in the age of the plague

The Groundswell

How an unprecedented mobilization forced the Brazilian government to pay basic income to its poorest citizens in a matter of days

Alessandra Orofino
By using the term “voucher,” the Bolsonaro administration has tried to dilute the notion of basic income, limiting it to the context of the pandemic
By using the term “voucher,” the Bolsonaro administration has tried to dilute the notion of basic income, limiting it to the context of the pandemic ILLUSTRATION: BETO NEJME_2020

Translated by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux

 versão em português

On Friday, March 13th, 2020, I read that Rio de Janeiro’s governor, Wilson Witzel, had ordered that schools, theaters, and movie theaters be closed to halt the spread of the new coronavirus. A few minutes later, I got a call from the producer for Greg News, the satirical show on HBO that I direct. She told me that she was trying to find out whether the measure would affect the space where we’d start recording our fourth season in ten days’ time. Two hours later, the verdict came: the theater would be closed. The decision sparked any number of questions about whether the season could go forward at all and what would become of the team, especially our cleaners, who only work on shooting days. Through WhatsApp groups, other members of the entertainment community – actors, directors, costume designers, makeup artists, grips, camera operators, security guards, and ticket office attendants – started to grapple with the immediate economic impact that these suppressive measures would have on their lives.

I called the host of the show, Gregorio Duvivier, to let him know what was going on. “I feel like a climate denialist,” he said. “I understand that people really can’t gather right now, but the theater is my world, and this is going to break the theaters’ back. It’s hard to accept.” Artists and the owners of entertainment venues, perhaps among the first to have their work impacted by the restrictions on movement aimed at “flattening the curve” of the COVID-19 pandemic, were caught between the dueling needs to obey public health measures and preserve jobs.



I wasn’t exactly surprised: having arrived from New York a few days before, I felt as if I’d come back from the future. That trip to the States had prepared me for what would certainly befall Rio a few weeks down the road. In self-isolation, I took care of my 18-month-old daughter Helena, having warned her nanny to stop coming to work and avoid contact with other people. After talking to Duvivier, I got onto a video call with my team at Nossas, the activist organization that I co-founded in 2011 and direct to this day. For eight years, the team has dedicated itself to getting out ahead of public policy decisions that can affect the lives of vast groups of people, and to finding ways to involve citizens in those decisions. Even so, a few members weren’t yet convinced that the pandemic would have the predicted effects.

The call was quick: we decided to close down the Nossas office, effective that Monday, and start mapping the effects of the pandemic. Someone asked how long the office would be closed.  “At least two weeks,” I said. “Probably a lot longer.”

The weekend was calm. Helena was with my mother-in-law, who refused to believe that there was reason to worry. On Sunday the 15th, we watched, perplexed – if not exactly shocked – as Jair Bolsonaro reached into the crowd during protests against Congress and the Supreme Court. On Monday, Governor Witzel announced a state of emergency. The situation was looking dire, and a few politicians went so far as to say that there would be no beds left in the state’s hospitals once the pandemic started spreading in Rio.

I called my father, who is a doctor at the state university-run Pedro Ernesto Hospital – and a Bolsonaro voter. “The virus isn’t the president’s fault,” he said. I asked about the hospital, whether they thought it’d fill up. “Everything’s all right for now, but we’re definitely going to need more equipment,” he replied. On Twitter, political leaders began reacting to Bolsonaro’s actions of the day before. Rodrigo Maia, the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, declared: “The President of the Republic has ignored and undermined his health minister and the specialists in the ministry, scoffing at the pandemic and encouraging people to go out into the streets.”

On Tuesday the 17th, with Helena cooped up in our apartment and increasingly restless, my husband, Miguel Lago, and I decided that we would go up to his parents’ mountain place, where we’d have more space. I went out to the supermarket in a mask and gloves and filled a cart with provisions as I explained the situation to my mother, a doctor affiliated with the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation. We packed our suitcases in a rush. On the road, Miguel joined a video call with his colleagues at the Institute for Health Policy Studies (IEPS), who were trying to calculate the costs of hospitalization during the pandemic. Preliminary results indicated nearly R$1 billion for each percentage point of infected, uninsured Brazilians. The line between economics and health policy was getting blurrier by the hour.

When we got to the mountain place, I returned a call to my friend Pedro Telles, the chief of staff to the Bancada Ativista, or Activist Caucus, an eight-member collective serving a single mandate in the São Paulo state legislature. “What are you all at Nossas thinking about doing?” he asked. I explained that we were concerned about replacing income for the poorest. “With no income, nobody will quarantine, and we’ll have hunger on top of the disease,” I said. Telles agreed. “It’ll be a massacre. That’s why I wanted to talk to you. The folks over at the Brazilian Basic Income Network have some ideas, and they want to talk,” he explained, referring to RBRB, in the Portuguese-language acronym, an organization created last year with the goal of promoting the idea of basic income in Brazil. Before I went to bed, I spoke remotely with Isabela Avelar, Ully Ribeiro, and Daniela Poubel, members of my team. “I think we’re going to see a growing consensus around basic income,” I said.

 

When I got on the video call, at 9 in the morning on March 18th, Tatiana Roque, a mathematician and science historian, was already online. I’ve known her for a few years, ever since we both worked (in vain) to implement primary elections for a range of leftist parties that would have made the candidate-selection process more transparent. Now, she and her colleague Leandro Ferreira were heading up RBRB. We were soon joined onscreen by José Moroni of the Institute for Socioeconomic Studies (Inesc), Douglas Belchior of the Black Coalition for Rights, Mariana Belmont of the Union of Popular Educational Centers for Blacks and the Working Class (Uneafro), Ricardo Martins of Pact for Democracy, and Pedro Telles, the Activist Caucus chief of staff and co-founder of Advocacy Hub, an initiative designed to strengthen the work of NGOs and collectives. Telles reported that the Ethos Institute, an organization that encourages companies to adopt socially responsible practices, was also backing the initiative but wasn’t able to send a representative for that day’s call. Leandro Ferreira presented RBRB’s recommendation: the immediate implementation of a system for emergency basic income, covering all those in the register of poor families known as the Cadastro Único, as well as the unemployed, who could be identified by their NIS, a number assigned to each worker entering his or her first formal job or to anyone seeking aid from social programs. Someone wanted to know more about the Cadastro Único. “There’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world,” Moroni explained. “The Brazilian government knows everyone who’s receiving a benefit from all of its social programs, and where they’re living. Many of them already have accounts with Caixa [the Federal Savings Bank], and the vast majority have a CPF” – the equivalent of a Social Security number. “It’s a quick, easy way to identify those most in need.”

The Nossas team offered to create the campaign website and work on a communications strategy; RBRB would handle the technical part, drawing up a defense of the proposal and detailing how it would work. Others took on the task of reaching out to legislators and academics, and to creating the campaign brand. Pact for Democracy would reach out to civil society. And all of us agreed to call on other organizations: this would be a hard sell, it wouldn’t come cheap, and we had to bring the largest possible number of actors on board if we were going to get any political momentum. Just two days later, our little group of six partner organizations had become the largest civil-society coalition since Brazil’s return to democracy. Our ranks had swelled to 163 organizations – some representing networks of countless other institutions and collectives – and we were calling, in a single voice, for the immediate implementation of emergency basic income to shield the nation’s poorest from the socioeconomic fallout of the pandemic.

The idea of basic income far predates the pandemic, of course. In Brazil, it has long been associated with erstwhile senator and current São Paulo city councilor Eduardo Suplicy, a tireless defender of the idea for years. But the history of basic income dates back to the 16th century. In the Renaissance, the responsibility of caring for society’s poorest and most vulnerable ceased to fall solely to the Catholic Church and charity-minded individuals, as humanists began mulling the idea of universal income in the form of public aid. In Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516, the Portuguese traveler Rafael Nonsenso relates a conversation with the archbishop of Canterbury, John Morton, in which he argues that a basic income would be a more intelligent way of combating theft and robbery than sentencing thieves to death. The humanist Juan Luis Vives also wrote at length on the topic, basing his defense of basic income on both pragmatic and theological grounds. Some years later, Vives’ appeal would inspire a system for distributing income to the poorest in the Flemish city of Ypres and helped to shape the first forms of poverty alleviation across Europe, from England’s Poor Laws (dating back to 1536) and the School of Salamanca (dating back to 1576).

The notion that the state should play a greater role in alleviating poverty began to spread in the late 18th century. The French mathematician and political activist Antoine Caritat, known as the Marquis de Condorcet, was the first to put forth a practical proposal. Having played a key role in the French Revolution, Condorcet was sentenced to death. While in hiding to avoid arrest, he wrote his most comprehensive work, the Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit, published by his widow in 1795. In the last chapter, de Condorcet provides a brief description of a possible system of social security to help reduce inequality, insecurity, and poverty.

Three years after de Condorcet’s death, his friend Thomas Paine further developed the idea in his essay on Agrarian Justice, published in 1797. In it, he writes: “It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race.” In the author’s words, as land is cultivated, “it is the value of the improvement only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property.” From this, Paine concludes that “Every proprietor […] of cultivated land owes to the community a groundrent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds; and it is from this groundrent that the fund proposed in this plan is to issue.” The money from the fund in question would be paid out to “every person, rich or poor,” standing in for the “natural inheritance which, as a right, belongs to every man, over and above the property he may have created, or inherited.” This publication marked the official birth of the idea of universal basic income. It rests on a simple, beautiful premise: that the mere fact of existing in the world entitles each person to a part of what we all share, namely the organic matter from which life draws sustenance.

Over the centuries that followed, the idea of universal basic income continued gathering supporters of various ideological stripes. Libertarian economist Milton Friedman argued that poverty negatively affects everyone, not just the poor, and that poverty relief thus provides benefits to all, not only those who donate or engage in charitable work. He referred to those who benefit from these initiatives without contributing themselves as “free riders,” and suggested that the government ought to quash the phenomenon by shouldering part of poverty relief through what he called a “negative income tax.”

Under Friedman’s proposal, each person would receive a percentage of the difference between their income and the cutoff for paying income tax. For example: if the lower limit for paying income tax were $45,000/year and the negative income tax were set at 50%, then those earning $20,000 would be $25,000 below the taxable income limit and thus entitled to 50% of that difference, or $12,500. The proposal differs from universal basic income, in which each person, independent of income level, receives the same sum. But the similarities are such that Friedman’s name is often brought up in debates on the topic.

 

It was still March 18th, and our partners in the campaign for emergency basic income were peppering one another with WhatsApp messages, trying to get everything in order to launch the initiative the next day. Suddenly, word came: Finance Minister Paulo Guedes was giving an interview, announcing the creation of a four-month voucher for informal workers. Guedes claimed that the voucher would start being distributed in two weeks’ time. And as for the size of the payment, he was categorical: “No more, no less than Bolsa Família.” Bolsa Família, a longstanding cash allowance for Brazil’s neediest families, currently tops out at R$205 per month for a family of five, an average of R$41 (somewhere around $7) per beneficiary.

The government’s proposal was blatantly insufficient. In light of a crisis of incalculable proportions brought on by an external shock, Guedes, holed up in his apartment in a wealthy Rio neighborhood despite the president’s pooh-poohing of social distancing, was proposing an aid program based on a cash allowance designed to relieve extreme poverty, but which had never been seen as an income replacement – it had always been a complement for people living on the margins. The announcement of the “coronavoucher,” as the government baptized its creation, threw a wrench into our plans. By giving the impression that the executive branch was doing its best to deal with the crisis, Guedes was preempting civil society and setting the terms of the debate, based on his personal evaluation of what could and couldn’t be done. Anything above what he’d already proposed would now be cast as a victory. But we would have to go far and above what the minister was offering.

We immediately hopped on a new video call. We were all learning to grapple with the quirks of working from home; there were dogs barking on José Moroni’s end, and my daughter ran back and forth behind my desk, practicing a new word she’d learned during quarantine: reunião, or “meeting.” We agreed on a much more sweeping proposal than the government’s: basic income of R$300 per month per beneficiary, including children and seniors, to be distributed to the unemployed and the 77 million Brazilians registered with the Cadastro Único. For a family of four, that would mean R$1,200 per month for at least six months – nearly six times the size of the government’s planned payment, and to be paid out for longer than Guedes had thought acceptable.

The next day, I got word that HBO was planning to keep Greg News on the air, albeit filmed from home – fantastic news. We started planning our season opener, which would be recorded in four days. By then, it was already clear that the pandemic would affect different people in very different ways. Our comedy research team was turning up countless examples of digital influencers and celebrities trying to find a silver lining in the quarantine. Fitness blogger Gabriela Pugliesi, who had contracted the virus at her sister’s wedding in Bahia, summed up the vibe of this happy-go-lucky Instagram tribe: “It took just half a dozen days for the universe to restore social equality.” By then, the coronavirus had been reported in every Brazilian state. Manaus, which in two weeks’ time would be the first city to see its hospitals completely overwhelmed, had just notched up its third official case. We decided that Greg News would kick off the season by addressing inequality in the pandemic – and that we’d talk about the proposal for emergency basic income. We found out that Gabriela Pugliesi’s sister was spending her quarantine in the Maldives. She’d posted a video assuring everyone that she was all right and thanking her guests for the “beautiful” wedding.

Once the staff meeting was over, I called sociologist Marcelo Medeiros, one of Brazil’s leading specialists in inequality and social protection. He had been vocally defending emergency basic income during the pandemic: “It’s not just about social protection, it’s also the bare minimum to keep the crisis from becoming even more catastrophic because of a sheer drop-off in consumption.” Medeiros and economist Monica de Bolle were both using Twitter to promote the idea of basic income, each in their own way. Medeiros argued that the aid should last at least a year, and warned about excessive concern over the cost of the program. After all, other countries, including Germany and the United States, were investing something on the order of 6-7% of GDP to keep the crisis from snowballing further. Medeiros justified these hefty investments: “Crises diminish countries’ growth potential for years, not just when they first appear. We’re still living with the consequences of the crisis that began under [former president] Dilma [Rousseff]. So, investing now makes sense. And you’ve got to go big.”

 

Just as the pandemic inserted a new, very real risk with which all citizens will be forced to grapple whenever they leave their homes, other phenomena of our time will also dramatically increase the risks faced by families, companies, and governments. The acceleration of climate change, in particular, brings risks that echo throughout countless aspects of daily life – the risk of being late to work, contracting a debilitating disease, losing one’s home, drowning in a flood, or losing one’s job because the economy has been hobbled by external shocks.  If these massive increased risks inherent to any human activity were happening in relatively egalitarian societies, that would be worrisome enough. With inequality, the result is ruinous.

Over the past thirteen years, starting just after the financial crisis of 2008, the risk that had once been shared by households, companies, and governments was gradually shifted squarely to the shoulders of families. Political scientist Jacob Hacker diagnosed the phenomenon in his 2006 book The Great Risk Shift; in it, he describes the “massive transfer of economic risk from broad structures of insurance, including those sponsored by the corporate sector as well as by government, onto the fragile balance sheets of American families.” Hacker’s analysis largely hewed to prevailing conditions in the United States. But in the 2008 crisis, it became clear that the phenomenon was global, as governments across the world dealt with the brutal irresponsibility of actors in the financial sector by saving corporations and abandoning families and citizens.

Now, with the rise of the gig economy, the great risk shift has been consummated. A few years ago, companies bore the bulk of their businesses’ risk. Today, those risks are absorbed by workers. An Uber driver, for example, is forced to deal with loss of income that may stem from prevailing circumstances in his or her life – illness or disability – as well as losses caused by changes in the market, such as a drop in demand provoked by social, political, or economic events beyond their control. While in the past a driver could always have been let go during a recession, small fluctuations in demand were absorbed by employers, who had to keep on paying the salaries of drivers regardless of the time they actually spent serving clients. And if one of those drivers were to fall ill or be unable to work for long periods of time, the company and the government would cover the costs. That is no longer the case.

Our old risk calculations, in which the unpredictable fallout of life was absorbed by major collective structures and were not borne by the most vulnerable in society, made sense. After all, it’s eminently more feasible to plan for potential sources of financial difficulty when the risk is shared across a large population, with all contributing a small part, even with the knowledge that not all will need to call on the system for help. Social insurance rests essentially on the same principles as private insurance, but with two differences: it does not create profit, nor is it designed to, and is guided by solidarity, so as to ensure that none, not even those at the greatest risk of becoming a “drain” on the system, will be left behind.

This logic of dividing risks on the basis of solidarity has vanished, just as the climate emergency is deepening the risks faced by individuals across the globe. The photo of a delivery boy in the middle of a flooded Belo Horizonte, with water up to his knees, went viral on social media earlier this year because it hit a nerve we didn’t know we had. The messenger – a 27-year-old father, two years unemployed – reported that he worked 10-12-hour days for two apps, Rappi and iFood, and that he kept on doing so even as the city went into a state of emergency. After all, during flash floods, people turn to home delivery more often. Today, in the thick of the pandemic, that same worker is exposed to yet another unplanned-for risk: potential coronavirus exposure. If he is infected and does not survive, it won’t be a workplace accident and his family won’t have access to a pension. While he’s been doing delivery work for years, seven days a week, he’s not an employee. He’s an “entrepreneur.” In the era of existential threats, the question that matters is a simple one: when the next virus, flood, or landslide hits your city, will you be ordering pizza or delivering it?

 

As of March 23rd, our petition for emergency basic income, although only recently launched, already had nearly half a million signatures. A group of more than 2,000 YouTubers, some with millions of followers, had organized to support the campaign, inspired by biologist Atila Iamarino’s exhortations for everyone to stay at home. Tatiana Roque had led the conversation with the YouTubers, via Nilce Moretto, who produces Coisa de Nerd – a channel with over 10 million subscribers, most of them teenagers. The idea of basic income, which at first seemed nigh-impossible, had won over both YouTube and civil society, but had yet to get a serious foothold in Congress.

In Congress, opposition leaders put forth an ambitious basic-income proposal, up to R$1,500 per family. Another bill was under discussion in the Senate, having been introduced by Randolfe Rodrigues. But our sources told us that congressman Eduardo Barbosa had introduced a bill that was gaining more traction than the rest. Barbosa’s plan was better than Paulo Guedes’, but it had serious drawbacks. The most serious of them was the fact that the benefit (R$500, or around $85) would only be paid out to adults in the family, with a limit of up to two beneficiaries. Our plan called for a smaller payment of R$300 (around $50), but which would be paid out for each member of the family. Under Barbosa’s plan, a childless couple could get R$1,000 per month; but a single mother with three children would receive just R$500. By our system, the couple would get R$600, the single mother R$1,200.

Douglas Belchior of the Black Coalition for Rights asked congressman Orlando Silva to meet with us, along with Tabata Amaral, Felipe Rigoni, Mauro Benevides Filho, and Arnaldo Jardim, also of the Chamber of Deputies. Together, they’d formed a group to study proposals to ameliorate the socioeconomic effects of the pandemic and work to persuade Speaker Maia to put forth a project other than Barbosa’s. As I was tied up recording the first Greg News of the season, an episode about basic income, I wasn’t able to join the conversation. Daniela Poubel represented Nossas, and told me that the legislators took the opportunity to ask questions about our proposal and promised to consider the technical report carefully: “The idea is to back an alternative to Barbosa’s plan, one without the regressive parts.” Before I went to sleep, I talked to my dad again. He told me that the hospital was getting ready to turn the orthopedics ward into a COVID-19 intensive care unit.

The next morning, I watched the interview program Roda Viva, which had been recorded using social distancing, with the guest, economist Armínio Fraga, speaking from his home. He also argued in favor of emergency income, which was the topic of the first question. “First of all, is there money for it? That’s the classic economist’s question. And the answer is, in an emergency like this one, with an asteroid hitting our planet, something that really happens once in a century – or so we hope – you’ve got to have money. This is money to be spent in an emergency.”

Around 8 p.m., José Moroni, of the Institute for Socioeconomic Studies, found out that the Chamber of Deputies was preparing to vote on Barbosa’s plan that very night. If it passed, Tatiana Roque warned, our proposal might be stillborn. The legislators we’d spoken to a few days before still hadn’t come up with a consensus proposal. I sent a WhatsApp message to Tabata Amaral, who had previously passed along a document with the basic outline of the plan that her group was hoping to present. Worried, I wrote: “I’ll try to crank out a bill based on your document, in case that’d be helpful.” She wrote back quickly: “That’d be a great help! I’ll put you in touch with Talita, my chief of staff.”

I spent the next few hours chatting with Talita Nascimento, while Pedro Telles, Tatiana Roque, José Moroni, Douglas Belchior, Mariana Belmont, and Ricardo Martins anxiously watched that evening’s session. We needed an alternative to Barbosa’s bill, something that could be proposed from the floor if necessary. The opposition bill had already been introduced, but Marcelo Freixo, Alessandro Molon, and Fernanda Melchionna confided that they had little hope of Rodrigo Maia’s putting it up for a vote. The working group we were in touch with, which included a wider range of parties, would have more of a fighting chance. I enlisted my husband’s help, opened up a Word document, and started to type, sitting on my couch: “Article 1: The present law institutes an Emergency Basic Income of a temporary nature, in response to the state of public emergency provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic.” By the time I hit “send,” the session had ended without Barbosa’s plan being voted on. We’d gotten another day. But it was clear that if no other proposal garnered support, our only alternative would be to fight for amendments to his bill.

On March 26th, early in the morning, we did a video call. This time, in addition to the usual suspects, we were joined by sociologist Caio Magri, the president and director of the Ethos Institute. We had to prepare for a public hearing with senators to present our plan. Mariana Belmont was marshaling the troops and setting the list of speakers, as well as getting the word out to the press. We knew that winning over the Senate would be fundamental, in case they had to make major changes to the bill that would soon be coming out of the Chamber of Deputies.

The public hearing, which was held over Zoom, was a chapter all unto itself in the history of pandemic-era legislative proceedings. Around ten senators got on the call, city councilor and former senator Eduardo Suplicy joined in, and Marcelo Medeiros observed the hearing from Princeton. Several media outlets also sent representatives. But the technical difficulties were myriad and often hilarious. At one point, a group of trolls got onto the call – we’d provided a public link – and started sharing their screens, which were showing pornographic images: X-rated content cheek by jowl with the images of senators making their initial statements.

Once the hearing was over, we had to prepare for the next session of the Chamber of Deputies, during which the basic income bill would probably go up for a vote. It had become clear that Maia was not likely to put our proposal forward. Our last hope was to influence Marcelo Aro, the reporting member for Barbosa’s bill. On a new video call, Orlando Silva, Marcelo Freixo, Alessandro Molon, Fernanda Melchionna, and Jandira Feghali asked us for new cost projections for our proposal. RBRB’s Leandro Ferreira came up with calculations on the spot while his son played in the background. We were doing all we could to influence Aro’s report. By that time, however, one battle seemed to have been won: single mothers would be entitled to a double payment, a significant advance over Barbosa’s original offer.

Once the session was gaveled in, all we could do was wait. We followed along live as parliamentary business unfolded over YouTube. Only a few caucus leaders had taken to the floor in Brasília; most were in their homes, speaking over webcams. All of the legislators seemed to have vast home libraries, which appeared in the backdrop as each proclaimed his or her vote. And so it was, with each of us stuck to our own screens, WhatsApp buzzing every three seconds, that we witnessed the passage of emergency basic income in Brazil. On that March 26th, by a voice vote, the floor passed Eduardo Barbosa’s bill – albeit with significant modifications.

The benefit, which may cover over 100 million Brazilians, was ultimately set at R$600 per adult (around $100), provided to up to two adults per family. Single mothers are entitled to a double benefit, for a total of R$1,200 per month. In addition to all citizens without formal employment registered in the Cadastro Único, the benefit includes informal workers making less than the equivalent of three minimum wages per month, per household. The payments will last for three months, and may be extended by executive order. The total cost will come to some R$50 billion – less than 1% of GDP. This minimal investment may still ward off true catastrophe for millions of Brazilian citizens.

Over the days that followed, our small group would speak with senators Randolfe Rodrigues and Alessandro Vieira, to ensure that the Chamber’s bill would make it smoothly through the Senate. As the reporting member, Vieira introduced further improvements, including benefits for the intermittently employed, and removed a banana peel that had been planted by Bolsonaro administration allies: a clause stating that Bolsa Familia beneficiaries would have to opt in to the benefit if it proved more advantageous, forcing them to actively register and delaying the payment further.  In the final draft, the “opt-in” became automatic.

 

Once an idea takes the world by storm and becomes politically inevitable, its gains a whole host of purported progenitors. The session in which basic income had been voted in had just been gaveled out when President Bolsonaro went live on YouTube and announced that he’d ordered it to be passed: “I talked to Paulo Guedes […] and he decided to triple the payment. We know R$200 isn’t much, and R$600 is a help if you’re out of work… y’know, informal workers who can’t work right now. So I gave the green light.” After weeks of insisting on anemic aid, Finance Minister Paulo Guedes came out to congratulate himself on the bill’s passage and announce that it was being made law. It took nearly another two weeks for the government to finally start paying out emergency basic income. Implementation problems persist to this day, issues that might have been avoided under the original proposal put forth by civil society.

The requirement for the regularization of CPFs, for example, and the plan’s insistence on excluding a portion of those in the Cadastro Único registry, made the process much more bureaucratic, forcing everyone to enroll through a constantly hiccupping online system. None of this would have happened if the final bill had incorporated all of the mechanisms proposed by our campaign. Moreover, Bolsonaro’s ministers have made a point of referring to emergency basic income as a “coronavoucher” (erroneously, since a voucher is a coupon which can be used to purchase specific products, unlike the cash transfers that were actually provided).

The semantic difference reveals a political tug-of-war: by using the word “voucher,” the government is working to let the air out of emergency basic income, circumscribing it to the exceptional context of an epidemic. While basic income has clearly become particularly relevant in the current context, we might acknowledge that in society as it stands, it has become essential – and for good. Given the profound changes in the job market and the increasing frequency of external shocks and profound crises, we must unshackle human dignity from the idea of productivity. We are moving toward a world in which it will no longer be necessary for people to produce everything we need or want to consume. Automation has already given us a glimpse of that reality. If the exclusion of entire swaths of the population from the world of work and production also entails their exclusion from the world of consumption, we will have a major problem on our hands.

It’s time to return to that idea of Paine’s, the almost naïve notion that we all inherit the earth and are entitled to a part of a part of its fruits. The pandemic has presented us with a massive taste of the challenges that humanity will face at warp speed in the context of climate change. Solidarity-based solutions such as basic income, along with a fairer distribution of the risks that we all run – by virtue of being alive – can free us. And give each of us the chance to understand that we are much more than a workforce. In the pandemic, there is no opposition between life and the economy: there is only the realization that living is different from working, and that it is much more important.

 

I started writing this piece on April 7th, a few days after the basic income bill had passed. That day, I awoke to the news that iFood, the country’s biggest food delivery app, had successfully overturned a ruling forcing it to pay a minimum wage to messengers who had stopped working, either because of exposure to the coronavirus or a COVID-19 diagnosis, or because they belonged to at-risk groups. The plight of food-delivery couriers – who are forced to buy their own equipment to work and are then remunerated on a pay scale that is not transparent and may be modified at any time by the company – was the subject of the next week’s Greg News. Inspired by the show, over 1,000 software developers would join together in an online group to create an app to connect couriers with labor lawyers. The idea of developing a cooperative delivery service was also brought up in the discussion.

As I write, our partners in the campaign for basic income are preparing for a new stage of mobilization, now focused on identifying and supporting all those who are being denied aid for no stated reason. Sheila de Carvalho, a lawyer and human rights project coordinator for the Ethos Institute, has advised those who are denied to put in a habeas data request – a solicitation that ensures any citizen’s free access to information about herself or himself – and the Nossas team is evaluating the creation of an online system to register those affected. The process of obtaining information from the government is fraught, since each request has to be individually filed by a lawyer: as of now, Brazilian legislation does not permit collective habeas data requests. The struggle for basic income is now forced to deal with the government’s fumbling rollout, and is the site of ongoing disputes. But the need for aid, once questioned, has become a political no-brainer.

In 1755, a major earthquake destroyed Lisbon, killing as many as 70,000 people. At the time, Voltaire described his despair over the carnage, publishing a long poem in which he protested the unfairness of divine wrath falling squarely on the quiet Portuguese capital and leaving sinful Paris and London untouched. To which Rousseau, pointing out that Lisbon’s ramshackle housing had contributed to the massacre, retorted that there are no natural disasters: man makes his own tragedies. The coronavirus pandemic may seem natural, but it will only be tragic if humankind lets it. Another end of the world is possible.

Alessandra Orofino

Economista pela Universidade Columbia com especialização em direitos humanos, é diretora executiva da ONG Nossas e diretora-geral do Greg News

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