When the covid-19 pandemic hit Brazil, it resulted in a social, economic and sanitary crisis as the country was vulnerable in different dimensions, a scenario that has been worsening since 2015 and interrupted the trend of income inequality reduction (since early 2000s). In 2018, the women’s income decreased in relation to men´s, a novelty in the 21st century, alongside almost a decade of stagnant proportion of the average income of the Brazilian Black population in relation to whites. The subsequent decline in socioeconomic indicators and the adoption of austerity measures that restricted investments in social public policies, this scenario deteriorated even further, with an increase in unemployment and interruption of public policies such as the real value of the minimum wage policy.
The inequality epidemic in Brazil preceded the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the IBGE, in 2018, Brazil was the eighth most unequal country on the planet and income inequality had reached the highest level since 2012, as the income of the richest 10% being 13 times higher than the average of the poorest 40%. Black people and women, the basis of the Brazilian social pyramid, continues to be the most affected in this context.
Unemployment and loss of income
The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the worsening of the social and economic crisis in Brazil. From April 2020 to April 2021, an estimate of 377 Brazilians lost their jobs per hour; during the worst moment of the crisis, almost 1,400 Brazilians were fired per hour and Brazil registered a record of 14.4 million unemployed in April 2021. Almost 600,000 companies bankrupted, hindering employment in the country. Programs designed to secure employment were poorly implemented and promoted precarious working conditions for young people and vulnerable groups.
In the third quarter of 2021, unemployment decreased to 13.5 million Brazilians, due to an increase of informality and precarious jobs, nevertheless the unemployment rate among Black people are still higher than among white people, contributing to higher income inequality. In Brazil, women occupy more informal jobs than men, hence, the loss of income among women was greater during the pandemic, causing side effects of increased isolation and greater exposure to domestic violence. A study shows that one in four Brazilian women was a victim of violence during the pandemic.
Hunger skyrocketed during the pandemic. In December 2020, 55% of the Brazilian population was in a situation of food insecurity (116.8 million, equivalent to the joint population of Germany and Canada) and 9% were hungry (19.1 million, higher to the population of the Netherlands). This represents a setback to 2004 parameters. The hunger virus affects women and Black people the hardest in Brazil – 11.1% of households headed by women and 10.7% of households headed by Black people were starving at the end of 2020, compared to 7.7% of households headed by men and 7.5% of households headed by white people.
The role of cash-transfer programs
Emergency measures were adopted to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic in Brazil. Emphasis on Emergency Aid (Auxilio Emergencial), income transfer program established from the mobilization of civil society and the Brazilian National Congress, whose coverage reached 67 million Brazilians (31% of the population of Brazil) with public investment of BRL 322 billion (USD 58.4 billion), which corresponds to 4% of the Brazilian GDP. Emergency Aid program was responsible for reducing Brazil’s poverty rate from 11% at the end of 2019 to 4.5% in August 2020, but April 2021 the benefit was reduced and it is being secured for barely over 50% of the 2020 beneficiaries, hindering its role as a barrier against hunger and poverty and at least another 20 million will be excluded from cash transfer programs in 2022.
Bolsa Família, internationally recognized cash-transfer program, created in 2003, was phased out in November 2021. Its replacement – Auxílio Brasil – dismantles nearly two decades of a successful policy against poverty at a time when it is most needed. Thousands of vulnerable families are underserved during the transition period between the programs.
Inequality in access to health
After over 600,000 deaths, the unequal access to health services left scars on the most vulnerable in Brazil.
Studies from 2020 point to inequality as a factor for the advancement of the coronavirus in the Brazilian peripheries, increasing the risk of death by the coronavirus by up to 50%. Even with vaccination in Brazil, due to SUS (universal health system), most of covid-19 deaths are concentrated in the peripheries of big cities, as a result of unequal access to vaccines, among others. According to the OECD, black people are 1.5 times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white people in Brazil.
The return of austerity policies
After the existence of an exceptional budget model – allowing the approval of Emergency Aid program in 2020 – the pro-austerity discourse returned at full steam in 2021 and several budget cuts were approved in key areas to address the covid-19 pandemic, such as science and technology, health and education. Even the budget for covid-19 vaccines was downsized by 8.5% in the 2022 forecast. Austerity policies are being enforced despite of international consensus on post-pandemic recovery, under the false narrative that the Brazilian fiscal scenario demands austerity.
The “medicine” against the inequality epidemic
A potential solution – a fair tax reform – is not a priority for decision-makers. A lost opportunity: according to a survey by Oxfam Brasil, 84% of Brazilians agree with raising taxes for very rich people to finance social policies; 56% are in agreement with the increase in taxes for all as a way to support public policies. Brazilians also support the strong and decisive role of the State as public policy provider. 86% believe that Brazil’s progress is conditional on reducing inequality between the poor and the rich, while 85% agree that it is the obligation of governments to reduce the gap between the very rich and the very poor. These are the “medicines” we need to tackle the inequality epidemic in Brazil.
Jefferson Nascimento is a lawyer, with a PhD in International Law from the University of São Paulo (USP). He has been working for over ten years in research and advocacy on human rights, with emphasis on the use of international protection systems. He is the Social and Economic Justice Coordinator at Oxfam Brasil
 Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics