I can’t wait to see what it’s like on the outside now: a postcard from quarantine in downtown São Paulo

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis

by Isabela Capovilla Romanetto and Matheus Capovilla Romanetto (São Paulo)

Brazil is facing the pandemic as a political issue. Acceptance of the fact that the coronavirus was spreading, and had potentially lethal effects, became an artifact of disagreement between political adversaries. The federal government, represented by President Bolsonaro and his followers, took measures that downplayed – or straightforward rejected – both the existence of the virus, and the state’s responsibility in providing conditions for care. Those admitting that something needed to be done are far from forming a homogeneous group. At the federal level, arguing in favor of strict prophylactic measures became an instrument in the opposition between different fractions of the right. This was the case with João Doria, governor of the state of São Paulo. Doria, a capitalist, was as much involved with the election of Bolsonaro as he is now trying to detach his position from that of the President. They seem to disagree on how many (and which) people are worth killing in the name of economic and cultural recovery.

Common sense is increasingly tending to centre between conservative and reactionary alternatives. The left groups are undergoing a process of suppression, but they have not been impotent in struggling against the most outrageous measures. There were some relevant street demonstrations during the quarantine period. The conflicts between the directives coming from Brasília and the relative autonomy of local instances have shaped much of the rhythm in which daily life was altered across the country. Urban and rural areas were differently affected, according to the functioning of public services and government in each place.

We cannot speak for the totality of the country, the state, or the city; but we can count on having witnessed a part of the life changes in one of the epicentres of the pandemic: downtown São Paulo. The very fact that quarantine requires staying at home restricts our field of observation. On the other hand, the fact that it was actually possible for us to stay safe for the most part, without losing our jobs, tells something about the social position from which this is being written. The pandemic has not been, for us, nowhere near as dramatic as for those actually facing high risk and lack of care. Ongoing research has agreed time and again that class and race are strongly determinant of who gets to die, in the end. In this respect, we are not among those facing the worst.

On the other hand, the region we are living in was among those most affected by the pandemic. In downtown São Paulo, class, race, and gender inequality blow up on every corner. It is a place of rich cultural and anthropological diversity, but also of violence, misery, and fear. The opportunity to take a step back from all that is also the opportunity to highlight the spontaneous ideologies which are formed in daily life. It allows us to reflect on the most immediate, sensory and psychic dimensions of routine, as they are affected by a set of local conditions. Only further research could reach beyond the blind spots inherent in what we have to say now.

Downtown São Paulo breeds an emphatically private way of living. Lack of interest, and sometimes aggression, toward others, are ubiquitous. Squeezed in bodies in buses and trains avoid eye contact at all cost, pushing each other to get to work on time. This, combined with the imperative of urban safety, means that São Paulo had its eyes turned inwards long before the pandemic started.

This general trait must be considered against a more concrete description of who is interacting. We cannot here present a rigorous social stratification. We would rather emphasize one aspect of it: the abundance of miserable people on the streets. An intricate network of drug dealers, prostitutes, alcoholics, and the homeless, are as much a part of the “routine” scenario as local commerce, businessmen and women, or students. The strong presence of the police and other representatives of the state emphasises the other side of the polarity.

Contact with the miserable is unavoidable for anyone living in this area. One of the first palpable effects of the pandemic, however, was that many of these people vanished from the surroundings. The streets went empty. Perhaps the police enjoyed the lack of witnesses to arrest or disperse more of the poor. Perhaps the pandemic itself made some of its victims among them. Perhaps they reorganized their routes, as some of them are dependent on the circulation of people, whom they may ask for money, rob, or make small other deals with.

It is impossible to determine what exactly happened, again, without further research. Retrospectively, however, this illuminates how much “informal” economic and crime networks determine local life. They act as a set of juxtaposed social relations to those of “formal” commerce. The pandemic did not only affect production and legal exchange. It also made life conditions even harsher for those depending on these circuits of exchange outside “official” society. This affected much of the day-to-day sociability in the area, as central aspects of local psychic life are determined by avoidance, negotiation, and violence against the miserable.

A common response to the suffering on the streets is to develop a double standard: both knowing and not knowing what’s going on around. Among which groups this would be typical, we cannot rigorously specify. Absolute suppression of the evidence of poverty would be perhaps too costly, but lesser degrees of negation of reality are commonly achieved. Fear, guilt, and compassion are substituted for a hardening of the heart and the senses. The room left for sensing ourselves and others shrinks. This is certainly one of the sources of the typical downtown “rush” attitude: nobody will walk relaxedly on the streets, as there is always something (or someone) to fear and avoid. As regards rhythm, in downtown São Paulo, space commands time.

Quarantine thus fulfills what is usually the latent tendency in the class relations in the area: to suppress the experience of difference. Those actually staying home initially face a generalized hypoesthesia: the world of perception is now restrained to what can be experienced within the house or apartment. The main exception is perhaps the experience of gazing through the window. Psychic values are redistributed across urban space, as desire roams through the visible portions of the city, searching for what went missing with the general interruption of interaction. Fractions of buildings and streets suddenly gain in detail and interest, as we fill the emptied space with what fantasy would like to find once again.

With the compression of experience into a definite inward space, outside life is inflated in its imaginary significance. Perception of distance and the effort in locomotion adjusts itself to that. Space, which once figured as the background for daily practical activities, is now brought to consciousness as the protagonist it always was. This is reduplicated in the life of dreams, where – at least for one of us – fractions of buildings and locations from earlier times began condensing much of what the dream text had to say. A new economy of sensory life was produced: one which is tied to the local effects of the pandemic.

That it was possible to dream in more depth is immediately related to how much more silent the city became. This is not only an effect of the absence of people on the streets, but also of changes in the mobility system, which for some time had less buses, and generally less cars around. Downtown São Paulo is an enemy of dream life. People will usually be heard talking, screaming, fighting, all through the night. The noise of automobiles is not relaxed either. Sleeping in depth is hard, and so is achieving an experience of intimacy with oneself. But waking life is not better. Rotten food, garbage, and urine are common remnants of the night activities in the city. If noise wasn’t there, then the smell on the streets would be a reminder of how social relations work in the region. Inequality leaves its trace in statistics as much as in the nose and the ears.

With quarantine, it became possible to release some of the energy previously being spent in not knowing what went on around. A new sense of reality is produced, as we reincorporate the reality of the senses. What was previously a private attitude, lived out in public space, now turned to public space as the silent promise of a better life. Isolation makes a curious paradox out of that: the lack of human presence on the streets appears as the condition for reimagining what a more deeply human experience of urban space could look like. There is no mystery in that, however. Suppression of the daily evidence of inequality does not do away with it. The illusion of a more humane city in isolation is the illusion we cultivate everyday, in order to live through the intolerable. There is really no wanting to retrieve interaction without facing what damages interaction so much in daily life.

Inequality and spatial segregation are not new features in São Paulo. “Neighborhoodist” culture – a way of expressing class and status positions by tying them to geographic locations – is much more related to the abyss in income and educational levels between classes than to the size of our urban area. Each neighborhood has its own characteristics and possibilities of living, trading, and leisure, associated with land price. It is thus not a coincidence that recent research has shown that the epicentres of contagion lay mainly in the periphery of the city, whilst the volume of hospitalizations is higher in central areas.

Class, ethnicity, and other aspects will usually determine which islands in the archipelago of urban space will be familiar to each person. Mobility restricted to the neighborhood enhances this insular quality of urban experience, as it makes it look like the world is actually reducible to a few quarters. Just how many quarters is, again, a matter of who is actually allowed to stay home, and how well distributed supermarkets, drug stores etc. are in each part of town. Here, too, class regulates risk. In this sense, the pandemic can be seen as highlighting the usually invisible connections tying people together. All our actions happen in a common, albeit stratified, space, and hence impact upon others. The routes of infection are a negative reminder of that.

In São Paulo, public transport is usually taken by need, not by choice. The rich tend to opt for private means, as they can afford them. The stigma on our mobility systems does not help develop a sustainable way of life either. The obligation of staying home thus had a presumably lesser effect on those who could not (or didn’t want to) follow the sanitary recommendations. This applies both to workers in so-called essential services; to those whose bosses did not, or could not let them stay home; and to a segment of citizens which, regardless of their working conditions, invested the reaction to the pandemic with a political meaning, refusing to obey to prophylactic measures.

Fear of contagion forced us to look around closely, and amplified the possibilities of perception buried in our earlier routine. It brought attention to the details in everyday spaces, usually swallowed by the upper needs of work and survival. Ironically, however, the tactics for avoiding contact with other people on the streets were already prefigured by the middle- and upper-class handling of the presence of the poor. Avoidance of every bypasser as dangerous, is but a more explicit enactment of a trend already latent in downtown São Paulo, as it spreads from interaction with the miserable to interaction with everybody else.

Reappropriation and refunctionalization occurred mainly in indoor spaces. Still, the decreasing traffic noise and improved air quality are some of the changes that invite us to rethink the reasons for living the way we did, and how we would like to go on living in the future.


Matheus Capovilla Romanetto was born in Valinhos, São Paulo (Brazil). Graduated in sociology at State University of Campinas’ Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences (IFCH/UNICAMP). Has written on sociology, psychoanalysis, and the logical and epistemological bases for collaborative work between the two disciplines. Currently finishing a thesis on the subjective foundations of social change in the works of Erich Fromm, at the University of São Paulo’s Department of Sociology (DS/FFLCH/USP). E-mail: matheus.romanetto@hotmail.com

Isabela Capovilla Romanetto was born in Valinhos, São Paulo (Brazil). Studies architecture and urbanism at University of São Paulo’s Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism (FAU/USP). Has conducted research on real estate investment funds in São Paulo, and collaborated with “FAU Social”, a students’ entity that develops free projects in architecture, urbanism, and design, for communities and institutions that can’t afford contracting these services at market price. E-mail: isabela.c.romanetto@gmail.com

Feature image: ‘Banana Grove’ by Lasar Segall (1927), Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo.

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