The World

Brazil’s Favelas Brace for the Coronavirus

With little support from their government, Brazil’s poorest are organizing their own response.

People wearing protective suits and masks and headphones carry vacuums while walking down the aisle of a favela.
Sanitary agents clean streets and alleys of the Vila Ipiranga favela on March 25 in Niterói, Brazil. Luis Alvarenga/Getty Images

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RIO DE JANEIROMarcelo Rocha felt like he couldn’t escape the news. The unburied victims of the coronavirus in Italy. A lockdown order in the United Kingdom. Brazil shutting most of its borders. But it all still seemed a little removed from the reality of a 22-year-old born and raised in Mauá, a town in the outskirts of São Paulo.

Then, on March 19, Cleonice Gonçalves, a 63-year-old domestic worker, became the first confirmed death from COVID-19 in the state of Rio de Janeiro. The initial media reports portrayed her as an anonymous casualty of an invisible virus: no name, no background, just an occupation and an identity shaped by contrast. Like many low-income, breadwinning Brazilian women, Gonçalves worked for the same family for years in one of the country’s most expensive ZIP codes, 75 miles from her own home. Her boss had recently returned from a trip to Italy and tested positive for the coronavirus. Gonçalves, who suffered from high blood pressure and diabetes, was only diagnosed after her death.

Gonçalves’ passing was emblematic of Brazil’s indelible social disparities. For Rocha, it was a wakeup call. Gonçalves, he realized, could have been his mother, who is also a housekeeper—one of more than 6 million domestic workers nationwide—and can’t afford to stop working, even during a pandemic. In the days that followed, Rocha and other daughters and sons of women like Gonçalves launched a manifesto called For Our Mothers’ Lives, demanding that domestic workers be put on paid leave. They are also collecting donations to help with rent, bills, and lost wages—anything that can make a difference in households where families are already having to choose between risking their health and going hungry. More importantly, Rocha says, “we’re lending them a voice.”

The beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in Brazil can be traced back to the weddings and holidays abroad of the rich and famous. So far, most of the cases in the city of Rio de Janeiro have been in affluent neighborhoods, earning COVID-19 the nickname of “disease of the wealthy” among underserved communities. But as the country’s number of confirmed cases and deaths have continued to climb exponentially—currently 6,836 and 240, respectively—it is only a matter of time before it cuts across the social divide. At least one case has been confirmed in a favela in Rio and one suspected death is being investigated. So what does that mean for the more than 13 million Brazilians living in favelas and other peripheral areas of the country?

President Jair Bolsonaro has failed to rise to the challenge of leading the nation during this crisis. But in all of Brazil’s five regions, young community activists and journalists like Rocha are raising awareness about the particular ways in which a pandemic of global proportions affects their day-to-day lives and threatens their livelihoods. According to a recent study by the Data Favela institute, 7 out of 10 families in Brazil’s underserved communities have already seen their income go down, and 84 percent of families with children reported an increase in expenses since schools closed.

While many of us are binge-watching documentaries about exotic animal parks and baking bread, they remind us that home offices and self-quarantine are the privilege of a few. For the as many as 35 million Brazilians who lack access to clean water, even the ability to wash one’s hands is not guaranteed. “We’re not all in the same boat,” Thamyra Thâmara, from Rio’s group of favelas Complexo do Alemão, wrote in Marie Claire Brasil.

Born and raised in these communities, the “communicators,” as they call themselves, formed a national coalition earlier in March to coordinate localized efforts to spread the word about prevention, promote helpful assistance services, and debunk fake news. The group now has more than 60 members across 10 different states. And they are finding creative ways to meet their neighbors where they are. In localities that lack internet connectivity, for example, the best strategy might be to hire a sound car to circulate through the streets—blasting messages like “stay home,” “the coronavirus is not a flu,” “quit the parties and barbecues”—or distribute fliers and signs in churches, bars, and lottery retail stores. Some groups have recorded funk songs with personal hygiene tips.

Via social media, communicators best practices and educational materials using hashtags like #CoronaInTheFavelas and #CoronaInThePeripheries to showcase their efforts. In its manifesto, the group addresses housekeepers, doormen, drivers, and delivery and informal workers. “We need to point toward paths that really take our realities into account,” the document says. “From us to our own.”

These community reporters are writing about the scarcity of gas cylinders and tracking the availability of hand sanitizer, while promoting crowdfunded campaigns to support waste pickers and street vendors. With their words and actions, they reject the prognosis that the “favelados” are doomed and can only brace for the worse. Often at a personal risk, they are tapping into their communities’ resourcefulness and resilience to collect and distribute donations of food supplies and hygiene products. Their actions have been acknowledged by Brazil’s minister of health, who praised the favelas for their wisdom and dignity in the face of a pandemic.

“As communicators and residents, we understand what is happening in these territories,” says Juliana Pinho, a coalition member who lives in Nova Holanda, one of the 16 favelas of the Complexo da Maré in Rio de Janeiro. Pinho says it is important to adopt the communities’ language. The coalition’s prevention tip sheets, entitled “How Not to Flop in the Times of the Coronavirus,” feature recommendations that reflect what is feasible in most of these areas (residents are encouraged to wash their hands with soap and water in the absence of hand sanitizer and to leave doors and windows open for ventilation) and boost solidarity among neighbors (if you have access to water, share the hose with others). “We end up filling the void left by the state and we approach care not as an obligation, but as a display of affection,” Pinho says.

Traditionally forgotten and overlooked by public authorities, these vulnerable populations are skeptical that this time will be any different. In the city of Rio de Janeiro, the issue of intermittent access to clean water has been made worse by a monthslong supply crisis, and the state’s universal health care system infrastructure has been strained in recent years. Concerns over how a concomitant spike in seasonal H1N1 influenza and dengue cases could overload the public system have led states to anticipate their vaccination calendar.

This week, the Senate approved an emergency aid plan dubbed “corona voucher” for informal workers—who make up 47 percent of the population of favelas—of roughly U.S.$115 for at least three months. But other challenges remain, like the impediments to social distancing in densely populated areas and cramped houses shared by several family members. Options to isolate vulnerable populations in ships and hotels are being considered, with few concrete steps taken so far. The lack of coordination between the state and federal governments has also hindered response efforts. President Jair Bolsonaro and state governors have been at odds with each other over the appropriate restrictive measures, further aggravating the president’s political isolation. Bolsonaro continues to downplay the crisis, ignore social distancing recommendations, and contradict his own public health team.

The community activists and reporters are also up against fake news. For weeks, the journalist Gisele Alexandre had been receiving questions about the coronavirus from neighbors and relatives at the Capão Redondo community in São Paulo. Some asked her to verify information and videos they were receiving on WhatsApp. So Alexandre decided to launch the podcast Manda Notícias (Send the News), a series of short audio clips she releases three times a week and can easily be shared on social media. The idea is to debunk unsupported claims, like the viral message that drinking hot water or tea could prevent the spread of the virus, or a video taken out of context that supposedly shows the minister of education encouraging children to go back to school. After only two weeks, at least 500 people have already subscribed to Alexandre’s podcast. Two- to three-minute audio bites are also the strategy behind the new Pandemia Sem Neurose (Pandemic Without Neurosis) podcast, which recently alerted listeners to personal data collection scams.

In the meantime, residents of favelas are left with conflicting messages. Militias and organized crime groups are themselves telling people to stay home and imposing curfews. But worried about losing their income and emboldened by the president’s discourse that the country and the economy can’t stop, many people are choosing to go back to the streets and open up their shops. “It is hard to convince someone who has been leaving his or her house early in the morning to work and coming back late at night day after day despite gunshots and police operations that they are just now putting their life at risk,” says Pinho.

Rocha describes the government’s handling of the crisis as the perpetuation of a culture of genocide. “We’re all going to die one day,” Bolsonaro said this week while once again opposing a lockdown. But Rocha and his friends and neighbors know that, when it comes down to it, it’s often their lives that are claimed. “If the government looks at us and says that we’re going to die, we respond by saying, what can we do to keep us alive?” Rocha says. “We will make ourselves be seen.”