Reflection: Facilitating virtual service-learning programs in a pandemic world
This blog is written by Amizade’s Brazil site liaison Daniel Alexander. Daniel had the opportunity to facilitate two programs with our Brazilian partners this year. This piece shares an overview of his experience as a facilitator and how the pandemic required him and our guest speakers to quickly change their approach to the programs.
January 2021. I am ready to start the first-ever virtual service-learning program in Brazil with our site director Jullyana Franco and our local partners in Santarem. The program is focused on global health, misinformation, and COVID-19, sensitive themes given the reality that everyone is living at that moment. A few countries around the world have started their immunization programs, and vaccination is in progress. But the truth is entirely different in Brazil, where its inhabitants had been hit hard by the pandemic, with over 217,000 people dead after experiencing a first long wave. From doctors to community members, our speakers shared with VSL participants the brutal reality experienced by Brazilians. The country began the rollout of its national vaccination program in São Paulo. As seen in the image above, the first person was vaccinated on January 17, followed by the government’s official call to vaccinate the oldest people in the country. A slight, dim hope could be seen on the horizon.
May 2021. We’re ready to start the second VSL in Brazil with another education partner. This time, the scene shared with participants is way more devastating and tragic. As many countries progressed with vaccination and even reopened their borders to visitors, Brazil crossed over the catastrophic number of 450,000 in total deaths. Unfortunately, the lack of crucial mask policies and lockdowns in the country during November and December 2020 led to a deadlier second wave of the virus. Unfortunately, the awaited immunization plan took so long to start. Because of that, and other reasons, our local community partners saw friends and relatives lost to COVID-19, including William Rocha, a college professor and one of Amizade’s speakers who presented in January.
“COVID-19 happened on a global and regional scale, and it’s impressive to observe how four months between two virtual programs resulted in a more complex reality to explain to students.”
Brazil has been Amizade’s flagship site since 1994. Circa 2010, there was a shift in the way we worked in the tropical country. Because Santarem is a hub for public health for the population living in the lower Amazon, in the state of Pará, this site became the ideal place for Amizade to serve and learn with local health teams. Strong partnerships led to successful travel programs where global health students coming from different US universities had the opportunity to learn on the ground about Brazil’s health care system, shadow providers while assisting riverside communities, and learn about Brazil’s biodiversity and culture in the Amazon.
Besides the change of site directors, not much changed about how themes such as public health and culture were addressed during these ten years that preceded the pandemic. Then, COVID-19 happened on a global and regional scale, and it’s impressive to observe how four months between two virtual programs resulted in a more complex reality to explain to students. Resources such as articles and videos are constantly changed to keep up with the latest events in the country. Some of the lectures by local guests carried heavy grief that more could have been done by the authorities to avoid this fateful scenario. Facilitating these programs only reinforces the unsettling thought that we’re living in a particular and sad moment of history that requires a lot of reflection from everyone. Our moments to escape reality are the ones filled with culture and music offered by speakers to remind us of the beauty hidden in between such heartbreaking loads of news.
For the next round of VSL programs in Brazil, our team has a lot to add. Since the end of our last program, authorities in the country started a series of hearings to investigate the government’s mishandling of the pandemic. From the lowest to the highest levels of hierarchy, many representatives are involved in a political scandal of a 1 dollar per vaccine bribe to purchase one type of vaccine. Brazil’s immunization plan made slow progress, and only 12% of the population is vaccinated, with several delays in distribution to regions across the country. And unfortunately, the number of deaths has exceeded half a million, totaling almost 531,000, with an imminent third wave on the horizon.
“Facilitating these programs only reinforces the unsettling thought that we’re living in a particular and sad moment of history that requires a lot of reflection from everyone involved.”
Our work to link participants to our Brazilian community partners through virtual programs has never been more critical. It’s where they channel their stories, their current situations, and the crucial lessons to be learned. It’s where we can support them. The pandemic in Brazil is far from an end, but our hope for the future is that our friends will brave this storm. Later on, we can facilitate many meaningful discussions together—this is one thing that will not change.
Connect with our Brazilian partners through our virtual service-learning programs. Find out more.
The photo seen on the cover of this piece is a courtesy of the Brazilian photographer Marcelo Chello, who’s has been covering the news on the frontline since the beginning of the pandemic. You can see his work here.