Hunger Haunts Millions in Brazil as Billionaires Roll in Cash Amid COVID Pandemic

The hunger index in Brazil has risen to its highest point since 2004. The number of people starving has doubled since 2018, the year Brazil elected far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro as president.

Sao Paulo: Few comforting figures come out of Brazil these days. The numbers about daily infections and deaths caused by COVID-19 bring despair every evening. Data released last week shows how badly the country has been battered. But it is not about the damage done by the virus. It is about poverty and hunger.

A survey by the Brazilian Research Network on Sovereignty and Food and Nutritional Security shows that more than 116 million people are facing food insecurity. Of these, the survey says, 43 million (20.5% of population) do not have enough to eat and 19 million people (9%) are just starving.

The Brazilian staple diet comprises rice, beans, meat and vegetables. Now, the majority of families are left with one or two items on the plate, with some surviving just on rice. This horrifying situation was revealed on Tuesday in another survey by Food for Justice Research Group (FJRG), which places the number of with food insecurity at 125.6 million or 59.3% of the population. The survey, called “Effects of the pandemic on food and the food security situation in Brazil”, probed if people were eating in sufficient quantity and quality and if they were worried about their food running out.

The hunger index in Brazil has risen to its highest point since 2004. The number of people starving has doubled since 2018, the year Brazil elected far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro as president. The situation is gloomy across Brazil. In all cities, poor people stand in lines for hours every day to get some rice or a loaf of bread from some NGOs; in many parts, small children can be seen rummaging through the rubbish bins to pick something for their hungry mouths.

The virus is out of control in Brazil because of Bolsonaro’s refusal to control it. The rise in the number of hungry, too, is a result of his policies. According to a survey released last week by the Institute of Socioeconomic Studies (Inesc), the government did not spend billions of dollars authorised by the Congress to counter the impact of the pandemic in 2020. Last year, the Congress had approved financial aid to 66 million Brazilians with five instalments of $110 each. In September, Bolsonaro cut it down to four instalments of $50, reaching only 42 million people. “The government had an obligation to spend the maximum available resources to protect the population. But what we saw was sabotage, inefficiency and slowness in financing essential public policies,” said Livi Gerbase, an advisor to Inesc.

The Brazilian poor, who are either self-employed or work informally, are caught in a double trap. Amid the pandemic, their incomes have vanished but the food prices have shot up. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the food prices have increased by more than 15% in the past 12 months. In such a situation, the cash from the government allowed the poor to put food on the table. But its disruption by Bolsonaro has pushed millions to starvation.

Given the demand for the assistance, Bolsonaro, whose ratings are down in the dumps, has not scrapped it completely but he has slashed it, despite warnings against it. In a report last week, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said that the spike in food prices combined with the loss of income due to the pandemic would lead more people to die of hunger worldwide. “Without intervention measures, the fall in income in 2020 and the rise in food prices will lead 62 million people to go hungry in the world,” said the IMF in its report “Perspectives of World Economy”.

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Not only is the biggest South American country, which is the number 12th economy in the world, facing starvation, the inadequate aid to the needy may send its economy into a tailspin. A forecast by the National Confederation of Trade in Goods, Services and Tourism this week said that the impact of the cash assistance to people on the country’s retail trade will be eight times less than last year, when more than 35% of what was given to the population went into retail purchases.

With the aid to the poor drying up, hunger on the rise as the virus rages on, Brazil faces the worst humanitarian disaster in its history.

Back to the future

Brazil currently has more people living in extreme poverty than at the beginning of the last decade, when the figure was around 11%. In 2011, then President Dilma Rousseff launched a plan called “Brazil without Misery”, which aimed to uplift 16.2 million people from extreme poverty. It brought poverty figure down to 4.5%. Now, it has jumped to 27 million or about 12.8% of the population.

Till a few years ago, Brazil was in a different place. It was a global reference point for fighting poverty and hunger because of the successful implementation of a direct cash transfer scheme known as “Bolsa Familia”. Under the scheme, which completes 18 years in 2021, money was transferred to poor families on the condition that they sent their children to school and got them vaccines offered by the public healthcare system. Started by Lula de Silva in his first term as president, Bolsa Familia uplifted millions out poverty and gave them dignity, says Walquiria Leão Rego, a political scientist from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) in Sao Paulo. “The redistributive dimension of Bolsa Familia was a revolution because it started serving 13 million families at that time, which is equivalent to more than 50 million people,” says Rego in an interview to The Wire.

Rego is the well-known expert on Bolsa Familia, which also inspired India’s MGNREGA scheme launched in 2013. Having carried out an extensive research about the programme from 2006 and 2012, during the presidency of Lula and Dilma, the academic produced a book, “Voices from Bolsa Familia: Autonomy, Money and Citizenship”, in partnership with the philosopher Alessandro Pinzani. Their research shows how a small cash aid from the state brought big changes to poor families. “Under the plan, each family was given 70 to 80 reais for each child up to 15 years. In the interiors of the country, this money allowed them to buy their basic food. Five years after the start of the plan, infant and mother mortality rates fell sharply. Earlier, families went hungry and were forced to eat roots or hunt,” says Rego, who also travelled to India a few years ago to study the impact of microcredit schemes.

Professor Walquiria Leao Rego, whose research and a book about Bolsa Familia, the direct cash transfer scheme in Brazil, chronicles the lives of people affected by the social programme. Photo: Author provided

One of the factors in the success of the programme, says Rego, was the fact that the money was transferred to women. “Many women have never had this experience of having a certain income every month. It allowed them to plan life minimally; they learned to make calculations and to plan, to determine what is important to buy first,” says Rego, who spent months interviewing the women beneficiaries of the scheme in poorer areas. “A woman knows that she has to buy food for the children and then organises herself to buy other things. They know how to scale priorities,” says Rego.

Misery versus dignity

Bolsa Familia changed Brazil as it gave the poor money, food and dignity.  Rego recalls how an interviewee told her about her happiness when she was able to buy sneakers for her children who earlier used to share their slippers. “I was interviewing her when the children, all wearing their sneakers, came to greet us. They want to be recognized as worthy people. The dignification of life has to be a state policy. No society can be dignified with people living in misery,” says Rego.

Lula de Silva was born in an impoverished family in a dustbowl in Brazil’s northeast. Before the family moved to Sao Paulo, where Lula worked as a shoeshine boy, they faced suffered hunger regularly. The fight against hunger was the main campaign promise of Lula in the presidential elections of 2002. As soon as Lula assumed office in 2003, says the Unicamp academic, he signed a decree to give basic income to all Brazilians. “But he was so pressured that he had to step back and start a programme more focused on extreme poverty. The idea that hunger, extreme poverty had to end through a government project started with Bolsa Família,” says Rego.  “A woman I had interviewed described to me the feeling of hunger, the burning sensation in the stomach and throat. Once talking to Lula, she heard the president describe hunger in the same way.”

After Lula left office in 2010, with 86% approval ratings, his successor Dilma Rousseff continued with his social welfare policies until she fell to a palace coup in 2016, the year the UN took off Brazil’s from the Hunger Map for the first time. “The reason for hunger in Brazil has always been the poor distribution of income and the lack of public policies. The Brazilian elite does not want to distribute income,” says Rego.

Also read: Bolsonaro’s Handling Of COVID-19 Has Unleashed a Layered Crisis in Brazil

During the 14 years of Workers Party’s rule, Bolsa Famila suffered unrelenting attacks from the Brazilian elite, including the corporate media, as the workers, who earlier accepted any work for any amount of money, began to refuse poorly-paid jobs. “This change made the big farmers and businesses very angry,” says Rego. “The root of this attitude lies in the history of slavery in Brazil. We have a very cruel elite, which is not used to paying for labour,” says the academic.

In 2016, after the coup against Dilma, her successor Michel Temer began making cuts in Bolsa Familia. Since 2019, Bolsonaro has made efforts to disrupt the programme. During the pandemic, Bolsonaro has done nothing to strengthen it. As a result, the rising food prices have pushed the Bolsa Familia beneficiaries to hunger. According to Food for Justice Research Group, almost 88% of these beneficiaries are facing the highest levels of food insecurity; 35% are starving and another 23.5% not getting enough to eat; 44% of Brazilians have stopped eating meat during the pandemic; consumption of fruits is down by 41%; and 37% people have given up vegetables.

The billionaires’ president  

In a country which is one of the world’s biggest producers – and exporter – of vegetables, fruits and meat, such a situation makes little sense. Even more so as there is no shortage of food in the country. The problem is the majority of people do not have money in their pockets. Like the pandemic, Brazil’s hunger crisis too is a disaster created by its president. When the virus arrived here 14 months ago, Bolsonaro sparked a phoney debate between a “lockdown” and “economy”, positioning himself as a “pro-poor” leader who did not want people to lose their jobs. Offering a false choice between dying of hunger or succumbing to virus, Bolsonaro never imposed a lockdown nor did he help people to survive the crisis. Today Brazil has the worst of both worlds: it is recording almost 4,000 deaths a day; and 60% of its population is facing hunger.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Photo: Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino

All the gains Brazil’s poor made because of Bolsa Familia have been lost. The programme made a real difference to women and children, especially if they were black. Now, they are bearing the brunt of pandemic and poverty. The FJRG survey shows that black women, who head families, are in the grip of extreme poverty; 25.5% of households headed by women face hunger, if they are black, it rises to 67.5%.

Like a cheap populist, Bolsonaro projects himself as a man of the people who fights the elite’s demand for a lockdown, but it is an open secret that he didn’t take any measures against the pandemic to keep the markets open – a demand of the rich who had backed him in 2018 election. As Brazil’s economy – and the elite – thrive on cheap labour and high consumption, Bolsonaro made sure the poor continue to slog and consume even at the cost of their life.

Also read: Between Household Abuse and Employer Apathy, Domestic Workers Bear the Brunt of Lockdown

This cynical ploy has made the poor turn into miserable, but Bolsonaro’s rich buddies are rolling in money. As the poor hang between life and death, the billionaire class never had it so good. The Forbes magazine’s list of World Billionaires 2021, released on April 6, shows Brazil has added 20 new members to the seven-digit club in the middle of the pandemic. Together, as per Forbes, the newcomers hold a consolidated equity of $21.2 billion, or 9.6% of the total wealth of the 65 Brazilian billionaires who control $220 billion. Never before in the country’s history, so much wealth was transferred upwards in such a short time.

The rich have not only minted money during the pandemic, they have also made big savings. According to IBGE, the country’s savings rate stood at 15% in 2020, the strongest in five years, mainly driven by less spending by the wealthy. The 1% richest in Brazil (around 1.4 million), who corner 28.3% of the country’s total income, have also been spared by inflation. While inflation for families with lower income saw a spike of 2.5%, the rate for the highest-income class was 0.2%.

Under Bolsonaro, the Brazil’s rich are being promised more riches when the virus subsides. Brazil’s economy minister Paulo Guedes, one of the Chicago Boys who cut his teeth into ultra-liberal policies in the blood-soaked dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, is promising to “accelerate privatisation” of state enterprises, a move that has been “delayed” by the pandemic. “We have to speed up the privatisation programmes,” said Guedes last week.

Since March 2020, Brazil has lost more than 350,000 people to COVID-19. The ICU units across the country are fully packed. But Bolsonaro has not bothered to visit a single hospital or the poor being battered by the virus and hunger simultaneously. But last week, the president flew down to Sao Paulo to sit for a plush dinner with a selected bunch of the wealthiest – and influential – persons. Over a lavish spread, the president said he was committed to the “progress of structural reforms” – a buzzword for privatisation. The party ended with a standing ovation for the president who leads the country with the worst response to the pandemic. Most probably, Brazil’s rich were applauding their own success in the time of a deadly pandemic.

Shobhan Saxena and Florencia Costa are independent journalists based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.