Last week, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and partner organisations in Brazil were due to convene a series of events to bring together leading academics, policy makers, civil society and business leaders from the UK and Brazil to discuss potential collaborations around creating more equitable and sustainable societies both in Brazil and globally.
When we boarded the plane to Brazil on 11 March, the news was that the country was carrying on as normal, with only 35 confirmed cases of Covid-19, all of them imported from either China or Italy. Our partners were keen to go ahead with the ambitious series of events that we had planned together and were due to take place in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasília from 16-20 March. We had been preparing for these events for months, as part of a major initiative to strengthen the Institute’s partnerships with Brazil for mutual learning on development.
By the time we landed in São Paulo on the morning of Thursday 12 March, the number of Covid-19 cases in Brazil was climbing towards 100 and community transmission had been identified. Locally, businesses were starting to announce shutdowns. Globally, the World Health Organization had just declared a pandemic.
Adapting together in a fast-changing situation
Over the next few days, we scrambled to work with partners on adapting plans for the events, as they themselves scrambled to adapt every aspect of their professional and personal lives to rapidly-changing guidance from health authorities in Brasília and São Paulo. By Monday 16, we had decided to cancel our Brasília programme of events, which included workshops with the federal government think-tank IPEA (the Institute for Applied Economic Research) and the national civil service training institute ENAP (the National School of Public Administration), and agreed with our partners elsewhere to postpone some events. These included a round-table on democratic innovation and a workshop on development studies with leading São Paulo-based independent research institute and long-term IDS partner CEBRAP (the Brazilian Centre for Analysis and Planning), as well as a major series of events on agrifood systems, sustainability and rural development with Brazil’s leading centre for food security research at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro.
However, speakers were still keen to participate in a number of other events in São Paulo, hundreds of people had signed up to attend these events, and official guidance was not yet advising cancellation of public activities. Taking a precautionary approach, we decided on Monday 16 to move to a video-only format, where panel members would gather without an audience and their discussions would be live-streamed to those who had previously registered to attend, as well as being made available to a wider audience online.
On Tuesday 17, São Paulo recorded 152 confirmed cases and the country’s first death from Covid-19. People in the city, now clearly established as the centre of Brazil’s Covid-19 outbreak, reacted with angry panelaço (pot-banging) demonstrations aimed at the confused national policy response of President Jair Bolsonaro’s government (which saw the President himself contradicting Ministry of Health advice and encouraging supporters to turn out for mass rallies, at which he shook hands and posed for selfies). Institutions began to close offices and shift to online-only working without waiting for guidance from government. We were forced to cancel our planned live-streamed events on Inclusive Business and the Sustainable Development Goals with the Centre for Sustainability Studies of Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGVces), because the whole of FGV’s IT infrastructure was being repurposed overnight to support a shift to online teaching and working across the ten centres that the institution (Brazil’s leading business school and one of the world’s top think-tanks) maintains in three different Brazilian cities.
That left just one event: a debate on ‘Epidemics and Inequalities’ that was due to be convened with CEBRAP on Wednesday 18.
Debating epidemics, inequalities and responses to coronavirus
After an intense series of discussions with the speakers and with CEBRAP’s leadership and technical team, we concluded that our ‘Epidemics and Inequalities’ debate was one event we could not postpone, given its exceptional relevance to the challenges faced by Brazil, the UK and the wider world in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The question was how to make it work, given that two of the speakers had cancelled their travel to São Paulo, and CEBRAP did not have an in-house system either for hosting virtual meetings or for live-streaming them. CEBRAP Research Officer Felipe Szabzon and Communications Officer Dafne Sampaio rose to the challenge of tackling the steepest of learning curves, getting everything in place for the event to run entirely online as a webinar via Zoom and YouTube Live. Afterwards, Felipe sent us these reflections:
“Since the beginning of February we had been very excited about the event, which would bring together many researchers from different disciplines to discuss essential questions of our time and new agendas to be addressed in the next decade, not only in Brazil but internationally. Then, when everything had to be re-thought and re-arranged, it initially was very disappointing. But, after a moment of reflection as researchers, we felt clear that the need for a debate on epidemics and inequalities had become increasingly pressing. Many of the social issues we have been studying have gained central relevance as we deal with the arrival of this pandemic in the Brazilian context, and particularly in the favelas were many poor people live. We’ve since received great feedback from online audience members who had previously registered to participate in the event at CEBRAP, and we managed to reach a broader public with this change in the format of the event.”
Like Felipe, we felt that the ‘Epidemics and Inequalities’ event surpassed expectations, with intense engagement by online participants and powerful contributions from the speakers, who discussed how Brazil and the world can best respond to the Covid-19 pandemic in ways that reduce rather than worsen existing social and health inequalities.
The webinar (which was held in Portuguese) brought together perspectives from anthropology, political science, economics and health systems research, combining insights from IDS, CEBRAP, Fiocruz and the health policy think-tank IEPS. Reflections drew from a wide range of previous research projects that applied different social science approaches to understanding epidemics and inequalities. These included Vera Schattan Coelho’s work from the Unequal Voices project on the social, political and managerial dynamics of reducing health inequalities in São Paulo; Isabele Bachtold’s work from the Care Ethnographies project on social policy responses to the care burdens imposed on low-income women by the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil; Rudi Rocha’s examination of the strengths of Brazil’s approach to Universal Health Coverage; and Rômulo Paes de Sousa’s analysis of the challenges facing health and social protection systems that have been undermined by austerity. All these contributions resonated with work done by Melissa Leach and other IDS colleagues in recent years to highlight the importance of drawing on diverse social science perspectives in developing strategies to respond to epidemics in ways that are not only effective but also avoid deepening existing inequalities.
An inspiring reminder of the value of enduring partnerships
Thinking back on an incredibly intense week of real-time learning with Brazilian partners about how to adapt, maintain and even intensify our collaborations in the face of a fast-evolving pandemic, we have been reminded of the importance and value of ‘enduring partnerships’. A term that can end up being a fluffy buzzword takes on a different meaning when, over nearly fifty years, a partnership like that between IDS and CEBRAP has endured multiple epidemics. It has become all the more clear that familiarity and mutual respect makes a more fluid and coherent response to change and crisis possible.
Our efforts to develop a collaborative, mutual learning initiative in Brazil has come with grand and sometimes abstract ambitions of promoting learning in multiple directions, dialogue on development frontiers and actions towards decolonising development studies. But this process of ripping up our minute-by-minute schedule of seminars, workshops and receptions to produce an emergency response to an emerging crisis demonstrated what this could look like in practice: a natural community of thinkers and do-ers instinctively drawing together to share and learn from each other’s expertise and perspectives. It is made possible by having a network of alumni, associates and partners, and the lessons from a long history of collaborative research, available at each other’s fingertips when most needed – and feeds into a commitment to keep learning, thinking and doing together for the next few decades.