago. But illiteracy rates among Afro-Brazilians are still twice as high as those among the white population.
Confinada mounts a poignant critique of some of these long-standing structural inequalities, which Oliveira and Assis say paved the way for the pandemic’s devastating toll on the most vulnerable. In one comic strip, the influencer’s friend complains that her two children are struggling to stay focused on their online classes, despite having vast resources and the latest technology. To reward their efforts, the mother gives them lavish gifts. “Anything is worthwhile if it makes a child study, right?” Ju’s daughter, meanwhile, is shown back in the favela they call home, helping with chores and then struggling to access her online class on a cellphone with a patchy Wi-Fi connection borrowed from a neighbor.
“My friends are going to learn how to read and write,” she says as she bursts into tears while she tells her mother on the phone that she missed the lesson. “I’m going to stay dumb.”
In another installment, the series parodies a viral video in which a wealthy fitness blogger celebrated the return of her Black domestic worker with a coordinated dance. The video—posted just as Brazilian cities were reopening despite surging coronavirus cases—shows the uniformed employee waving a dust rag alongside her boss. In the comic strip, the influencer tries to convince her own maid to make a similar video, saying, “The idea is to do the same thing. To show that we are friends. That you like being in quarantine with me. What do you say?”
“To celebrate—in the middle of a pandemic—that your maid came back to work for you,” Assis said. “The video ended up being very symbolic of this … slavery mentality.” Oliveira and Assis say that their aim was not to attack the particular blogger but to capture the ingrained racism that exists within Brazilian society, which places less value on Black lives. It was also intended as a critique of a common attitude among Brazil’s wealthy, who often “like to say the maid is ‘almost’ part of the family,” which erases the formality of the relationship and paves the way for the exploitation of workers, Assis said.
Creating art that highlights the toll of the coronavirus on the most vulnerable is critical, Gabriela Borges said in July. She is the founder of Mina de HQ, a platform that publishes comics created by female and nonbinary artists that often tackle such themes as inequality and discrimination. “It’s fundamental that we have more people speaking about these subjects within pop culture,” said Borges, noting that publishing the comic strips on social media makes Confinada particularly accessible and broadens its reach.
But, while the series is part of a rich tradition of Brazilian graphic art critiquing race and class inequality, D’Salete said that mainstream culture still lacks stories reflecting the experiences and history of Afro-Brazilians. “We cannot continue with this erasure, this silencing,” D’Salete said. “It’s urgent for us to get to know these stories so we can try to build another society that is not as unequal as the one in which we are living today.”