The Empregadas and the Epidemic COVID-19 Lays Bare Brazil’s Deep Societal Divide

The coronavirus pandemic is hitting Brazil harder than most other countries, in part because social inequality is so massive. Armies of maids commute between favela slums and middle-class neighborhoods. Taking a closer look at them tells a lot about the country.
A favela in Rio: The top 10 percent of society accounts for 55 percent of all income, but half of all citizens live on a mere 66 euros a month.

A favela in Rio: The top 10 percent of society accounts for 55 percent of all income, but half of all citizens live on a mere 66 euros a month.

Foto: LEONARDO CARRATO / VII Mentor Program

I can’t remember whether it was just curiosity or a certain desire to provoke, but at some point, I started an informal survey among my Brazilian friends. From the men, I wanted to know whether they urinate while standing up or sitting down. The number of doubtful looks I got suggested that I was the first to confront them with this alternative. "Sitting, what do you mean?" they asked. "Do you think I'm gay?"

I actually consider these men to be fairly enlightened people. They read newspapers, they don’t eat meat, they change their children’s diapers, but it would never occur to a single one of them to sit down for a pee. At first, I thought it was an expression of machismo deeply rooted in their Latino souls. Over time, though, it became clear to me that there was something else behind it.

In contrast to Germany, toilets in Brazil seem to lie in a blind spot of emancipation. Sit down when you pee, others aren't going to clean up after you - those were words that accompanied me throughout my German youth. Brazilian mothers, on the other hand, didn’t impose such demands on their boys. They didn’t have to because others did the cleaning for them. And when my friends moved away from home in their mid-to-late twenties, they earned enough to afford their own maids.

The Brazilians call these workers empregada doméstica. They’re the true reason that men in Brazil don't sit to pee.



In the eight years that I’ve been living in Rio de Janeiro, a theory has emerged from my survey. Just as I explain my home country Germany to Brazilians through the institution of volunteering, I explain Brazil to my German friends through the institution of the empregada. When you crack that door open, it provides a look at one of those extremely unequal societies that have never really overcome their dysfunctional colonial structures. The subliminal racism that poisons relations between the classes. The irresponsibility and the hatred.

Now that only the United States and Russia have more COVID-19 cases than Brazil, with public hospitals collapsing all over the country and a growing number of people dying a silent, unnoticed death in their homes because the ventilators of private, high-end hospitals are out of reach for them, this gap is also revealing how ill-equipped Brazil is to counteract this virus. Is the situation here really that different than in South Africa? Or in India or Mexico?

Steering Toward an Iceberg

There are a few things that have accumulated over the years, thoughts and observations, that only marginally have to do with a misguided president who long dismissed COVID-19 as a "mild flu” that wouldn’t be able to overcome the immune systems of his compatriots. Jair Bolsonaro recently growled that Brazilians are constantly traipsing through sewage and nothing happens. That basically says everything you need to know about him.

Bolsonaro is a man who cares about himself above all else, even in the crisis. Fearing the collapse of the economy and that it could be held against him, he has encouraged people to go out and work. The newspapers have described him as a blind captain steering Brazil toward an iceberg. So, it somehow seems fitting that a saxophonist outside plays Frank Sinatra’s "My Way” punctually at 6 o’clock every day. There’s actually something "Titanic” about the way the echo reverberates among the apartment blocks.

I’m writing this on the 16th floor in the tiny cubbyhole that is my office. A table fits in here, as does a chair and a chest of drawers on which a fan hums to combat the almost unbearable heat. There is no air-conditioning, of the kind found in the other rooms of the apartment. This part of the flat, located behind the kitchen and equipped with its own bathroom, was once reserved for the empregadas. Back in the 1960s, when this building was built, maids usually lived at their workplace.

Rio de Janeiro is a city whose infrastructure, which has grown up over the centuries, was designed to ensure that the paths of servants and the people they are serving do not cross unnecessarily. Like most residential buildings, ours has two elevators. A slightly nicer one with gold bars is called the "social” and is reserved for residents and their guests. A second elevator, called the "serviço,” is used by workers – the servants, nannies, cooks and doormen as well as the "motoboys,” who now deliver the online purchases from the supermarket and place them at the back entrances of apartments.

Even in the modern buildings with their narrow corridors, this hierarchical separation is still there symbolically, even if it is frequently by way of two apartment doors located directly next to each other. It’s a basic pattern that is repeated across the city. If you go up to the famous Sugar Loaf Mountain or the statue of Christ, you can clearly recognize the neighborhoods where people with servants live. They’re located at sea level behind the famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. And you can see the favelas that are home to the servants, which have been built over the years on the adjacent hillsides.

The rich have swimming pools on their rooftops. The poor further up have vats which they use to collect rainwater.

The very idea of distancing is an illusion. I don’t know anyone who was surprised that the first COVID-19 victim in Rio was an empregada. Newspapers reported that the employer of 63-year-old Cleonice Gonçalves had been in Italy for Carnival celebrations. The woman was tested for the coronavirus after her return, but she didn’t feel it was necessary to tell her servant. Gonçalves, who as a diabetic belonged to a risk group, continued working. Days later, she died  in a public hospital where no doctor had been able to figure out what malady had struck her.

In a way, Gonçalves' death was an eye-opener. It showed that the people who commute between the upper and the lower strata of society could also be transmitters of the disease. The daily newspaper O Globo distilled these fears into an image on its front page that required no explanation at all: All you could see were buildings nested closely together, crooked little huts rising up a hill. You could just imagine the people crowded together there in those tiny spaces – six or eight of them sleeping in damp rooms. Not to mention the trash that nobody removes from the alleys. The urine that runs down the hill in open streams. The weak water pipes from which many ask whether they should be using the drops from the faucet to wash their hands or cook.

The empregadas are generally dark-skinned Brazilian women. Slavery in Brazil wasn't just the domain of the elite -- slaves were kept by large segments of society.

The empregadas are generally dark-skinned Brazilian women. Slavery in Brazil wasn't just the domain of the elite -- slaves were kept by large segments of society.

Foto: LEONARDO CARRATO / VII Mentor Program

What happens, the picture asked, once the virus infects these hills from which the state withdrew long ago? And what, wondered the middle class sitting at their pools, would happen when the people living there brought the virus out of the favelas?

A Feeling of Being Overwhelmed

Even within my circle of friends, there were now discussions about how to deal with empregadas. Many of them, as became apparent from the messages they sent, were horrified by the idea of the mountain of domestic activities that seemed insurmountable – cleaning toilets, working from home, taking care of the children. Just the thought of it triggered a feeling of being overwhelmed, which led some to succumb to the conjecture that perhaps the virus was, in fact, just a mild flu.

Others, the elderly in particular, who are reliant on help, were searching for compromises. Aided by the architecture of their apartments, they considered creating corridors so that they wouldn’t have contact with their empregada. Yet others believed it would make a difference if they reduced the number of days or if they ordered an Uber so that their workers didn’t have to be exposed to crowded buses. For many, the idea of sending someone on paid leave for an indeterminate period of time was unimaginable, and that feeling was also mutual.

Money for just sitting around? That’s what the empregada of my psychoanalyst Francisco asked.

Iraní received our instructions just as stoically as she does all of our instructions. It’s impossible to guess what was going through her mind at the time. She has no bank account of her own, so her daughter got in touch the next day with an account number. That was six weeks ago. Her brown imitation leather apron is still hanging in the small bathroom next door, with her flip-flops underneath. It’s as if she’ll be coming back tomorrow. The last contact we had with her was at Easter. She left a message and said she was doing fine, but she missed the children.

Is she really OK though? And what is she doing right now? Is she staying safe?

It took years for me to get over the unease I felt because of her. I wasn’t familiar with this world in Germany – that someone was always there to empty the ashtrays and run the iron over my underpants. I still remember how, in the beginning, I sometimes lurked and waited for her to disappear into the bedroom with the vacuum cleaner before I scurried into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. I avoided her as if I could have suppressed her presence by doing so, but I basically didn’t have a choice, I had to accept her as a part of the family.

It’s been 40 years since Iraní began working in the household of my mother-in-law, who was a public school teacher until her retirement. She had hardly reached the age of majority at the time. She experienced the family’s grief when my wife’s uncle disappeared forever because of his resistance against the dictatorship. She was there when my wife’s baby teeth fell out. And when she graduated from law school. Iraní was always there. Now, she’s watching our children grow up.

Staying Out of the Way

Ever since my wife moved into her first apartment, Iraní has been splitting her time. She spends three days a week at my mother-in-law’s and then she is with us for two days. She’s a small, stocky woman with strong arms and an inscrutable look of pride. She goes about her work quietly and correctly. The routing is always the same. She starts with the laundry before ironing and then preparing the food. She cleans the bathrooms and makes the beds in the afternoon, when the children are at the daycare center.

With everything she does, she is careful not to disturb anyone. When her old Nokia phone hums, she retreats to her small bathroom, and she waits to eat when no one else is in the kitchen. Unlike other empregadas, she doesn’t have the television running in the background as she does her work. She doesn’t sing, she doesn’t complain and occassionally even has a smile on her face. When we compliment her on her food or when the children call out "Ciao Iraní” as they leave, she turns away from the sink for a moment and beams. She can also turn to stone if she perceives something as unjustified criticism or if her routine is somehow disturbed by special requests. Otherwise, though, she’s always consistent. She's someone very familiar, but she's also still a stranger.

But what goes through her mind when she irons over the holes in my T-shirts?

Iraní hears what we laugh about at lunch. She hears what we argue about. She wipes the dust off the records and the photos of my parents. My life lies before her like an open book, but I don’t even know her last name. I don’t know where she lives or her birthday. There is no document in our apartment that tells us anything about her, and when I scroll through the photos on my mobile phone, it’s as if Iraní doesn’t even exist.

Of course, that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

The dead: The burial of a victim of the coronavirus in Rio. It's becoming harder and harder to avoid the virus.

The dead: The burial of a victim of the coronavirus in Rio. It's becoming harder and harder to avoid the virus.

Foto: LEONARDO CARRATO / VII Mentor Program

There are a few things that I can say for sure – that she wasn’t at school for long, for example. You can tell by the shaky writing on the notes she leaves to remind us that we are out of beans and rice. I have also picked up on other things, like the fact that she didn’t tell my mother-in-law about her pregnancy. When her secret came out, she said through tears that she had been afraid of losing the job she had just started. Iraní raised her daughter Luciene on her own. She finished school and is doing something with computers today. She once came to our house to pick up a bed we wanted to get rid of.

As far as I know, they live together on a piece of property my wife’s father helped to buy. It’s located somewhere in one of those bedroom towns that were built when the hills in the city got too cramped. Drug gangs and militias wage bloody wars there today. Sometimes, when we rush through the area toward the mountains with our car windows closed, I wonder if Iraní becomes a different person in this place, a self-confident woman who others look up to, someone who not only nods to orders but also explains things to others?

Does she speak before the congregation in an evangelical church? Does she dance when samba is played in her neighborhood? Is there stunned laughter when she tells stories from the open book of life in our apartment? I can sometimes imagine that. When she stands in front of the elevator and ties her headscarf over her hair, it seems as though she is going through a transformation.

Brazil is home to some of the most pronounced inequality in the world. The top 10 percent of society accounts for 55 percent of all income, but half of all citizens live on a mere 66 euros a month. That includes many of the 500,000 or so women who work as empregadas in Rio alone. Almost two-thirds of them are dark-skinned like Iraní. Most are no longer so young and aren’t particularly svelte. Many women who employ domestic help insist on it so that their husbands aren't tempted.

Streets of Mistrust

To assess the significance of their work, it helps to look at another dividing line, one that sociologist Roberto DaMatta calls the "dichotomy of house and street.” DaMatta writes that you have to think of the street as being like a wilderness. It is the site of fleeting encounters, mistrust and dubious intentions. Most importantly, it is the place of filth. As a European, you sometimes wonder why Brazilians never put their bags on the floor. Or why parents stop their children when they try to pick up a stick – but they have their reasons, and by that I don’t just mean that every time it rains, the drains overflow and the pavements flood with bacteria. What I mean are the collective fears that are deeply rooted in the consciousness of a Brazilian middle class that for centuries has feared little as much as deadly epidemics.

The house, meanwhile, is everything the street is not. It’s a bunker, usually sealed off by bars, a place where you feel safe and secure and to which mostly family and close friends have access. In addition to that are the exterminators, who use their poison to drive away the vermin. And the men who service the air conditioners. And then there are the empregadas who, in the eyes of many of their employers, are essential workers. The brightly polished surfaces are more than just an indicator that there is no street dirt contaminating this safe space – they are also an issue of health.

But there's more to it than that. More than 5 million men, women and children crossed the Atlantic from Africa in several waves up until the end of the 19th century. For most, the journey led via the slave markets in the old port of Rio further inland, where they toiled on the plantations of coffee and sugar cane barons as slaves. But many remained in the city and became domestic slaves owned by simple families. Even if the conditions were modest, there was always a damp attic available as roof over their heads.

Slavery in Brazil wasn’t just the preserve of a small, rural elite – it extended deep into the center of society. Having someone to keep the house in order was a status symbol that many people were willing to save money to buy. Those who could afford slaves were tapping a bit of the glamour brought by the royal court, which had moved from Lisbon to Rio in the 19th century.

When it ended slavery in 1888, Brazil was the last country on the continent to do so. The resistance that prevented the abolition of slavery for years and the hesitation to dispense with the use of empregadas during the coronavirus crisis is rooted in the same sentiment: The idea that once they were gone, the societal decline would be complete.

Rage Against the Establishment

Bolsonaro's ascent is also based on a fear held by many that no one else is beneath them in society. At a time when Brazil was staggering through a deep economic crisis and large sections of the middle class feared for their very existence, Bolsonaro succeeded in transforming those anxieties into rage against a corrupt political establishment.

Although slavery itself may have been abolished, the existing structures changed very little. The same people were still doing the same jobs, only now they were informal cheap labor. The dependence remained, the reliance on benevolent employers who treated domestics like family members in an emergency. Up until the 1960s, there were still job listings for "maids with black skin.” When those same listings today call for a "pleasing appearance," it is little more than politically correct code for the same thing.

It wasn’t until 2013, under the left-wing president Dilma Rousseff, that a law came into force that placed the empregadas on an equal legal footing with other workers. Anyone with an employment contract can now get paid for overtime work and obtain pension and unemployment benefits.

But the law’s impact has been modest. The vast majority of all domestic workers are still employed informally. Their children go to public schools, where the quality is so poor that few are able to make the leap to one of the prestigious public universities. It’s hardly surprising that the children of those who employ domestic workers, who acquire their qualifications at expensive private schools, make up the majority of the student bodies in those universities. In his book "Tristes Tropiques," French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss noted that large cities like Rio or São Paulo had bypassed civilization, jumping directly from barbarism to decadence.

I realized how deeply ingrained these ideas are when we once visited the parents of a friend of mine in one of those old houses on Flamengo Beach in Rio. It was the World Cup summer of 2014, and the Colombia-Uruguay game was on TV in the antique-filled living room. It was the first time I had met our friend's parents. When I entered, she introduced me to her father. My eyes then fell to a woman sitting on the sofa between a couple of people with a baby in her lap. Her skin was dark and she was wearing white clothing, which led me to conclude that she was probably a nanny. But I was wrong. It was our friend’s mother.

Later, sitting in a taxi in high spirits, I shared how I had fallen into the trap of my own prejudices. It was unbelievable, I said, I actually thought your mother was a nanny. Silence fell. The mood shifted. Hours later, I was told that the problem wasn't my prejudices, but that I had expressed them. By naming the mother in the same breath as a nanny, I had equated her as being at the same level. It was as if I had just walked into a perfectly translucent glass door.

Rio de Janeiro is full of these invisible barriers. At some point, I noticed that you can go out in the evenings for days on end and not a word will be said about work. Pretty much nobody asks you what you do for a living. Now I know that there’s a danger lurking behind this question. In contrast to Germany, where your job can be a conversation starter, in Rio it can open up an abyss that can no longer be bridged.

The people who live at the sea level and the people from the hills live in the same city, but the chasms between their frames of reference are so great that they have little to say to each other.

This speechlessness can be unsettling. And it can hurt. I learned this on the day when Iraní didn’t come to work for the first time since I had arrived. On the phone, she told my wife that her pregnant daughter’s partner had somehow stumbled across a shoot-out. She mentioned that there had been a police control, but the circumstances were unclear. After his mobile phone had been silent for days, Iraní said the authorities had only just now, fully a week later, informed them that he was dead. A stray bullet.

A few days later, though, she was standing at her ironing board again, as if nothing had happened. When I went into the kitchen early in the morning, I asked her how she was doing and if her daughter and the baby in her belly were alright. Iraní looked up. "Tudo bem,” she said very briefly. Everything’s OK. She cursorily reported what she knew about the incident, but it wasn’t much and only raised more questions. Then, she fell silent.

I remember that the seconds I stood before her, rooted to the spot, felt like an eternity. I could feel the invisible glass wall between us. But instead of tearing it down and simply embracing Iraní, I went to the stove and made coffee.

It haunted me for weeks. I did a number of Google searches to see if I could find any information out about the deceased man. Sometimes I would ask Iraní if she had any news, but she usually just shook her head laughing, as if she wanted to say: You are so naive! Of course, I know that the experience in her world is probably that a crime of that nature will never be solved, but that’s not what this was about. I was hoping to make up for something.

An opportunity to do so presented itself two months later. When Iraní told me she had become a grandmother, I finally hugged her. I cried. It felt like redemption.

Since that day, our relationship has relaxed a bit. Iraní seems looser, even though we will probably never sit down at the table together and chat the way others do with their empregadas. I prefer it that way. Closeness, I have learned to accept, comes in the form of thoughts. Through questions that are never posed.

What, after all, should I expect Iraní to say? That she likes the children so much because their eyes aren't full of judgment? Because they still don’t understand the hierarchy? Or should I ask her how we can prevent them from intuitively merging the idea of dark skin color and servitude?

Such are the things that go through my mind when I sit in front of the elevator and cover the potentially dangerous surfaces of supermarket products in a fog of disinfectant spray. A few days ago, a friend stood there in the dim light of the ceiling lamp. He was delivering a few boxes of fruit to us from his organic food store. It was late. He leaned against the wall and said through his beard, which has grown quite bushy, that they can no longer manage on their own. Working from home. The children. He said they now had domestic help again.

Another friend also confessed that her empregada had returned. The woman, she said, had promised that she wouldn’t see any other people on her days off. It must have been similar with a family whose story I heard a few days ago. Nobody could explain why they had all come down with COVID-19, one after the other. They finally interrogated their servant until she admitted that she had visited her mother after work.

Her mother, she said, was suffering from pneumonia. She had wanted to see her one last time.

It’s becoming more and more difficult to avoid the virus. It lurks in the lines of people waiting to receive the 100 euros in immediate aid the government is giving its citizens. It lurks at the food banks, where there have been clashes, in the groups of people mourning in front of cemeteries, where bulldozers regularly dig new mass graves, in the waiting rooms of the family clinics, where overworked students offer free preliminary treatment to the people from the hills.

More than a thousand names are now on the waiting lists for a hospital bed. The city has laid off countless doctors in recent years to save money, with almost 2,000 intensive care beds subsequently being taken out of commission. Footage of those decommissioned wards could recently be seen on television. It showed ventilators that are rusting because there are no longer people there to operate them. At Ronaldo Gazolla, Rio’s referral hospital for the treatment COVID-19 patients, painkillers are rationed. At the beginning of May, two patients died there because generators didn't start for several minutes after a power failure. And in this pandemic, it is dark-skinned Brazilians who face a greater risk of death.

"So what?” Bolsonaro said when asked about the dramatically rising death toll in late April. Why purchase a large number of ventilators when you won’t need them after the crisis, asked Nelson Teich before Bolsonaro tapped him as his health minister?

In theory there were other possibilities for easing the situation a bit. Given that many private hospitals are now able to carry out routine operations again because of a lack of COVID-19 patients, mayors or governors could decree a central waiting list, he said. Whoever is next in line would then be provided with a hospital bed, no matter where it was. The Brazilian constitution gives the authorities this power, but in practice, Brazilian politicians aren’t elected to lead a revolution.

The people who installed them in office with their money wouldn’t like to see their own lives end in a line like that.

Everyone has their place.

The truth is that it’s more likely that more unfinished prefab hospitals will be commissioned in Brazil than it is that hordes of poor people will be allowed to cross the invisible threshold. And the truth is that if Iraní doesn’t want to rely on us covering the high costs of one of those luxury suites for her, then she'll have to be careful that nothing happens to her.

Even today, eight weeks after his premiere, my neighborhood saxophonist is still playing his ironic version of "My Way” each night. I read in a newspaper a few days ago that of the 325 first-class passengers on the Titanic, 202 were saved. Of the 706 in cattle class, only 178 survived. It was a metaphor for a country where many still believe that this virus doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The World Bank believes that 5 million Brazilians will slide into absolute poverty as a result of the crisis. Some 50 million people can't make ends meet without the 100 euros the government is doling out. If there were a curve showing inequality, it would likely run quite parallel to the current virus curve.

Banging Pots against Bolsanaro

I have long been convinced that in countries like Brazil, it isn't so much the elites that stand in the way of a society beset by inequality, but the much larger middle class which idealizes the lifestyles of the elites. As such, when this crisis and our isolation began, I recognized an opportunity. I imagined that my friends, now that they were having to do the dirty work at home themselves, might learn how to pee sitting down. It was possible, I thought, that they might emancipate themselves from their empregadas.

Many stood on the balconies in the evening and banged on their pots to express their indignation over a "genocidal president.” It seemed like a moment of empathy – one in which middle-class people felt as exposed and vulnerable as the ones in the hills.

But nothing came of it. The clatter eventually ebbed away. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the return of the silence also coincided with the return of the empregadas. Either way, a Bolsonaro supporter could now be clearly heard, roaring loud threats in an opera singer's voice that the communists should stick their pots up their asses.

Brazil is a deeply divided country today, one where neighbors spew hatred from their balconies. It’s a country that is treading water because the decisive distinguishing feature running through society is still whether a person does household chores themselves, or whether they hire someone else to do them. How is anything ever going to change, I wonder, if millions of employers insist that there be millions upon millions of servants? Or when one life is considered more valuable than another?

A full 132 years after the abolition of slavery, when the mayor of Belém declared a lockdown in his city, he classified empregadas as "essential workers.” At the same time, in light of the overcrowded hospitals, airlines are offering emergency charters that fly patients with money from the north to São Paulo for 13,000 euros.

The last message from Iraní came on Mother’s Day. Everything was OK so far, she said, before sending her greetings to Dona Carmen, my mother. On her first visit, she hadn't felt any of the inhibitions that I had. She hugged Iraní right away.

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