“Oh, look at that,” she said, scanning the numbers. “Not as bad as I thought.”
Fortaleza, the Brazilian city of 2.6 million where Furtado shares a three-bedroom apartment with her mother and brother, was reporting fewer than 30 daily cases. People were back on the streets. Shops and schools were open. Friends and family were urging her to join them.
But Furtado, a 32-year-old woman without any serious health conditions, hadn’t been outdoors since March 18. Not to buy groceries. Not to replenish her toiletries. Not even to take a stroll. She now felt uncertain. Was it safe?
“I have no idea,” she said.
“These numbers are underreported,” she said. “People are still getting sick.”
“I’m not ready to go out,” she said. “It is still out there.”
The story of Brazil during the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more people here than in any country but the United States, has been largely one of denial or resignation. President Jair Bolsonaro has gone from minimizing the disease to conceding that, yes, many people are dying, but “we’re all going to die,” and Brazilians should stop being “sissies” about it. Many here, either unable or unwilling to stay inside, have chosen to carry on with their lives — even as hospital systems failed and the number of deaths mounted.
But this has not been the story of all Brazilians.
In a country of profound inequality, where delivery services are extremely inexpensive, the comfortable can afford to order in virtually any service or product: groceries, medications, wine. The hairdresser makes house calls. So does the manicurist. Friends send home-cooked meals via mototaxi. Want a coronavirus test? The lab will send over a technician.
Brazil’s deliver-anything culture has enabled a minority of people to achieve an extraordinary degree of isolation. In August — six months into the pandemic — surveys showed that 8 percent of Brazilians still hadn’t left their houses. In October, amid the lull between the first and second coronavirus waves, 1 percent of people still weren’t leaving. Now, as cases and deaths rise once more, people are retreating back into complete isolation, or are grateful they never left it.
“It’s not just the wealthiest classes,” said Gessuir Pigatto, an economist at São Paulo State University who studies the delivery economy. “It’s all classes. We have the opportunity to always stay home.”
Furtado, who takes online classes at a local college, intends to fully avail herself of that opportunity until the coronavirus is defeated. The only thing that will bring her out of her isolation, she says, is a vaccine. So she looked away from the Fortaleza coronavirus numbers, not seeing the point.
She put down her phone and, head aching, went back to sleep.
A surge in delivery workers
In the past nine months, Edgar Silva has visited many people like Furtado. Astride his Yamaha motorbike, clad in a blue mask, he chugs through São Paulo, dropping off deliveries to Brazilians who have locked themselves in. He can recognize the people who haven’t left home since the beginning of the pandemic. There is fear in their faces: “They look at you like you’re radioactive.”
The delivery is made. The door is closed. And he’s back on the street, working 12 hours a day for a Brazilian delivery app, making less than $1 per stop.
Raised in the impoverished São Paulo neighborhood of Vila Missionaria, Silva can’t recall a time in his life when he didn’t feel poor. But nothing had ever clarified his condition quite like the coronavirus. Officials all over the country had urged people into isolation. The English words “home office” entered the Portuguese lexicon. But while tens of millions stayed inside, working remotely via computer, Silva was outside more than ever, rolling down empty streets, feeling scared, but also prideful.
He was going out so that others could stay in. “A prevention measure” is how he described his work.
In Brazil, a country with a history of slavery and colonization, where the poor often work as domestic help, the vast array of delivery services has become one more way to understand the country’s inequalities. In recent years, as an economic recession gave way to an imperceptible recovery, many have found low-paying work through the profusion of app-driven delivery services surging in Latin America.
From 2016 to 2020, the number of couriers in Brazil grew by 40 percent to nearly 730,000, according to government data. The rate has accelerated since the arrival of the coronavirus. Lost jobs forced many onto the roads — and, for some, into the maw of the virus — to make around $550 per month.
“Outside of the shopping malls, where there used to be two or three deliverymen waiting to get their deliveries, there are as many as 15 of us now,” Silva said. “Almost all of them are new.”
Sometimes, as Silva rolls through the city, he thinks about the people he’s serving. He understands and shares their fears. He lives with his mother, who is elderly, and his stepfather, who is diabetic, and his wife, who is overweight. They all depend on his earnings as a courier.
But he couldn’t live with himself if he ever got them sick. Part of him wishes he could stay home, like the people who have more money, and ensure his family’s safety. But another part doesn’t at all envy the people he serves.
“Can you imagine staying in your house alone all of the time?”
'Stepping into a world that was not my own anymore'
There are days when Filippe Vasconcellos, 32, feels like a prisoner of his privilege. He understands how good he has it. Fluent in English, he works from home, translating scholarly articles and dialing into conference calls as an interpreter for international companies. His apartment — 1,700 square feet in an upscale part of São Paulo — is more than big enough to accommodate him and his longtime partner. He has a treadmill, so he can get all the exercise he needs.
But the comforts, he said, have yielded a paradox. Leaving home is never an obligation. It is an indulgence, a lark — a choice. And a question: If he doesn’t have to, why would he? Even if the chances were low, and the dangers of taking a walk minimal, why would he risk infecting himself, his partner, the doormen?
It’s not like he planned this. But asking himself that question every day — which has led, inevitably, to the same answer — is how he and his partner have ended up living in complete isolation since the beginning of the pandemic.
“It just happened,” he said. “It’s crazy. It really is. It’s a ‘Hotel California’ situation.”
Also checked in, unable to leave, is Ana Lucia Baptista de Oliveira, 72, of the Ipanema neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. Her husband is 88. “I miss choosing my own fruit,” said de Oliveira, who has all of her groceries delivered.
And Lola Aronovich, a writer and professor at the Federal University of Ceará. “It’s been so long,” she said. “It’s horrible.”
Vasconcellos did leave his home once. It was last month. He saw no way around it. There was an apartment he was interested in renting — to escape the construction noise around his — and the real estate agent had been clear: He had to meet her there. He put on a mask and took a deep breath, and off he went.
It was a quick affair. The deal fell through. But on his way back, Vasconcellos saw a grocery store. He hadn’t stepped inside one in eight months. He darted in, gathered a few items and made his way out. In a way, the activity was shockingly normal — more normal than he had expected.
But it also left him disquieted.
“It was stepping into a world that was not my own anymore,” he said.
He went home and locked the door. He hasn’t been out since.
A blur of months
“I’m fed up,” said Furtado’s brother, Pedro Amaral, 25.
“If you’re not scared, you have no imagination,” said his mother, Liana Amaral, 55.
“It alternates,” Barbie Furtado said. “Sometimes, I’m like, ‘Am I going crazy?’ The numbers aren’t too high. Other times, I’m like, ‘I’m doing the right thing. I’m definitely doing the right thing.’ ”
For months, as the seasons changed, and the trio’s early ambitions to cook withered to throwing whatever into the air fryer, they have repeated the same conversations on loop.
Pedro, an athlete whose sport is Brazilian jujitsu, would love to return to his exercise regimen. But he also wants to respect his mother’s and sister’s wishes. They’ve tried to meet in the middle with a few rides in the car — windows up, doors locked — but it rarely feels enough.
Liana, a sociologist, can’t stop thinking through the possibilities. She can see it: going outside, getting sick, waiting for the test results, fretting over becoming sicker, then a solitary hospitalization.
Barbie gets frustrated — frustrated at what she considers the recklessness of relatives, frustrated at revelers in the bars, frustrated when someone again asks her why she is so committed to isolation.
She wants to tell them her grandmother is in the hospital with the coronavirus, and why doesn’t anyone seem to care about this pandemic as much as she does? There’s nothing she can do to help her grandmother. But she can try to keep her mother and brother safe.
“But instead I just say I’m not going out and I’ll see them in 2022.”
Never in her life has she considered herself a hypochondriac or germophobe. She once traveled through Europe and the United States, caught up in wanderlust. But that person — for this moment — is gone. So she goes to check on her brother, who’s quietly playing on his computer, does some yoga in her room, and the 265th day in isolation turns into the 266th.