Breaking records – for the rich and the hungry

Leonardo Sakamoto on hideous wealth and – and poverty.

Playground for the rich: Brazil now has 20 more billionaires than last year, up from 45 to 65. Credit: Alobos Life/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Playground for the rich: Brazil now has 20 more billionaires than last year, up from 45 to 65.
Credit: Alobos Life/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A worker with Covid-19 was rescued from slave labour in a sugar cane plantation in São Paulo, Brazil’s wealthiest state. He had fever, was coughing and aching, and had difficulty walking. But he kept on working nonetheless.

He was part of a group of 22 people freed earlier this year by specialized government teams that have been investigating reports of modern slavery since 1995. He and his colleagues had been ‘sold’ to their employer and they were starving. But slave labour is also a result of abject poverty, which has increased during the pandemic.

Research released by the Brazilian Network for Research on Sovereignty and Food and Nutritional Security revealed that in 2020, 19 million people went hungry in the country – out of 116.8 million who had some degree of food insecurity. Hunger affected nine per cent of Brazilians – the highest rate since 2004.

These figures were released in early April. On the same day, the Brazilian government, responding to pressure from Congress, resumed payment of the pandemic emergency benefit to unemployed workers that it had suspended several months earlier.

This programme had provided monthly instalments of between $116 and $232 per family at the beginning of last year. It was then reduced to between $58 and $116 a month, to be cut further to between $28 and $72 today.

With $28 a month, a single person living in São Paulo can buy only 23 per cent of the food they need, according to a survey by the Inter-Union Department of Statistics and Socioeconomic Studies. But Bolsonaro believes that the best way to fight Covid-19 is to push workers out onto the streets and that the sooner the population becomes infected the sooner the pandemic will end. The problem is that people will die as a side effect; in Brazil, on a massive scale so far.

The research on hunger was carried out in the last quarter of 2020, when reduced emergency aid was still in place. So the figures for 2021 are likely to be even worse, as Bolsonaro suspended payments at the end of 2020 and only resumed them 96 days later.

Also in April, Brazil learned that it had 20 more billionaires than last year, up from 45 to 65 according Forbes magazine, with a 72-per-cent increase in their total assets from $127 to $219 billion.

The fact that a small group of Brazilians lives in a ‘premium category’ that concentrates wealth while 116.8 million do not know whether they will eat each day is ‘an aberration’, says Oxfam Brazil’s director Katia Maia. Referring to the paucity of the new benefit, she says: ‘This new emergency aid shows that human life is not a priority.’ Opposition and even government allies in Congress are calling for an increase.

Meanwhile, a new scandal has erupted: the government spent $440,730 on Jair Bolsonaro’s holiday, including security, accommodation and transport. This is enough to provide a monthly $116 aid payment to at least 3,800 Brazilians.

In Brazil, the idea of taxing the super-rich is taboo and tax reform is constantly postponed. The country’s super-rich pay far less tax than the middle class.

Such inequality confirms the view that the government exists to serve the most affluent and control the poorest. Over time, inequality leads to lack of faith in institutions – which helps to explain the state of Brazil today.