Collective action and altruism in vulnerable communities in Brazil - lessons from a Pandemic

Brazil is the second country in the world in number of deaths by COVID19. In this article, we discuss how social networks can be set up aimed at collective goods and provide examples of collaborative networks formed in vulnerable communities in Brazil to face this pandemic.
Published in Social Sciences
Collective action and altruism in vulnerable communities in Brazil - lessons from a Pandemic

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Collective action and altruism in vulnerable communities in Brazil - lessons from a Pandemic

Aline Midlej1, Paulo Boggio2

 1 News anchor, Globo News, TV Globo, São Paulo, Brazil.
2 Social and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Mackenzie Presbyterian University, São Paulo, Brazil.


What does this pandemic teach us about human nature? In the article The Inner Moral Circle and the deaths in Brazil, PB argued about how one of the facets of human nature is negatively impacting the number of deaths from the pandemic in Brazil. In particular, PB have shown how restricted moral circles relate to low concern for the population, resulting, consequently, in a high number of deaths. In the last three months we have a daily average of 1000 deaths in the country by COVID 19. On August 8, 2020, Brazil surpassed 100 thousand deaths, but even so, the current President of Brazil did not show solidarity with families, insisted on defending hydroxychloroquine saying that "even though I still have no scientific proof, it saved my life", criticized the isolation measures and attacked the media (that keeps the population informed) saying that they want to spread panic. But if we look only from this angle, we will lose the perspective of the cooperative facet of human nature (something fundamental for the survival of our species) and will fail to see all the extraordinary collective and cooperative examples in a country ranked among the 10 most unequal nations in the world. Examples that have made a difference in combating the pandemic in needy and vulnerable communities. Examples that demonstrate the necessity for public and common goods.

Imagine yourself with three more people participating in the following game: each one of you receives $8.00 and can allocate that money in a common account in order to build a public good, that is, something that all of you will benefit from. It is explained to you that all the money allocated in that account will be multiplied by two and redistributed equally to you and the other participants at the end of the round. Thus, if the four donate their money, this account will have $32.00 which will be multiplied by 2, becoming $64.00 and then divided by 4 and redistributed to all participants, i.e. at the end, each one will have $16.00. But imagine that in this group one of the participants doesn’t share his money so he can earn only at the expense of the group's. This will leave the account with $24.00. This value will be multiplied by 2, then divided by 4 resulting in $12.00 for each participant. He who did not cooperate will have $20.00: the 12 he won exploiting the group plus the $8.00 he had saved. And what if no one shared? No money would be placed in this common account and no public good would be built. Take these examples into real life and imagine the consequences of different scenarios in different negotiations, in international agreements on climate change or in building public health systems. Dramatic, isn’t it? But this game is just beginning. 

What if that game had repeated rounds? Imagine that you and two others players cooperated in the first round while player X cheated. In the second round, would you or one of the other two participants cheat? Think about what might happen at the end of countless rounds? Nicholas Christakis and colleagues tested this scenario and the results are clear: after repeated betrayals, most interactions are no longer cooperative; that is, even those who cooperated begin to betray. Let's take this to the real world again. But this time, let's think about the pandemic. For that, some abstractions will be necessary. We will consider health as a public good and cooperative behaviors as the use of masks and adherence to the rules of physical distance. If everyone adheres, the balance of the public good is increased. But what are the consequences of having individuals who do not cooperate? Or worse, what are the consequences of political leaders, prominent figures and influencers acting as the defectors and still signaling that the adoption of these measures can bring losses such as loss of jobs and income? Probably the answer is exactly what we have observed in Brazil: an increase in the number of people not adhering and respecting the needed measures, which are cooperative, to fight the pandemic.

But there is another detail to this story. The people in that game could only choose whether they wanted to cooperate or not; they couldn't choose who they were interacting with. Would it be different if we had a choice? Nicholas Christakis and his group tested just that in a dynamic game in which players could choose throughout the rounds with whom to interact. Who would you stay with: the one that exploits or the one that cooperates? Furthermore, how was this artificial society created by Christakis and colleagues at the end of multiple rounds: devastated by the lack of cooperation or with its members more focused on the common good? The result was also clear, but this time cooperation and the common good prevailed. Going back to real life, Brazil, which has those who exploit, also has those who cooperate, and these are the examples that we will present below.

Minutes before starting to write this paper, AM received a message on his cell phone. It was Gilson Rodrigues, community leader in Paraisópolis. In the video he appears surrounded by some of the lunchboxes that would be delivered only that day. A great example of solidarity mobilization in this Pandemic comes from the second largest community in São Paulo, where the more than 100 thousand residents have been waiting for social actions for years. “We still need food, especially meat, rice and beans. Whoever can donate, please visit our website”. So, he ended the recording.

The new coronavirus opened up historical social tensions and the inertia that feed them. At the same time, prosocial networks were formed. The internet became an expanded moral circle based on empathy offering an opportunity to visit and impact realities different from those we know. Finally, the imposition of physical isolation has enabled many people to see their own selfishness and, at the same time, realize the possibility of being pro-social. Being alone may have opened up some of our basic social needs: belonging and meaningful existence. The silence of most of the wealthy classes in the face of so many injustices was deafening, and some segments of the Society began to cooperate in different ways. With that, donations hit a record. But actions are lacking in consistency and a daily commitment to the end of the country's social inequality. According to the donor monitor of the Brazilian Association of Fundraising, there have been over 6 billion so far. Despite the encouraging milestone, the entity indicates a gradual reduction, which already threatens the survival of millions of the most vulnerable families.

 Despite the absence of the State in these spaces of high social vulnerability, the peripheries teach us about citizenship, once again. Paraisópolis represents the good results of many other slums in confronting Covid-19. Communities in Rio de Janeiro created their own panels with data on cases and deaths from the disease, in an effort to map the progress of the disease with agility and transparency. This was only possible in a partnership with family doctors, who joined community activists from Rocinha, Complexo do Alemão and Manguinhos (Rio de Janeiro slums). Where clean water is often lacking - a fundamental tool to fight the New Coronavirus - there remains altruism and collective concern, another powerful weapon against this treacherous virus. In the slums, it's only good for one, if it's good for everyone. The moral circle is extended to the entire community.

 The Paraisópolis slum, which is an example of a community organization to protect the common good of its population – their health, has been waiting for more than a decade to build a Park, which seems close to finally coming out. On its own merits, it managed to become an economically thriving area, with strong local commerce and entrepreneurship, but lacking leisure. The cooperation is evident in this example of building public goods. But in the midst of this unprecedented health crisis, we reported that residents of the upscale neighborhood of Morumbi, neighbors of the green area that will host this Park, asked permission from the São Paulo City Hall for the construction of a three-meter wall along the boundary of future park with its houses. In addition, they claim that the space has only one entrance - through a community street. The argument of the residents of the upper-class neighborhood, which surrounds the favela and draws one of the most explicit portraits of the concentration of Brazilian income, is noise pollution. Was that so? Another study by Christakis and colleagues gives some clues as to what may be happening. They again applied the public goods game, but this time the participants received different monetary values ​​at the beginning. In other words, a game of public goods with social inequality was created. In addition, some games were conducted without people knowing that inequality existed, that is, without knowing who the poor or rich were, while other games were explained. At the end of the rounds, it was not social inequality itself that made participants more or less cooperative. The reduction in cooperative behavior came when people knew who the poor and the rich were. Building a wall is to demarcate and make inequality explicit.

In all these examples, the role of leaders and groups focused on the common good is clear. It is evident how collective and altruistic actions have helped different vulnerable communities in the country to overcome this pandemic. Unfortunately, these examples often disappear in a country led by someone who is not sympathetic to its people. A leader who works to amplify polarization between groups and divides the country at a time when everyone should be united nationally for the common good: the fight against the pandemic. But knowing these examples is fundamental to fostering a fairer society. Just as we signal those who betray, those who do not respect the Constitution and those who do not care for the health of their population, we increasingly need to signal the virtues and actions of those who act collectively and cooperatively. In small-scale societies, people are easily remembered and recognized for what they do (good and bad things). In large-scale societies, we increasingly need to give visibility to pro-social actions and foster noble aspects of human nature: the sense of collectivity and altruism. It is no accident that this article is signed by a journalist and a scientist. At the head of a four-hour daily newscast, it became evident to AM the need to constantly bring this perspective to the coverage, either by interviewing leaders and presenting the results of community actions, or by opening up the chasms that separate and hurt us. At the head of a Social Neuroscience Laboratory, it became evident to PB the need to integrate acquired knowledge and conduct studies beyond the walls of the University, seeking strategies to promote a more just society. As WHO Director-General Tedros Adanon put it, this Pandemic will show the best and the worst of the human being, and we will only win if humility prevails.

 Do you want to keep solidarity networks strong? Visit Paraisópolis.

 Suggested readings

  1. Bavel, J. J. V. et al. Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response. Nat. Hum. Behav. 4, 460–471 (2020).
  2. Christakis, N.A. Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, Little, Brown Spark (2019).
  3. Nishi, A., Shirado, H., Rand, D., Christakis, N.A. Inequality and visibility of wealth in experimental social networks. Nature 526, 426–429 (2015).
  4. Rand, D.G., Arbesman, S., Christakis, N.A. Dynamic social networks promote cooperation in experiments with humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2011).
  5. Singer, P. The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress. Princeton University Press, (2011).
  6. Zaki, J., Cikara, M. Don’t Be Afraid to Virtue Signal — It Can Be a Powerful Tool to Change People’s Minds (2020).


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