Cataclysm: COVID-19 in Brazil

As the number of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases continue to grow in the United States (U.S.), another epicenter has been growing in South America. As the sixth most populous country in the world, Brazil has experienced an uptick in COVID-19 cases and deaths alongside an array of national controversies that make the response efforts considerably more difficult. This blog addresses Brazil’s growing importance in the COVID-19 discussion and how it impacts human rights issues concerning indigenous peoples, environmental degradation, favela communities, and good governance.

As of late-June, more than 1.3 million Brazilians have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 55,000 have died from the virus. Brazil’s most populated state, São Paulo, is currently the country’s epicenter with nearly 250,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The northeastern state of Ceará has the country’s second-largest number of confirmed cases (100,000+), while Pará in the northwest is nearing 100,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, the iconic city of Rio de Janeiro has over 105,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Unfortunately, Amazonas has to the highest COVID-19 death rate of any state with 67 deaths per 100,000 cases, compared to Bahia’s 11 deaths per 100,000 cases, which highlights the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on indigenous communities that have been systematically killed, displaced, and denied access to health care and other preventative services that could help fight the spread of the virus.

Indigenous Peoples of Brazil

As the largest Brazilian state in the Amazon region, Amazonas is known for its indigenous communities who often live in isolated villages and have poor access to health care. In the city of Manaus, which has a population of 2 million+ and is only accessible by aircraft or boat, many recent respiratory-related deaths have resulted in quick burial in mass graves, which has likely led to a severe underestimate the pandemic’s toll on the local population. In the remote community of Betania, the Tikuna tribe has five government medical workers that accommodate an approximate 4,000 inhabitants, but they are not treating the sick due to lack of protective equipment and COVID-19 testing supplies. One considerable threat are the indigenous community members who are not quarantining and are, instead, traveling in and out of town for work.

These unprecedented events compound the colonial legacy that has threatened Brazil’s indigenous peoples for centuries. Centuries ago, indigenous tribes throughout the Amazon were decimated by diseases brought by Europeans. In a way, history is repeating itself because the Brazilian government’s ineffectual response to the crisis have allowed COVID-19 to ravage the surviving indigenous communities and put them on the brink of genocide. Aside from the tribes who have contact with the modern world, the Brazilian Amazon inhabits 103 uncontacted tribes who have virtually no knowledge or resources to protect them from the threat of COVID-19. Signing this petition will help urge Brazilian officials to protect the surviving indigenous communities throughout the Amazon.

Deforestation in the Amazon

Since COVID-19 has reached these Amazonian communities, deforestation in the region has also proliferated. The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world and is important to the global ecosystem because it absorbs approximately 5% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Thus, protecting the Amazon is pivotal for stalling the effects of climate change. However, for years, the Amazon has been ravaged to accommodate the agricultural industry as well as illegal loggers and drug traffickers. As a result, indigenous leaders fear that the COVID-19 pandemic will be used to exacerbate the destruction these industries have already caused.

During the month of April, deforestation in Brazil increased by nearly 64% which resulted in more than 150 square miles of rainforest destruction. In response, 3,000+ Brazilian soldiers were deployed to the region to prevent illegal logging and other criminal activities that contribute to deforestation. Some worry that such activity in the rainforest will lead to outsiders giving indigenous communities infectious diseases, namely COVID-19. Brazil’s Secretariat of Indigenous Health (SESAI) has made efforts to distribute N95 masks, gloves, and goggles to the region, but activists warn that the only way to protect uncontacted tribes is by keeping illegal loggers and miners out of these areas. Despite the Brazilian government establishing three military bases to prevent illegal actors from permeating the region, they are only expected to be present for 30 days. This is because Brazil’s main environmental enforcement agency, Ibama, is expected to take over these efforts but are currently understaffed and underbudgeted.

Favelas in the Age of Social Distancing

More than 11 million Brazilians live in favelas which are shantytowns outside of urban centers. Already hit hard by gun violence, unsanitary conditions, and militaristic police presence, people living in Brazil’s favelas struggle to adhere to social distancing measures. Research has found that people living favela-like conditions spend roughly 50% more time per day with others than people in less-impoverished areas. Often, favelas are composed of two or three rooms with five or six people sharing these spaces. As such, favela conditions enable the spread of COVID-19, and with precious little assistance from the government, Brazil’s most impoverished communities are left to fend for themselves.

With little government help, residents of Paraisopolis in Sao Paulo (population: 100,000) have offered a community-based solution. Due to donations and volunteer work, residents have responded to COVID-19 by organizing distribution of free meals, ambulatory services, and neighborhood watch persons. They even designated one building the quarantine house and repurposed closed schools in self-isolation centers. In Rio, members of the gang City of God drive through the local favelas, blaring a recorded message ordering people to stay home. Other gangs have become knowledgeable about COVID-19 in order to deliver essential goods to favela residents and have even gone as far to enforce social distancing measures by preventing restaurants from putting tables out. These forms of gang vigilantism in Brazil’s favelas demonstrate the lack of government support and tension with local police.

Small grave onlooking a favela.
At the bottom of this block destined to the burials of COVID-19, is the favela of the Vila Nova Cachoeirinha housing complex. Source: Léu Britto, Creative Commons.

Trump of the Tropics

These criticisms are largely attributed to the leadership of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who notoriously dismissed COVID-19 as a “little flu”. Aside from personally ignoring social distancing measures, Bolsonaro has organized large rallies in an effort to confront local governors who have locked down their regions. Recently, after ignoring federal regulation that require wearing a face mask in all public places, a judge ruled that Bolsonaro (and any public official) is not exempt from this policy and should expect a 2,000-reais ($387) fine like anyone else. Bolsonaro even fired his Health Minister, Luiz Mandetta, in April after he supported social distancing measures. His successor has since promoted a reopening of the economy and unproven medical treatments for COVID-19.

Known by many as the “Trump of the Tropics,” Bolsonaro has successfully maintained a strong coalition of supporters such as the agriculture community, evangelical Christians, and the military. Unlike the U.S., Brazil is an emerging economy with a weak social safety net that makes it difficult for government officials to convince people to stay at home. Health care access and the conditions to work from home are also quite limited. Recent cell phone tracking data has revealed that 45-60% of Brazilians are not complying with social distancing measures, likely due to the fact that they have to choose between feeding their families and being exposed to the virus. As such, it is assumed Bolsonaro’s defiance of a public health approach to COVID-19 is an effort to appeal to his core supporters. Bolsonaro has also slashed regulations and enforcement of land grabbing, which exacerbates the deforestation crisis currently impacting the Amazon.

Human Rights in Brazil

As demonstrated, Brazil has an array of chronic human rights problems that have been compounded by the arrival of COVID-19. In 2016, a constitutional amendment was passed that limited public expenditures in Brazil for the next 20 years. As a result, we are now witnessing how these austerity measures have affected access to housing, food, water, and sanitation when Brazilians need it the most, particularly within the most vulnerable groups – women, children, Afro-Brazilians, indigenous peoples, rural communities, and informally-settled persons.

Much like the U.S., Brazil’s COVID-19 response has mostly been subnational social distancing measures and an emergency basic income to placate the masses. However, these efforts are clearly inadequate considering Brazil’s COVID-19 cases are surging alongside another potential Zika outbreak. As a result, Brazil has effectively become the most prominent COVID-19 case study in the Global South, a nation plagued by a deadly virus and an array of human rights issues. Human rights experts suggest fiscal stimulus and social protection packages would only be the beginning of a COVID-19 response because many of these concerns are the consequence of marketization and privatization of public goods and services. As such, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as an opportunity to reverse the market-based ideology that has failed so many countries, especially the Land of the Palms.

Please sign the petition to help urge Brazilian officials to protect the surviving indigenous communities throughout the Amazon.

Why Big Data is a Human Rights Concern

What Is Big Data?

Big Data refers to the collection and use of massive volumes of data to study, understand, and predict human behavior. Big data or predictive analytics is a new field that is growing fast. In order to predict human behavior with a high degree of accuracy, data researchers require millions of data points. Collecting this data is far easier than using it to make useful predictions. A large portion of these researcher’s work lies in organizing and manipulating the data into a format that allows for detailed analysis to be conducted. Researchers make use of highly advanced algorithms to process data and make useful predictions about future human behavior. Many of the world’s largest tech and social media companies, including Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat are at the forefront of this industry. In this article, I will focus on the cases of China and Facebook. To clarify Big Data and Artificial Intelligence are not the same thing. Rather Big Data is a general term referring to the collection of massive amounts of information and algorithms to make predictions on future outcomes. Artificial Intelligence falls under Big Data but it is a distinct subcategory that refers to the programming of computers to do tasks that normally require human intelligence. This can range from Tesla’s self-driving car mode, Siri’s speech recognition, or Amazon’s predictions for shopping habits.

The primary reason is that these companies are perfectly positioned to make use of Big Data. Each of these companies has access to the information of millions of their users and customers, which allows them to fulfill the massive amount of data needed for Big Data research. Many governments are also becoming increasingly involved with the use of predictive analytics. Examples of the use of Big Data are counter-terrorism, personalized ads, increasing work productivity, and predicting virus outbreaks.

Why Is Big Data Concerning?

While Big Data presents many possibilities for good, it raises many moral and ethical concerns. The primary concern is an individual’s right to privacy online. In the United States and many countries around the world, personal rights to privacy in the physical world are well established. Law enforcement, or anyone for that matter, cannot search our belongings, homes, cars, or persons without consent unless there are legal grounds for probable cause and a warrant to search. However, most of these laws and regulations fail to extend to privacy rights for online activity. The quick rise of the Internet and the rapid pace of technological innovation has left these laws outdated and inadequate for the modern age where the Internet is a daily requirement for many peoples’ lifestyles. The Internet is necessary for most jobs, access to the news, social connectivity with friends and family, entertainment, and freedom of expression. One could make the argument that access to the Internet is an ‘inherent and inalienable’ human right under the ‘preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness’ guaranteed to all men in the Declaration of Independence. With it being the case that the Internet is an essential part of our lives that are increasingly becoming bigger and bigger, shouldn’t our rights to privacy extend to our time on the Internet? This is the human rights case being made for the creation of online privacy laws.

How Does Big Data Affect Me?

Currently, governments and companies are utilizing our information as they see fit with very little or in some cases no consent or oversight. Big Data has become a valuable commodity that is being bought and sold between these entities. Almost every aspect of our lives that is possible to monitor is being tracked with the widespread use of surveillance cameras, logging of browser search history, online purchasing habits, flight reservations, financial records, social media posts, and physical appearance and security data. Private companies, such as Facebook and Google, are using this data to create millions of detailed user profiles. These companies then monetize their customer information by selling access to other companies, governments, and organizations attempting to conduct research, target ads, or make other use of this massive amount of information. It is hard to even imagine how large Big Data is. The majority of billions of peoples’ online activities are being stored and collected. The data is so huge that no computer’s hard drive can store it all and it must be accessed through the cloud. Giant server farms located all around the world maintain and hold onto this personal data.

With this much personal information on this many people, there is a great risk for abuse. There are many well-documented scandals of misuse of personal data and illegal online surveillance by many governments. Companies have come under pressure for hacks and bugs that have exposed personal information on users, many of which weren’t even aware that their information was being collected. These instances are clear violations of basic human rights to privacy and further highlight the need for online privacy legislation.

China’s War on Online Freedom & Privacy

China is the largest country in the world by population, the world’s third largest economy behind only the United States and the European Union, and very advanced in terms of education and technological innovation. However, it also is responsible for the largest case of mass censorship, denial of freedom of Internet access, and mass online tracking and surveillance the world has ever seen. In 1995, China allowed the general public to have access to the Internet. However, the regime quickly realized the potential for political opposition movements to utilize the Internet as a means of protest and call for change. To combat this, the leaders enacted laws that punished those who used the Internet and posted anything that could be deemed to “hurt national security or the interests of the state.”

To enforce these laws the government invested heavily into a means of removing information that violated these terms and regulating the flow of data into and out of the country. This tool has become known as the “Great Firewall of China.” When Xi Jinping became president in 2012, he restricted access to the Internet further and increased the penalties for violating the country’s strict Internet laws. Xi mounted a heavy offensive against any resistance by arresting many individuals and punishing dozens of companies for violating his policies. China, under his rule, employs over two million people just to regulate and censor information that is contrary to the “interests” of the country. This has culminated into what has been labeled the Great Cannon, a massive team of Chinese government hackers that targets any site in violation of Chinese internet regulations.

China is a clear example of the dangers of the government having too much control over the internet. With no transparency or oversight, governmental abuse of power will often result. Xi was able to single-handedly suppress over a billion people’s rights, beliefs, and access to news and important information. These are risks when rights to the Internet and online privacy are not protected through legislation. Internet access and privacy laws will safeguard against the government violating the rights of citizens.

Does Facebook Care About My Privacy?

On the other end of the spectrum, the absence of regulation can also be detrimental. A lack of stringent internet privacy laws to control how big tech companies in the US can use the information of their user base has led to many citizens privacy rights being violated. One of the most alarming incidents came this past year with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Cambridge Analytica collected the personal data of 87 million users due to Facebook’s inadequate safeguards against data harvesting and lack of oversight of Facebook developers.

Facebook has policies in place that have allowed people and companies claiming to conduct research the ability to gain access to users accounts if given permission. However, by one user downloading the developers’ app and agreeing to share their information, the information of every single one of that user’s Facebook friends could also be obtained. This flaw is what allowed 87 million people’s personal information to be improperly collected without their knowledge.

The app was created by a researcher at Cambridge University and programmed to harvest the data of the user and every one of that user’s friends. This brings up ethical concerns as well as a security issue. The vast majority, around 99.7%, of the 87 million accounts harvested was of user’s that were unaware that companies and researchers had possessed their information or how their information was being used. One wonders how Facebook could legally and ethically allow for millions of their user data to be harvested without consent. Even more concerning is the lack of protocols for ensuring that these companies’ motives are legitimate and that the data harvested is protected. Since there isn’t much oversight, this data was able to be licensed illegally to Cambridge Analytica and other companies for over a year before Facebook became aware of the incident. This isn’t an isolated case with The Washington Post reporting that Facebook announced “malicious actors” abused the search function to gather public profile information of “most of its 2 billion users worldwide.” Facebook’s lack of stringent safety measures to prevent the harvesting and abuse of user’s personal data is alarming. They have misused and failed to protect user data many times and have suffered little to zero punishment due to the lack of laws to hold them accountable.

What Needs to Happen to Protect Online Privacy

China and Facebook have shown us the dangers of not having well-crafted internet privacy laws and policies in place. It is clear that a balance needs to be struck on the level of internet regulation. With too much regulation the government has a large amount of power that could be abused as seen with China. However, a lack of regulation will allow private companies and citizens the opportunity to freely abuse the rights of others. The goal is to push for internet privacy laws that will adequately protect user rights while preventing either of these cases from occurring. When this is achieved then the human right to freedom of expression and privacy online will be secured for all people.

 

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