COVID-19 Lessons From Brazil's ‘’Vaccine Revolt’’ Of 1904

A government health campaign to vaccinate the citizens of Rio de Janeiro provoked a violent insurrection. More than a century later, Brazilians are demanding immunization against COVID-19 from their anti-vax president.

People in Carapicuü­ba, Brazil wait to get vaccinated at the biggest vaccination station in the city
Bruno Meyerfeld

RIO DE JANEIRO — Streetcars overturned and set on fire. Trees ripped from the earth. Roads transformed into battlefields, between barricades and police attacks. Overlooking Rio de Janeiro, in the grip of a deadly epidemic, the city's iconic Sugarloaf Mountain contemplates the scene of lawlessness as thousands of insurgent inhabitants chant through the streets: "Death to the police! Down with the vaccine!"

Fear not: this scene is not taking place in 2021, but more than a century earlier, in November 1904. The "marvelous city" was on fire, in the grip of what is, to this day, one of the most violent popular insurrections in its history: the "Vaccine Revolt." It's an episode of Brazilian history that is little known abroad, but vividly remembered in its home country, especially in the time of COVID-19.

Let's rewind. Back in the day, "Rio was a Cocotte-Minute," says historian Laurent Vidal. The city (still the capital of Brazil) was industrializing, its population nearly doubling in 10 years. Built between dunes and lagoons, interspersed with rank swamps, the city was a petri dish for viruses. The air circulated badly; Miasmas proliferated. Foreign sailors avoided its port, where yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis, plague, smallpox and typhus were rife.

Economic development was threatened. In 1902, having just come to power, President Rodrigues Alves, an energetic Paulista — a native of the city São Paulo — made it his job to remedy the situation. He appointed Francisco Pereira Passos, a 66-year-old engineer, as mayor of the "federal district" of Rio and Oswaldo Cruz, a young 30-year-old epidemiologist, as general director of public health. It was their responsibility to "clean up" the city.

Doctors were organized in bonafide brigades and supported by the police, authorized to enter homes by force to disinfect them with sulfur.

The two men were not idle. A "modernizing wave" swept over Rio: Thousands of buildings were razed. Everywhere, avenues were built and gas spouts were planted. Begging, stray dogs, spitting and urban pig farms were banned. Their inspiration? Paris, of course. Pereira Passos lived there in his youth, during the time Baron Haussmann sanitized the French capital by revamping its infrastructure. Oswaldo Cruz, on the other hand, had just returned from Paris, having completed his studies at the Pasteur Institute, the already famous French school for biology and Medicine.

Exalted (or fanatical, according to different versions), Cruz launched a war against yellow fever and the plague. Doctors were organized in bonafide brigades and supported by the police, authorized to enter homes by force to disinfect them with sulfur. At the head of his "hygienist battalions' the young doctor was caricatured as a "mosquito crusader" or "Louis XIV of the syringe."

The population grumbled at these ultra-brutal methods. "In two years, 2,000 buildings were destroyed and 100,000 inhabitants were expelled without compensation to the outskirts of the city," says Laurent Vidal. But none of this stopped the Pereira Passos-Oswaldo Cruz team, which finally decided to tackle smallpox. The only solution: vaccines. On Oct. 31, 1904, the government made vaccination mandatory.

But enough was enough for citizens of Rio: on November 10, the city went into an insurrection. Members of working class neighborhoods, led by Prata Preta, a Black capoeira master, attacked the tramways and the gas spouts, symbols of modernity. "The people felt denigrated and excluded by the progress brought by the elite. They thought vaccination would lead to a mass murder by the state," says Vidal.

An overturned tram during the 1904 Vaccine Revolt — Photo: Public Domain

The repression was violent. At the end of six days of confrontations, 30 people were killed and 110 injured. At least 945 demonstrators were arrested, 461 of whom were deported to the state of Acre, on the edge of the Amazon. President Rodrigues Alves renounced the mandatory vaccination against smallpox. Ironically, he died in 1919 after contracting another virus: the Spanish flu.

More than 115 years have passed, and the revolt against the vaccine seems very far away. In contrast to 1904, in a Brazil devastated by COVID-19 (more than 500,000 victims), an overwhelming majority of the population is eager to be vaccinated: According to a survey recently published by the Datafolha Institute, 91% of Brazilians would be willing to lend a shoulder for an injection.

Perhaps the most amazing turn of events is that Oswaldo Cruz, : once detested, is now a universally celebrated figure. His serious, mustachioed face has long adorned stamps and bank bills. An entire neighborhood in Rio is named after him, as well as a medical foundation of reference (nicknamed "Fiocruz"), housed in a sublime Moorish palace overlooking the city.

Brazil managed to eradicate polio, tetanus and measles, and now produces 75% of the vaccines it administers.

How did roles reverse so thoroughly? "It took a lot of effort and several generations to convince Brazilians to be vaccinated," says Alexandre Padilha, a former Minister of Health. Padilha cites "two key moments': the 1973 establishment of a vast national vaccination program (which took place during the military dictatorship), and the socialist presidencies of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff over the past two decades. "In power, the left expanded vaccination coverage to reach the most vulnerable populations," says Padilha.

For several decades, serious communication work was carried out, particularly around the reassuring figure of "Zé Gotinha," the mascot of the national immunization plan, who resembled a large white drop. As a result, the population gradually recognized the effectiveness of vaccines, and even rallied around them. Brazil managed to eradicate polio, tetanus and measles, and now produces 75% of the vaccines it administers.

In this context, President Jair Bolsonaro"s "anti-vax" positions seem to be at odds with his people. For months, the administration refused to negotiate purchasing vaccine doses and predicted "death, disability and abnormality" for those vaccinated.

Bolsonaro "has done everything to dismantle the national vaccination plan," says Alexandre Padilha, as barely 12% of Brazilians have received their two injections. Will history look as favorably on the current controversial character as it did on Oswaldo Cruz? Only time will tell, and as the country prepares for a deadly third wave of COVID-19, perhaps the revolt this time around will demand vaccines.

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Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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