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.
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.