Despatch from Sao Paulo | International

Favelas left to fight it alone in Brazil

The nation’s vast shanty towns are facing the twin threat of the deadly coronavirus and hunger

Blame it on City of God. Fernando Meirelles’s cult flick of 2002 exposed Brazil’s underbelly — a shanty town where armed drug lords ruled the streets, everybody robbed everyone else and blood drained into sewers every day. Mr. Meirelles made the word favela (slum) and ‘City of God’, a dusty patch on the western fringe of Rio de Janeiro, famous across the globe. But Brazil’s upper crust showed little interest in the film. It just reconfirmed their prejudice: favelas are breeding grounds of drugs and death, and a threat to the noble lanes.

Last Sunday, City of God became the first favela in Brazil to record a COVID-19 case, sending a shiver across the country. The news invoked fears of the virus rampaging the slums, gaining strength and then ravaging the posh areas. But the story is entirely different. According to a survey, 70% of cases in Rio were reported from rich areas. Of these, some 40% had just returned from abroad. In Sao Paulo, which is becoming the COVID-19 epicentre in South America, the first reported case was of a man who had travelled to Italy. In fact, the first few dozens of cases were treated at the Albert Einstein Hospital, a super-expensive private medical centre in Sao Paulo.

The favelas are worried. They are facing the twin threat of the deadly virus and hunger. “Rich people went abroad and got infected. They came back and passed the virus to their maids and nannies who took it to the favela where people live in small houses close to each other. Now, people are getting sick in our communities and rich people are dismissing the maids. We are the victims here,” says Vera Mendes, 39, who lost her job as a maid in three of the four houses she used to work for. “They didn’t even bother to pay the salary,” says Ms. Mendes, adding that a vast majority of her neighbours in Paraisópolis, the biggest favela with 1,00,000 residents, have lost their jobs as domestic helps.

Rate trajectory

It’s just a month since the virus came to this country. As of Saturday, Brazil had reported 3,477 infections and 93 deaths, a majority of them in Sao Paulo State, which has been under a lockdown since Tuesday. As the country follows the infections rate trajectory of Italy and Spain, the lockdowns may be extended. But a significant number of persons from favelas continue to work in supermarkets, food delivery restaurants and pharmacies, and ride-sharing apps are still working. With these workers using buses and subways, community leaders are worried. “Since last week, the number of suspicious cases in Paraisópolis has grown. Most informal workers who have been dismissed from work are still going out looking for work. If they do not get immediate relief, we face a huge problem,” says Gilson Rodrigues, the president of the residents’ union of Paraisópolis.

With the federal government led by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who is still mocking the virus as “little flu”, delivering little help to the country’s working class, the favela residents are taking the matter into their own hands. Mr. Rodrigues is one of the founders of the “G10 in the Favelas”, a group that brings together social entrepreneurs from the main favelas in Brazil. The group is providing help to the people in their communities. “We lack two basic things — information and water. We are sharing information about the virus and jobs and bringing water to our people,” says Mr. Rodrigues. “There should be a government action to save people’s lives. But they are concerned about the economy, not about the people.”

Under pressure from firms which have lost big money on the stock market, Mr. Bolsonaro has been threatening to “open the economy” soon. Attacking State Governors, who have imposed lockdowns, the President has gone to the extent of asking his supporters to organise road shows to demand cancellation of the lockdowns. “I saw a man jumping into the sewer. He dived into it and got out alright. Nothing happened to him,” said Mr. Bolsonaro on Thursday, claiming that the Brazilians were immune to the virus.

The federal government’s response to the pandemic has been so cavalier that drug gangs have stepped in to fill the vacuum in the slums. According to reports in the local media, drug traffickers have imposed a “coronavirus curfew” in various favelas of Rio, including the City of God. In a widely-circulated video this week, gang members can be seen moving in the lanes of the community of 40,000 residents, telling people “to stay at home and chill”.

In the time of COVID-19, the City of God is back in the grip of its drug lords.

(Shobhan Saxena is a journalist based in Sao Paulo)

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Printable version | May 29, 2020 4:03:01 AM |

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