The names behind the numbers
Brazil has become a new epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, reaching 20,000 deaths on May 21. The official numbers may be the tip of the iceberg as a study conducted by the University of São Paulo shows the country could have 14 times more infected cases than the number reported. There has also been exponential growth in hospitalizations and deaths from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), when compared to the previous 10 years. Deaths at home have also increased by 14.6% compared to 2019.
For Brazilian journalists, this created the challenge of telling the stories behind the numbers and of using journalism to help family and friends memorialize their loved ones when funerals and burials are limited by the virus.
Data journalist Judite Cypreste spent two weeks producing a map by municipality of COVID-19 cases in Brazil, but the work made her feel uneasy. “We needed to do a story where the numbers were the starting point and include the stories, the human [side of it],” she said.
Cypreste’s concern gave rise to the special report “Números Subestimados” [Underestimated Numbers], co-produced with journalist Luís Adorno and published on April 30. “This story shows that people are not numbers. It is important to give a face to the data to say that the pandemic is real, that it is happening, that the victims may be your neighbor, a relative. It brings the narrative closer to the readers,” said Cypreste.
Since April 4, Folha de S. Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper, has published the special “Histórias de vítimas do novo coronavírus” [Stories of victims of the new coronavirus], which lists obituaries by week. The G1 portal published the page “As vítimas da COVID-19” [The victims of COVID-19], a memorial that compiles stories about the lives of some of the people who died from complications of the new coronavirus. Other news organizations have followed, creating special coverage of the people who have died in the pandemic.
Telling the stories hidden under the statistics was also the driving force behind the launching of the collaborative memorial Inumeráveis [Innumerable]. Under the motto “no one likes to be a number, people deserve to exist in prose,” the initiative went live on April 30, inspired by artist Edson Pavoni and social entrepreneur Rogério Oliveira.
The stories for Inumeráveis come together through the efforts of volunteer journalists. “The numbers keep growing, and we must not forget that they mean people, who had a life of love, sadness, happiness, and who left friends and family. The memorial is a portrait, albeit a small one, of this anxiety of not knowing these people,” explained journalist Alana Risso, one of the project coordinators.
Faced with the speed of the pandemic, a group of eight individuals brought the idea to life in three weeks, and since launch, journalists and journalism students can volunteer to collaborate. “We know that no newsroom has enough staff to keep track of the cases, especially considering Brazil’s inequality, where so many places — the news deserts — don’t have a media outlet. So, the idea is to mobilize journalists from all over the country to locate the stories and remember the people who died,” said Rizzo.
Journalists can collaborate with Inumeráveis in three ways. They can report on a story and publish it on the website, upload an obituary that has been published by another media organization or review texts and transcribe audio sent by friends and relatives of COVID-19 victims. The website has a form to upload the stories, as well as contact information for collaborators. Everything that is published is fact-checked, following the initiative’s methodology. According to Rizzo, there are plans to transform the memorial into a print product in the future.
The day after Brazil passed the mark of 10,000 deaths by COVID-19, and two weeks before The New York Times’ front page project, newspaper O Globo devoted its entire front page to a long list of names, ages and phrases about the lives of some of the victims of the new coronavirus in partnership with the Inumeráveis memorial. Among the nearly 140 names, the headline read:
The special report, dedicated to mourning and honoring those who have died had two additional pages. In the text, journalists Rennan Setti and Gabriel Cariello explain that even when reduced to a number, the coronavirus’ lethality is enormous.
Memorial Corona Brasil
Another collaborative initiative is Memorial Corona Brasil, created by the Support Network for the Families of Fatal Victims of COVID-19, a group of 60 organizations in solidarity with the families of victims of the pandemic. Journalists can collaborate by editing the stories on the Facebook page according to the methodology developed by the network, helping comfort families or participating in a working group alongside historians and social scientists to think about ways to memorialize the pandemic.
“There is an experience of redefining how we mourn as we are trying to deal with it very strictly. Society is experiencing mourning and people are afraid. At this time, many people want to connect on social media to pay homage to the memory of those who have passed. Our work is a way to help with the ritual of saying goodbye,” explained historian Danilo César, one of the creators of the network. The network also compiles stories produced by other journalists and conducts their own research to create other forms of pandemic memory.