A deep dive into public health and misinformation in Brazil

by Daniel Alexander

Virtual service-learning in Brazil

This blog post was written by Amizade participant and Connecticut College student Claudia Marmelo after her VSL experience with our Brazilian partners in January 2021. Along with her colleagues, they got to learn more about Brazilian’s public health system, the COVID-19 crisis in Brazil, and the wave of misinformation disseminated by fake news in the country. Keep reading for a deep dive into Amizade’s VSL in Brazil!

The COVID-19 pandemic has naturally frustrated many, as this time has changed various aspects of our lives. Academic and professional world institutions needed to rethink ways to engage and learn. Rather than seeing the pandemic as a barrier, Amizade saw these unprecedented circumstances as an opportunity to think innovatively while looking to the core of their mission of: inspiring empathy, catalyzing social action, and linking diverse communities through Fair Trade Learning. Thus, Amizade VSL: Virtual Service Learning, was born. 

This winter, I had the pleasure of taking part in this highly participatory, synchronous and asynchronous, virtual global service-learning program focused on ethical community-based engagement to produce project-based deliverables for local partner organizations. Thanks to Connecticut College’s Otto and Fran Walter Commons for Global Study and Engagement, and other Amizade-academic institutional partnerships, students at my school and all around the world were able to globally connect tackling topics like: climate change in Italy; global engagement in Bolivia; race, power, and privilege in Appalachia; or the program I participated in: public health and misinformation in the time of COVID-19 in Brazil

About our virtual service-learning experience

Over the course of two weeks in January, myself, other Connecticut College students and faculty, and Amizade facilitators and guest speakers gathered synchronously for a total of 20 hours. Our service learning program was centered around exploring public health in Brazil: health systems, social determinants of health specific to the Amazon and coronavirus responses on national and local levels. Our diverse cohort also engaged in reflective practice exercises centered around topics like: What is culture? What does it mean to be a global citizen? What do ethical and responsible partnerships look like in health settings? 

Each day, our Brazilian Amizade facilitators would introduce us to a new guest speaker, including: Brazilians with master’s degrees in business administration;nurses, doctors, clinical and social psychologists on the frontlines; professors; members of Brazilian ethnic groups; Franciscan friars; past-Amizade participants; and the founder of Amizade, Dan Weiss. 

Virtual service-learning in Brazil
Presenter Lia Botega talks about mental health in Brazil’s public health system to Connecticut College students.

Why Amizade VSL? 

I was inspired to pursue the pre-med track in college as a result of my own personal health struggles as a patient. My Hispanic and Portuguese heritage have also instilled in me aspirations to one day use my knowledge and language skills to give back to remote communities in Hispanic and Lusophone countries. Thus, the opportunity to civically engage with a network of health professionals around public health issues, specifically in Brazil, a country whose language and culture I have and continue to immerse myself in, was an invaluable experience for me. I also specifically take a liking to Amizade’s dedication to ethical community-based programming because I believe that practicing empathy through the exploration of public health issues and reflective practice activities on themes such as identity, power, and privilege is a skill is of particular importance for medical professionals, including doctors, who interact daily with individuals from varying socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. 

More about the program…

Virtual service-learning in Brazil
Belém, Brazil. Photo presented by guest speaker William Rocha. Photo credit: BQEEC/Instagram

Throughout the program, we discussed public health in a variety of different Brazilian cities and states, as well as many health programs that are unique to Brazil.

In addition to Brazil’s unique universal health care system, programs like Estratégia Saúde da Família have contributed to an increase in antenatal care coverage and hospital births while infant mortality has declined significantly.  

Other topics that stood out to me were economic disparity in the country and transportation infrastructure. Brazil being such a large country, individuals with treatable conditions often don’t seek help solely because it’s hard to get to hospitals and clinics. 

We also spoke about the over 305 ethnic groups in Brazil and the effect they have on public health. Many of these indigenous communities live on the Amazon river in what are called ‘ribeirinhos’ or riverside communities. To help combat issues of transportation infrastructure, the Brazilian government launched the Basic Health Unit River (BFHU) system in 2011 and created a two-story floating clinic known as ‘Igaraçu’ in 2013 to provide primary care to these individuals. The Igaraçu is equipped with medical staff, dental and exam rooms and a pharmacy. 

Virtual service-learning in Brazil
Community members waiting for health assistance. Photo presented by guest speaker Lia Botega.

In addition to vaccination statistics and Brazil’s multiple health ministers in less than a year, we also discussed evidence of an infodemic in the country and the role of misinformation. As we learned about different modes of communication, I was reminded just how powerful information is, and how, in some cases, it can even cost people their lives. We spoke about the responsibility of a global citizen to caution against the spread of misinformation, subscribe to reliable sources, and fact-check information before distributing it. 

In addition to engaging with insightful speakers, we also had the opportunity to meet with the directors of Amizade’s partner organization that we were working with. My cohort’s community organization was located in Santarém. Therefore, we spent some time getting to know this city well: its founding in 1661 and the Chapel of Our Lady of Conception built the same year that’s still standing today, its beautiful beaches like the famous Alter do Chão, and its popular economic activities including rubber extraction and exports of rosewood oil, lumber and jute. 

About Amizade’s community partner and our service project

Located in Santarem, our cohort created project-based deliverables for Association of Parents and Exceptional Friends (APAE), the non-profit social community organization we worked with. APAE’s main objective is to promote comprehensive care to people with intellectual and other disabilities from birth to the end of life. APAE strives to be seen as an excellent reference in the country for the promotion and articulation of actions to defend the rights of people with disabilities and represent their voices to national and international organizations to improve the health services provided for them. 

Thanks to their large network of volunteers, professionals, and public and private institutions, APAE Santarém now helps over 500 people a month and has been able to serve not only Santarém but 20 other municipalities. 

Based on community instruction, my cohort pioneered vibrant brochures for the organization to hand out to their rural clientele that doesn’t have reliable internet access. These brochures included information and statistics about the people they serve, the work they do, and highlighted features on the organizations two newest renovations: a heated hydrotherapy pool and their orthotics office. The other group in my cohort evaluated the organization’s social media sites to provide suggestions on how they could improve their posts and online presence across different platforms. Even though I was in the brochure group, I also looked at the social media links and event photos provided to get to know more about the organization. It was in doing this that I thought of a great way for APAE to showcase their impact and ring in their 44th anniversary which was this February: a multimedia video. 

Virtual service-learning in Brazil
Claudia Marmelo presents along with her group the service project developed for APAE in Brazil.

Going through APAE’s social sites, and in my conversations with organization representatives teachers Denise and Rômulo, I was touched by the evident passion behind their work to fight for health services and social inclusion for people with disabilities. The videos I watched on their YouTube channel highlighted events volunteers put on that were full of music and dance. APAE provides safe spaces and community-wide events to not only promote the social inclusion of their patients, but to celebrate their differences. The kids had the largest smiles on their faces as volunteers danced and sang with them. I was inspired by the hard work of the organization that was clearly making an impact in the lives of so many in the community of Santarém and beyond. It was clear to me that the difference they’ve been able to make through 44 years of service has certainly been done out of love and with lots of enthusiasm. Thus, I asked our community partner representatives if I could create a multimedia video for the organization because I wanted to show APAE, even through a small gesture, that their work does not go unnoticed. I wanted to try and showcase how their work made me feel. I thought that by summarizing the organization’s mission, services, events, and COVID-19 accommodations, that I could show others the beauty and love-driven service that this organization provides for their community, despite the barriers of funding and other obstacles that have stood in their way. I’m so glad I took the extra time to edit and compile the movie, not only was APAE very grateful, but in the end, like the organization, I learned about how powerful it can be to put effort into things when your motivation to do them is centered around impacting others. 

Last, but not least…

In just two short weeks, I got so much more out of this virtual experience with Amizade than I thought possible. In addition to learning about public health in Brazil and using my Portuguese language skills in a professional setting, I was able to make genuine connections with fellow Conn students, faculty, and Brazilians. On the last day, one of our Amizade facilitators sent us a video from Santarém at the Encontro das Águas, saying she wished we were there with her. 

So, although Amizade was unable to continue in-person programming this year, the nature of this engaging, intimate and highly-participatory experience allowed our cohort to create a unique bond and learn as much about Brazilian culture as we would have if we were on the ground.   

I’ve gotten to know the Brazilian people: their warmth, passion, cuisine (such as tacacá, açaí, lots of fish), culture (terms such as a toro, ribeirinhos, and curandeiros) as well as their patriotism. Most importantly, I learned not to ever refer to WhatsApp as anything but Zap Zap in Brazil. 

This experience surpassed just the gaining of knowledge of public health in the country but was a culturally immersive, globally engaging experience with a focus on cultural competence. In addition to this valuable experience, and all that I’ve learned, the connections I’ve made are what make VSL most memorable for me.

So here’s to more: community, more empathy, more social action, more Brazil

* The photo featured in this article shows a Shaman healer from the Mundurukus tribe. Photo presented by guest speaker Erlison Campos.

Virtual service-learning in Brazil
Health professionals assisting the community in Mosqueiro, Brazil. Photo presented by guest speaker Lia Botega.