This is our most recent article on Covid-19 and its impacts on the favelas, and the second of a two-part piece that analyzes the complexity of the Covid-19 pandemic in Rio’s favelas, sharing voices of favela leaders and residents who participated in the most recent Covid-19 in Favelas Unified Dashboard press conference. For Part 1, click here.
This second part points to public authorities’ lack of strategy for dealing with social, economic, cultural, and public health issues in the favelas, which worsened during the pandemic.
Hidden Problems Intensified During the Pandemic
Each favela has its own socio-spatial dynamic composed, among other factors, by its location, its history, and its residents. This generates specific demands, which require different mechanisms to understand and meet their realities. However, as can be seen since the beginning of the pandemic in Brazil, no strategies or guidelines have been formed to combat the situation, especially in the favelas, where medical recommendations like physical distancing and frequent hand hygiene cannot be applied in a homogenous way.
This “hidden pandemic” encompasses innumerable social, economic, cultural, and public health questions about favelas that are rarely brought into focus by mainstream media, much less by governments. According to reports from community leaders present at the most recent press conference for the Covid-19 in Favelas Unified Dashboard, in recent months there has been a significant reduction in donations of basic foodstuffs for families in favelas. The theoretical level of stability that Rio de Janeiro reached in relation to the number of cases and deaths, and the resulting flexing of social distancing requirements from Mayor Marcelo Crivella, give those who donated in the first months the sensation that “the worst is over” and that there is no more need. Unfortunately, there are still many families struggling to buy food or even going hungry.
Karen Melo, a journalist with Voz das Comunidades and resident of the favelas of Complexo do Alemão, reported that in addition to the difficulty of accessing basic foodstuffs, many times groceries are spoiled: ‘’I received a video from a resident who showed us the powdered milk that her child received, and the milk did not mix with water, and she said: ‘How am I going to give this to my eight-month-old son?’”
This issue of food is even more worrying given the difficulty of accessing the emergency aid promised by the government. The R$600 (US$113) of emergency aid is not arriving as it should to low-income families whose heads of household cannot work at the moment. Many favela workers are self-employed or informal professionals, and the pandemic has automatically suspended their work. The delays and difficulties they are facing in attempts to withdraw their emergency aid leave them with no source of income, generating premature returns to work (when return is possible), and consequentially, greater risk of exposure to Covid-19.
Another problem that is intensified by the pandemic involves mothers in the favelas. The number of Brazilian families headed by women grew 105% in the period between 2001 and 2015, and this is no different in the favelas. Most of these women are self-employed and single mothers, which generates the cruel question that many have already had to ask themselves: whether to work in the middle of the pandemic to feed their children, risking contagion, or stay at home and watch them go hungry. According to the Data Favela research institute, 84% of them suffered from a drop in income, 87% are cutting their spending, and 73% reported that they will not be able to maintain their standard of living if they stop working.
In addition, according to reports from community leaders, some families that depend on government payments for dependents of people in prison have been without assistance after prisoners died in jails due to Covid-19. Data on the situation in prisons during the pandemic are also out of date, but it is known that hygiene conditions are terrible and that there is not adequate medical care.
But it is not only prisons that lack adequate medical care. The current health system facilitates various types of illegalities. Several residents had reports about the falsification of death certificates in suspected Covid-19 cases. As the release of bodies takes longer in the case of a Covid-19 confirmation, in which burials must be carried out according to Ministry of Health protocol, family members are motivated to accept death certificates with another cause of death that is not the novel coronavirus.
There are numerous difficulties that make the situation of Covid-19 even more worrying in our context. Denialism is a common human response to a challenging and frightening situation like the current pandemic. Dealing with the problem as if there were not a problem is not unique to Brazil. Some authoritarian countries and some leaders have acted against common sense, science, ethics and World Health Organization recommendations. The result is seen in numbers, such as at the beginning of August, when Brazil reached the tragic level of 100,000 dead.
With all of the testing difficulties that Brazil faces, it is estimated that the number of Covid-19 cases is actually much higher and that the number of deaths still remains unknown—one study projects the real death count may be as much as 122% to 801% higher than government statistics—making the reality even more inhumane.
The post-pandemic future is a challenge to be faced by all, and in the eyes of the community leaders present at the press conference, we obtained different responses. For Anna Paula Sales, from the Association of Women of Itaguaí—Warriors and Social Articulators (A.M.I.G.A.S.), it is necessary to raise awareness and inform and mobilize communities to understand that life will not return to the “old normal.” For Seimour Souza of LabJaca, the “new normal” will only be felt by someone who has not lost loved ones to the virus.
The current situation in Brazil, especially in favelas, calls for strategic actions fundamentally aimed at the health of residents, but also at maintaining the economic and social conditions necessary for their lives. It is urgent to listen to favela residents about their reality and their needs during the pandemic. As stated earlier, the demands of favelas are not the same as those of the asfalto (formal city), and they require a keen and sensitive look at their unique factors.
This is the second of a two-part piece that analyzes the complexity of the Covid-19 pandemic in Rio’s favelas, sharing the voices of leaders and favela residents who participated in the latest Covid-19 in Favelas Unified Dashboard press conference. For Part 1, click here.
Watch the Press Conference Here:
Amanda Scofano has a master’s degree in Geography and is a doctoral candidate in the Post-Graduate Program in Geography and Environment at the Catholic University of Rio (PUC-Rio), where her research is focused on geo-processing and socio-environmental vulnerabilities.