Two Pandemics: An Interview with a Brazilian Exchange Student 

Brazilian exchange student, Priscila Assis. Foto: Privat.

2020 has been a wild year for everyone involved, but some has had it wilder than others. In March, Norwegian society grinded to a halt as a new virus swept across Europe. From here, it would spread to Latin America, and infect millions in Brazil. The political situation in Brazil the last few years has already been a wild ride, even before the outbreak of COVID-19, but the pandemic may have brought the country to a tipping point.

Earlier this year, I had to part ways with my friend and colleague, Priscila Assis, a 25-year-old student and youth worker from Brazil. She has recently managed to return to Norway after some intense months of quarantine in her home country, and as she has experienced the pandemic both in two very different countries, Norway and Brazil. I am excited and interested in hearing her story.

Martin
Who are you, and what brings you to Norway?

Priscila
My name is Priscila, and this will be my second year in Norway. I first came as an exchange student from Brazil to learn more about organizational work, culture and faith. My life last year was a mix of academic lectures in Mandal, working as a social worker in a Christian high school in Vennesla, and visiting and working with Christian youth groups at high schools and UiA. The latter part will be my main focus this year. 

Foto: privat.

Martin
About six months ago, the corona outbreak happened. How was that for you and how has your life changed since?

Priscila
I was at UiA the day before the schools locked down. Me and my friends were arranging “Skepsisuka” with my friends in Laget; a series of events about faith and reason. We were meeting lots of people, I helped put on big events and I made lots of plans for the future. From one day to the next, everything changed. We had to send home all our students from the high school in Vennesla. My plans for the rest of the year got postponed or canceled and I was unable to return and reconnect with most of my friends and teachers from my exchange program. It felt like my whole life was suddenly put on hold. However, it all got worse when I returned to Brazil.

Martin
So you have experienced lockdown both in Norway and in Brazil. How has the experience been different from each other? 

Priscila
In Norway we were able to do many things that we could not do in Brazil, but more importantly the government gives you actual feedback and information. You know how you should behave, the rules and what can and cannot be done. What is more, you trust that the authorities truly are doing their best. It gives you hope and knowledge that people will get through this in some way. I still remember my first conversation back in BraziI; at the airport. The plane I took was the last one coming in from Europe before it closed. The lady checking in my baggage told us that after she went home that day, she would have no wage, and no way of knowing when she can come back to work. But as she said: “it is better to be poor, than to be dead”. She had no idea how she was going to sustain herself from that evening. That was a big difference from life in Norway, where the government subsidized salaries and incomes. 

Martin
Brazilian politics have been very chaotic for years. The country was recently seen as a country of rapid growth and development, but years of economic downturn, corruption scandals, and the election of the far right ex-general Jair Bolsonaro has left behind a country ill-fitted to deal with a large scale crisis such as the current pandemic. I ask Priscila to share her thoughts on these issues. 

Priscila
Well. I think we have been struggling with fake news in Brazil for quite a while, and the last election result happened through wide use of fake news. So the “fake-news ghost” (laughs), is passing over Brazil. It is very hard for people to know what is true and what is not. In March, the president held a speech where he declared that the Corona virus was “just a flu”, and nothing to even care about unless you are old. The president has also had strong disagreements with the health ministers of Brazil. He fired two in rapid succession, and never replaced the last one. So in the middle of this global pandemic, Brazil has not even had a health minister for almost four months. That is crazy, and in the harsh political climate, many people don’t know who to trust. 

I know that Priscila has had to live in lockdown during the last few months spent in Brazil. Due to living with high-risk family members she has had to keep a very strict quarantine lifestyle for several months. I want to hear what this experience has been like, and how it is to live in a society where the struggles of lockdown are as difficult as in Brazil.  

Priscila
If I counted it right, I was home for about 108 days. At home we decided that only one person would go out to do all the errands that were needed. That person ended up being my sister, her job as a veterinary doesn’t really stop. She would be the person going to the grocery store, the pharmacy and do the things that we really, really needed. Besides that, we never left the house. Not even to go to the grocery store, or to take a walk. Because if you live in a city of 30 million people, it is pretty hard to keep a safe meter to everyone else (laughs).  

Martin
How was it to return to Norway again a few weeks ago? 

Priscila
First; coming back to Norway, even during the first 10 days of quarantine, was like a travel in time. I felt like I returned to a world that doesn’t exist anymore outside of Norway. Back in springtime in particular, I think my reality in Brazil was much closer to the reality of the rest of the world than Norway.  That said, it was weird to feel like I was the only person being quarantined. In Brazil, we at least get to miss life together with friends and family.  

Foto: Reuters Fashionnetwork

She laughs, and I ask her to share freely about the thoughts on her mind regarding the coronavirus. Given the freedom, she explains in depth. 

Priscila
May was a really hard month for us. At that point we had no health minister anymore, and 1000 people were dying every day. That is [like] three big plane crashes every morning. It is horrible to think that such a catastrophe is going on in your own country. You look outside and you don´t know when it will be over. You turn to the news, and there is no indication of anything getting better. Then we understood that the numbers would keep rising for a few more months. After a while, even with that high death count, it becomes the new normal, and simply a part of your daily life, and that is a sickening thought. It is impossible economically to keep a lock-down for any extended period of time in Brazil. After a few months of lockdown, everything pretty much has to go back to normal no matter the cost in lives. So then you have to live your daily life knowing that you can get something that could kill you or your family. 

I have a final question for my friend. She is from a middle-class family, with the safety of a home, and the ability to keep a small income even during lockdown. As I am reminded of the beggar from her first day back in Brazil, I feel the need to ask her about those who she described as being truly defenseless during this pandemic. 

Martin
I wonder about those who are the most vulnerable in Brazil; people living in favelas, indigenous communities, and the people on the streets. I want to hear what you think about the parts of the country that are the hardest hit and has the least to handle it with. 

Priscila
Yeah, I wouldn’t say the parts of the country, but the parts of the city, because Brazil has equal representation in poverty (laughs). I think you can find places of poverty everywhere in Brazil. But when the virus arrived in Brazil from Europe, it started in rich neighborhoods where people could afford to travel. This was mainly in Sao Paulo or Rio, and the death rates were very low, because these people had good health, hospital access and the ability to safely quarantine. But in a matter of days and weeks, it was spreading to poor neighborhoods. You can see on city maps how the death rates would spike up in the poorer neighborhoods. The lack of hospitals, treatments, and health services made the virus very dangerous in the poor neighborhoods. 

All this really shows how unequal the world is. In church last week, it was mentioned in the sermon that the whole world is in the same boat, and that we are experiencing the same thing. The pastor meant to speak on unity, but what he said is actually not true at all. We are not all experiencing the same thing. The inequalities we live in makes the situation much more damaging. We can keep up lockdowns and salaries for months and months in Norway, because the government has large amounts of money to keep businesses afloat and forgive loan payments. But the vast majority of countries can’t do that. Brazil simply has to endure the pandemic and wait for a vaccine while tens of thousands die in the meantime. We have to accept that, and live on every day, and that is a sobering reality. 

Written by: Martin Ellingsen 

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