Pandemic, Genocide and Barbarism: Challenges for Critical Education in Brazil
The text discusses the challenges that the popular classes face in Brazil to guarantee the right to life, given the current scenario of barbarism caused by the increased exploitation of labor and nature that are conducted by a fascist government which, amid the tragic scenario of the coronavirus pandemic, leads the country to a genocide.
The current Brazilian political scenario is analyzed in view of the president’s sadistic character. Despite of heading the coronavirus-denial group – which has resulted in an increasing number of deaths – the president's approval rate is 33%. Among the poorest, 31% approve the government.
It is argued that the unlimited exploitation of workers was possible as a result of a ‘banking education system’ (Freire, 1970) that has historically contributed to the alienation of workers. Currently, it results in the tragic situation in which the worker chooses to walk towards his own annihilation. Thus, it is necessary to deeply revolutionize the ‘banking education system’ to stop the barbarism that leads humanity to self-destruction.
Lastly, some challenges are presented to critical educators who work with popular classes in the struggle for the defense of life and against the current genocide of the black people, indigenous and traditional peoples in Brazil.
Presidential sadism and genocide
In Brazil, the rate of contamination by coronavirus increased fast. The first case was diagnosed on February 26, 2020. On March 15, when 200 cases were diagnosed, the president joined a demonstration organized by his supporters who were protesting against the National Congress and the Supreme Federal Court. During the demonstration, the president shook hands with some protesters despite of be suspected of being infected. He argued that the guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO) for containment of the coronavirus were overstated and that, moreover, he had the right to greet people.
In late May, Brazil was considered the global epicenter of the pandemic. From March 17 to June 5, it had been reported 34,000 deaths from coronavirus. However, researchers affirm that the number of cases may be 14 times higher due to underreporting, especially in poor communities.
The President’s attitudes are of denying the pandemic impacts, claiming that there is manipulation of the data due to political interests against his government, and defending that saving the economy must be the priority. For example, on April 20th, when there were 2,575 deaths due to coronavirus, in response to a journalist who asked the President about the number of deaths, he replied: "I am not an undertaker, okay?". Eight days later, when the number of deaths has doubled, the President replied to journalists: “So what? I am sorry. What do you want me to do?”. When the death toll reached the 30,000 mark, on June 2nd, the President stated: “We are sorry about all deaths, but it's everyone's destiny”. As Brazil posts some of the highest daily coronavirus death totals in the world, in June 2020, the President reduces the amount of data his government is releasing to the public.
In addition to the anti-scientific discourse, the government attacks the legislative, the judicial and also the state governors who adopt social isolation measures recommended by WHO. In an act of disrespect to healthcare professionals and to the health safety protocol, the President encourages his supporters to invade Intensive Care Units to make video records: “If there is a field hospital near you, a public hospital, find a way to get in and record it. A lot of people are doing this and more people have to do it to show whether the beds are occupied or not. Whether the expenses are compatible or not. It helps us”.
So, besides the pandemic, Brazilian society faces difficult economic and political crisis – with real threats to the democratic order. For example, between April and May 2020, three Ministers of State abandoned the government (two Ministers of Health and the Minister of Justice and Public Security, Sérgio Moro, who supported the government's motto of “fighting corruption”). This has conducted to a situation where Brazil has no Minister of Health to guarantee minimum conditions to save people’s lives facing the pandemic.
While the government faces the increased death toll encouraging people to fight for their “right to walk on the streets”, the most vulnerable are the low-class workers who are forced to take crowded public transportation to save their jobs or to try to find ways for surviving. This is the sadistic face of a government that pushes thousands of people to death. Paulo Freire (2005) affirms that sadism is one of the characteristics of the oppressive conscience. In their necrophilic view of the world, oppressors express a love for death and not for life.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, sadism can be understood as the pleasure that someone feels from watching or making somebody suffer. There are many indications that sadism permeates the current federal policies in a way that has not happened in the country for 35 years.
Brazil was the main African slave landing region in the Americas (Klein, 1987) and the last region to abandon the slave trade, in 1850 (Bethell, 1976). The slaveholder’s mentality is a characteristic of white elites that ruled authoritarian governments throughout Brazilian History.
After the end of the civil-military dictatorship (1964-1985), the movement for re-democratization coincided with the emergence of a new cycle – associated with the Neoliberal Right led by the structural adjustment and the Washington Consensus – that combined some respect for institutional frameworks (Svampa, 2019) with heavy-handed economic policies.
From 2003, the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores - PT) enacted thirteen years of a progressive policy cycle with income-redistribution and affirmative policies combating racism and intolerance.
This cycle was dashed by a parliamentary coup, in 2016. The victory in 2018 of President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right congressman and former military officer, demonstrated a call to restore traditional moral values and the deposed hierarchies. A new political option emerged: a populism of the extreme right with generalized anti-progressive reaction and fascist features. Here, the appeal to a classical/authoritarian capitalist order converges with the call to the traditional patriarchal order.
There are therefore both high classes and low classes individuals among the president’s supporters. However, their social class define who will have assistance in luxurious hospitals and who will depend on the overcrowded public hospitals – that lack personal protective equipment – in case of being infected with coronavirus.
Facing the anti-scientific government, complying with social isolation measures has become an act of civil disobedience, although it is not an option for many people.
That being so, the street protests that had been scheduled for early March by teacher unions and student organizations in defense of public education and against privatization of state-owned companies were canceled to ensure security and to follow the recommendations of the WHO. The academic calendar of Brazilian public universities, which, in general, starts in March, has been suspended. Because of the huge inequality on access to quality internet and poor living conditions among undergraduate students – as also among school students – teachers are resistant to adopt remote learning to restart the semester. Therefore, the climate in public universities is tense due to the fear of persecution as the Ministers of Economy and of Education declared public servants and teachers as enemies.
The chaotic scenario is taken by capital as an opportunity to implement the agenda of privatizing and liberalizing reforms that expropriate public servants and workers’ rights, as they are dispersed and unable to carry out massive street protests.
The banking education system as a path toward barbarism
Dehumanization in capitalism is so accentuated that it coerces and convinces the worker to walk towards his own annihilation. As Freire points out (Freire, 2005), the oppressors develop countless myths that make them gain admiration from the oppressed for a false world. These myths are indispensable for maintaining the order: that the oppressive order is an order of freedom; that everyone is free to work on wherever they want; that the capitalist order respects the human rights and is therefore worth defending; that all those who strive can become great entrepreneurs.
The high unemployment rates compel workers to accept informal employment relationships without wages or labor rights. Thus, those myths make them believe that they are not exploited workers, but entrepreneurs. This is the result of intensified individualism and competition, which removes any perspective of collective struggle for rights and social transformation.
Schools do not currently present prospects of overcoming this situation. Quite the opposite: education policies are contested by ruling classes aimed at increasing corporate profit (Leher & Accioly, 2016). This way companies turn education into fertile ground for businesses, making sure schools produce ‘efficient’, submissive, ideologically indoctrinated and pro-capitalistic workers.
Schools contribute to deepening alienation, as curriculum contents deemed unnecessary by corporate reformers are excluded from schools. Subject matters as Arts, Sociology, Philosophy, History and Geography, among others, are downplayed or even removed from mandatory curricula. As a consequence, working-class students are alienated from knowledge socially and historically produced by civilizations and rather provided with fragmented information deprived of meaning which could lead to transforming their particular realities. Meanwhile, opportunities to engage in critical thinking about society and education decline (Hill, 2003).
This represents a massive system of banking education that, by increasing the population's level of education, made it possible to increase alienation and exploitation. According to Freire, the banking concept of education enables oppression and control, since it turns students into recipients of content. That is why banking education cannot hide its necrophilic imprint.
Hence, it is currently possible to notice how disastrous the banking education system is and how it contributes to the maintenance of the fascist and ultra conservative government in power. In Brazil, banking education resulted in:
This is one of the factors that lead groups to claim for the return of the civil-military dictatorship in Brazil, which went from 1964 to 1985. Contrary to what they claim, corruption existed during dictatorship even though it was covered up due to the lack of press freedom and agencies of control and inspection. Besides, dictatorship carried out torture and murder of journalists, students, teachers and all critics of the order. Its marks are still in the institutional structure of the military police, which often disrespects human rights and promote massacres in slums and peripheries.
The current government acts in accordance with some dictatorial practices: it attacks press agencies, teachers, universities and research institutions; it dismantles control and inspection agencies, and councils for social participation in public policies.
While banking education denies democratic dialogue, it legitimizes the authoritarianism of competition, individualism and rankings. The currently increased wave of hatred towards the left, the critical thinking, the black and native peoples, the LGBTQ, and the feminist movements is an extreme effect of the taste for authoritarianism in Brazil.
This is one of the factors that lead groups to reply anti-scientific discourses against social distance and other measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Besides antagonizing scientific institutions and the WHO recommendations, these people deny the coronavirus severity and put their own lives at risk while they take to the streets in support of the president.
The data from 2018 indicated that 30% of the population over 15 years old is considered as functional illiterate (Ação Educativa & Instituto Paulo Montenegro, 2018). A person who is considered functionally illiterate may be able to read and write simple texts, but still does not have the necessary skills to meet the demands of their daily lives or enable their personal and professional development. These people have difficulties interpreting texts and differentiating facts from opinions. In addition, they usually have difficulties in verifying the accuracy of information, what make them vulnerable to fake news and images that has been manipulated or used in false context. Moreover, the Bible is the most widely read book.
If, from a linguistic point of view, the illiterate is the one who cannot read and write, the political “illiterate” – whether or not he/she can read and write – is the one who has a naive perception of the human beings on their relationships in the world, a naive perception of social reality that, for him or her, is a given fact, something that ‘is’ and not something that ‘is being’. One of the tendencies is to shun concrete reality – a manner of denying it – by losing itself in abstract worldviews (Freire, 2001, p.74, our translations).
Freire states that critical reading implies the perception of the relationship between the text and the context (Freire, 1989), which occurs in the continuous process of reading the world and the word (Freire & Macedo, 2011). The deficiency in the capacity of critical reading means that the reader does not interrogate the News, does not seek additional information, does not investigate the veracity of the information. Thus, within the online world, they become vulnerable to internet technology corporations.
The basic code of the new internet is quite simple. The new generation of online filters examines what we seem to like – the things we do, or the things people like us like – and tries to extrapolate trends. They are forecasting mechanisms that constantly create and refine a theory about who we are and what we are going to do or wish to do. Together, these mechanisms create unique universe of information to each of us – what I have come to call the filter bubble – which fundamentally changes the way we come across ideas and information (Pariser, 2012).
Because they have limited access to internet, the popular classes are more impacted by the filter bubbles, which therefore have great power to influence public opinion. Currently, the Superior Electoral Court is investigating a scheme for the massive production and dissemination of Fake News that would have been financed by businessmen in order to influence the presidential election results.
The coronavirus crisis unveils the obscene degree of inequality, intolerance, racism, exploitation of workers and also the contempt that rulers have for people’s lives. Exacerbated individualism, which is taught within the banking education system, make these issues seem natural. During the pandemic, we noticed countless examples of how these obscenities occur:
Therefore, the current crisis exposes the high potential of capitalism for annihilation. This is its greatest contradiction: while it expands, it kills life.
Since the capacity of capitalism to renew itself presupposes increased labor exploitation, it is urgent to the workers to organize themselves. Under governments that drive genocides, the affirmation of life represents an act of rebellion.
Defending public, free, democratic and revolutionary education
Against the barbarism it is necessary the rebellion of those who still have the drive for life and the conviction that society reached a point of no return – the peak of environmental destruction, of the genocide of blacks and indigenous people, and of the violence against women and LGBTQ.
Freire points out that the transformation of rebel attitudes into revolutionary attitudes must be a central issue.
Rebellion is an indispensable starting point, it is the outbreak of appropriate anger, but it is not enough. Rebellion as a denunciation needs to be extended to a more radical and critical position, the revolutionary one, that is fundamentally announcing. Changing the world implies the dialectics between denouncing the dehumanizing situation and announcing its overcoming, which is our dream (Freire, 2000).
Education has an important transformative role if it can be rooted in the dialectic between denunciation and announcement. Yet, it’s argued that what makes it possible is its public, free and democratic character. Only in public and free education can teachers have pedagogical autonomy and, furthermore, the relationship between teachers and students may be established outside market standards.
Thus, profound changes on the education systems are necessary so that education can nurture revolutionary rebellion in defense of life. According to Freire, “the kind of education that does not recognize the right to express appropriate anger against injustice, against disloyalty, against the negation of love, against exploitation, and against violence fails to see the educational role implicit in the expression of these feelings” (Freire, 1998, p.18).
For this purpose, education systems must be focused on guaranteeing the quality of life of the historically marginalized: the native peoples, the African descendants, the women, the LGBTQ and the working class as a whole. So, it is essential to immediately uproot education from the market grips, since that in capitalism, the human society becomes an accessory of the economic system, which subordinates everything to itself (Polanyi, 2000).
Hence, the school curricula must be deeply transformed in such a way that it acknowledges the peoples' historic struggle against oppression, making it possible for students to be aware of their ancestral origins, which is an important step for creating bonds of collectivity. Here, ancestry is understood as the roots that connect each individual with his/her past and also with the previous generations and their ways of living. So, ancestry connects the individual and the collective past and goes back to the History of civilizations, nation-states and relations of domination.
Slavery is a permanent bloodstain that annihilated the inventive capacity of many silenced generations. Thus, one of the main goals of linking ancestry and education is to promote historical justice with peoples that were deprived of their wealth and had their knowledge plundered. Schools must have the commitment to guarantee that the expropriated traditional knowledge that had nurtured the current fields of Science, Philosophy, Arts, and Humanities can be accessed by all, as part of the critical process of reading the world and the word (Freire & Macedo, 2011).
Since the learning process is only possible collectively, bringing education and ancestry together is also a way to redirect the teaching-learning process to its collective and historically situated character.
In the act of knowledge, it is not possible to deny the individual dimension of the subject. But I think that this dimension is not enough to explain the act of knowing. The act of knowledge is social. [...] My individual practice of knowing a certain object occurs in a social practice that determines my individual approach to a certain object. It is necessary that the student [...] recognizes the social dimension of his individual act of knowing (Freire & Guimarães, 2014).
For critical education, the act of knowing is a process that presupposes a dialogical situation. The real dialogue is not just the exchange of words, it involves gestures and affections that, unlike the banking education, are built in a collective and are not restricted to the teacher-student relationship. Precisely for this reason, a teaching-learning process that takes place remotely or online, without the presence that enables these rich and complex interactions, should not be accepted.
The emergence of the pandemic is used by market as an opportunity to strengthen its grip on education and restrict teachers’ autonomy. The adoption of remote learning undermines critical education as it breaks the temporal and spatial relations that connect subjects, which are the conditions for open and democratic dialogue. Remote education tends to reinforce individualism, which, as discussed earlier, has serious consequences for democracy.
The critical educators who were bravely fighting against the privatizing measures of this sadistic government mourn the coronavirus deaths while the attacks on the funding for public schools and universities are increasing. The situation of barbarism and uncertainty is frightening.
This imposes the challenge of reconstructing the free, public and radically democratic character of schools and universities, which requires their appropriation by the working class and the grassroots movements. The black movements, the feminist movements, the unions, the movements for environmental justice, the peasant and the indigenous movements, all of them, with all their contradictions, must have active and permanent presence in schools and universities, in such a way that students can join them and learn about self-organization, strategies of struggle and claim, collective decision-making, tolerance, respect for divergent thinking and collaboration for a common purpose.
The revolutionary rebellion in defense of life must present alternative ways against the current exacerbated individualism that is taught at neoliberal schools and universities. This is only possible by democratizing access to public and free education for the popular classes, the minorities, the marginalized.
Here, access to education is understood as representing more than providing certificates. Thus, the curricula must be radically transformed so that teachers and students can teach and learn the complex and transdisciplinary knowledges needed on the struggles in defense of their lives and of all forms of life. Therefore, it should be constructed a ‘curricula for survival and resistance’ to face the current and the historical threats to life, such as police brutality, forced displacement, feminicide, land grabbing, dispossession, labor exploitation and all forms of violation of rights.
In view of the situation of barbarism faced by the working class in Brazil, the struggle for life and democracy represents acts of rebellion. In this struggle, Paulo Freire's thinking brings important contributions to the revolutionary construction of a new world, from the ruins of the pandemic. This construction will certainly have the oppressed as protagonists, who are those that have lost so much, that they have nothing else to lose.
Precisely for this reason, critical educators and public schools and universities are under increased attacks during the pandemic. The banking education system played an important role in creating the current situation of barbarism. However, there are many critical educators who keep on the struggle to guarantee public and free schools and universities for all.
The coronavirus pandemic unveiled the obscene degree of inequality, intolerance, racism, exploitation of workers and also the contempt that rulers have for people’s lives. Against all this, defending the public institutions such as public schools, universities and hospitals, is part of a major struggle that is the struggle for the defense of all forms of life.
 Bolsonaro’s Government Assessment, DataFolha, May 26, 2020. Url: http://media.folha.uol.com.br/datafolha/2020/05/28/6b33e92c5fce7dcf946f577e614a7a1dagov.pdf
 A. Tajra, UOL online website, May 1st, 2020, url: https://noticias.uol.com.br/saude/ultimas-noticias/redacao/2020/05/01/todos-nos-vamos-morrer-um-dia-as-frases-de-bolsonaro-durante-a-pandemia.htm
 O Globo Newspaper, June 12, 2020. url: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hijRwt7BYpU.
 Pedro Campos’ interview to Brasil de Fato Newspaper, November 27, 2017. url: https://www.brasildefato.com.br/2017/11/27/na-ditadura-empreiteiras-deitaram-e-rolaram-com-recursos-publicos-diz-historiador
 Folha de São Paulo Newspaper, September 28, 2019. Url: https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/seminariosfolha/2019/09/jovens-leem-mais-no-brasil-mas-habito-de-leitura-diminui-com-a-idade.shtml
 Estadão Newspaper, May 29, 2020. url: https://politica.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,inquerito-das-fake-news-pode-abrir-caminho-para-cassacao-de-bolsonaro-no-tse,70003318604
 Época Newspaper, May 6, 2020. url: https://epoca.globo.com/sociedade/coronavirus-ricos-de-belem-escapam-em-uti-aerea-de-colapso-nos-hospitais-da-cidade-1-24412850.
 Agência DW, May 8, 2020. Url: https://www.dw.com/pt-br/a-gente-se-sentiu-humilhada-enfermeiras-s%C3%A3o-v%C3%ADtimas-de-preconceito-devido-%C3%A0-covid-19/av-53374536.
 UOL, May 28, 2020. Url: https://noticias.uol.com.br/ultimas-noticias/afp/2020/05/28/favelas-do-rio-nao-tem-paz-nem-mesmo-na-pandemia.htm
 O Globo Newspaper, April 30, de 2020. url: https://oglobo.globo.com/economia/ministerio-publico-do-trabalho-investiga-se-houve-coacao-em-protesto-na-paraiba-para-reabertura-de-lojas-24402453
Ação Educativa & Instituto Paulo Montenegro. (2018). Functional Literacy Indicator: INAF Brazil 2018 Preliminary Results.
Bethell, L. (1976). A abolição do tráfico de escravos no Brasil - A Grã-Bretanha, o Brasil e a questão do tráfico de escravos, 1807-1869. São Paulo: Editora Expressão e Cultura.
Freire, P. (1989). A importância do ato de ler: em três artigos que se completam. São Paulo: Cortez.
Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogia da Indignação. São Paulo: Editora Unesp.
Freire, P. (2001). Ação Cultural para a liberdade e outros escritos. São Paulo: Paz e Terra.
Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the Opressed. New York: Continuum International.
Freire, P., & Guimarães, S. (2014). Partir da infância : diálogos sobre educação. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra.
Freire, P., & Macedo, D. (2011). Alfabetização: Leitura do Mundo, Leitura da Palavra. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra.
Hill, D. (2003). O neoliberalismo global, a resistência e a deformação da educação. Currículo sem fronteiras, 3, pp. 24-59.
Klein, H. S. (1987). The Demography of the Atlantic Slave Trade to Brazil. Estudos Econômicos, pp. 129-149.
Leher, R., & Accioly, I. (2016). Commodifying Education: Theoretical and Methodological aspects of Financialization of Education Policies in Brazil. Boston: Brill/Sense Publishers.
Pariser, E. (2012). O filtro invisível: O que a internet está escondendo de você. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar.
Polanyi, K. (2000). A Grande Transformação: As Origens de Nossa Época. Rio de Janeiro: Campus.
Svampa, M. (2019). What the new right wing brings to Latin America between the political and the social: new areas of dispute. Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, 01-20.
Dr. Inny Accioly is an Assistant Professor of Education at the Fluminense Federal University (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). Her research focus on critical pedagogy in a multidisciplinary perspective that relates environmental education, policy analysis, social movements and international and comparative education.