Forgotten in the time of COVID: How Brazilian Favelas Have Been Left Alone to Fight the Coronavirus

A story by Mariana Janjácomo

The COVID-19 pandemic has both highlighted and heightened growing social disparities among Brazil’s urban rich and poor. In the country’s shantytown favelas, communities rely on nothing but their own solidarity.

Douglas Cavalcante is not exactly following the “shelter-in-place” order during the pandemic, but he has a good reason not to. The 27-year-old aid worker has been spending his days outside on the streets of the favela where he lives, delivering food and hygiene supplies to those who have lost their livelihoods due to the pandemic.

“I know there are people who are starving, and I just can’t stay inside my house and do nothing about it,” he said.

Home to more than 13 million Brazilians, favelas – with their unplanned, densely crowded, terraced settlements, positioned next to the opulent, tall towers of luxury neighborhoods – are portraits of the country’s deep social disparities, particularly in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Douglas is one of 200,000 residents who live in Heliópolis, the biggest favela in São Paulo. With a population of over 12 million, São Paulo is the densest city in Brazil.

The paradox with favelas is that they are both part of and apart from the city. Favelas are located on the outskirts of cities, but the government doesn’t provide assistance for them the same way it does for other urban areas. Some favela neighborhoods lack basic services like water and electricity, while others are missing critical infrastructure, I like hospitals, police stations, and parks.

The pandemic has disproportionately impacted Brazil’s more vulnerable citizens. COVID-19 is five times more lethal in favelas than the country’s average death toll from the disease, according to a report from Agência Mural, a news agency focused on news from peripheral communities.

As a Brazilian, I know that favela residents commonly complain of feeling abandoned by the government. That is why, especially in times like these, community leaders in favelas play an essential role in supporting their communities and demanding solutions to the issues they face.

They’re the ones who follow up with the authorities — and right now, they’re the ones who are more aware of the terrible reality that favelas are faring far worse than other parts of the country when it comes to the pandemic.

“We’re not sure what is happening,” Cavalcante said in a Zoom video call conducted in early April. “Although there are no official cases, we hear stories about someone’s cousin, someone’s father, someone’s brother who have the symptoms and are trying to isolate, but I don’t know anyone who was tested, so we think cases are being underreported.”

On April 9, two days after my interview with Calvacante, Edson Aparecido, the health secretary for the city of São Paulo, admitted the government had failed in preparing the city’s poorest communities for the virus. On that day, Aparecido told reporters of Globonews, a Brazilian cable TV channel, that “the coronavirus has arrived in the periphery” and that “the government needed more time to set up hospital beds.” The secretary said they had set up extra beds, but those would probably be insufficient because of how fast the disease was spreading.

Social distancing? Home office?

In larger favelas, like Heliópolis, there are some middle-income families who live comfortably, but that is not true of all residents. 63% of households in Heliópolis live off a monthly income of roughly $370 per month, roughythe earnings equivalent of working two minimum wage jobs. More than half of the homes in Heliópolis are shared between at least 4 people, according to studies by the Union of Residents’ of Heliópolis Associations (UNAS), a non-profit organization formed by the favela’s residents in 1978 to improve the community through social projects.

“That thing about having each family member with symptoms isolating in one room, it just doesn’t happen here,” Cavalcante said. “Social distancing in favelas basically means putting everyone together in the same small space, everyone breathing the same air, no divisions. That’s what it is.”

Making matters worse, Calvacante said that many dwellings in his favela have poor ventilation and excessive humidity, leading many to leave their dwellings out of discomfort despite their willingness to abide by “stay-at-home” instructions.

The other not-so simple fact about living in a favela during a global pandemic is that most residents lack jobs that permit them to work from home. Many work in low-wage service sectors that are considered essential, like cleaners, doormen, and bus drivers. Others, like street vendors, are self-employed and work informally. Overall, the concept of the “home office” is not a reality that exists in favelas.

According to a study by Data Favela, a research institute focused on the economic activity of favelas in Brazil, 7 in 10 families who live in favelas said their incomes had been impacted by the pandemic as of the end of March. In addition, 86% said they would have trouble buying food if they lost their incomes.

These are desperate times. So, what is the government doing?

Not much, according to Joyce Luz, a political scientist and professor at the School Foundation of Sociology and Politics of São Paulo. “Right now, poor communities are completely abandoned by the government,” Joyce said, explaining that authorities are taking a general stance towards a nuanced problem. As a result, their measures are helping certain areas and populations, but don’t take into account the complexities and special needs of favelas.

The measures that actually help residents of favelas are palliative, not structural. The federal government announced that it would give financial aid in the form of R$600.00 (roughly $100) to those who need it. “That might guarantee survival for some families, at least for a while,” Joyce said,, but the policy was flawed; problems in the logistics and distribution system for the aid is preventing it from being dispersed to those who need it the most.

Some local governments have started distributing masks and performing street cleaning services in favelas — the latter being something they should have been doing before the pandemic. Indeed, the abandonment of favelas is not something new. “This pandemic has come to open our eyes,” Luz said. “There is no specific policy to deal with the coronavirus in poor communities because specific policies to poor communities in Brazil never existed in the first place.”

To overcome the devastating effects of the pandemic on poor communities, Luz highlights the importance of the private sector. “We have been seeing a lot of interesting partnerships between the public and the private sector,” she said, “ and I believe that the government will need – more than ever – the private sector to let go of some of its profit.”

Luz said she believes that the COVID-19 pandemic will pull some people back into extreme poverty. It was only in 2014 that Brazil left the HungerMap of the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP), which lists countries where at least 5% of the population are in extreme poverty. According to Luz, the pandemic’s devastating effects combined with the government's insufficient response in helpingits poorest communities may take Brazil back to that reality.

Reginaldo José, an educator who works for UNAS, in Heliópolis, echoed Joyce’s analysis of how favelas, in general, lack basic support and regulations from local, state, and federal governments. “Heliópolis dreams about becoming part of the city of São Paulo, with all the rights and all the duties,” he said.

Since the closing of schools, José has been helping children and teenagers continue their studies remotely. Since computers are rare in Heliópolis, his job hasn’t been easy. Also, the internet signal is usually too weak to host online classes anyway. “The main internet providers don’t come here. It’s considered a risky area,” he said.

UNAS’s headquarters has become a de facto resource center for the neighborhood’s parents to print school assignments for their children, as well as to receive accurate information about the pandemic. Fortunately, even though the internet signal is weak to nonexistent, WhatsApp still functions in a lot of areas.

However, the availability of WhatsApp has a downside: it's used to spread “fake news.” . Problematic even before the pandemic, the proliferation of false news reports in Brazil is even more dangerous now because people are spreading faulty rumors and misinformation about health. In Heliópolis, a study made by Observatório de Olho na Quebrada, a research project created by UNAS, found that 46% of residents consider WhatsApp to be their main source of news about COVID-19.

In order to disseminate factual news and health information about COVID-19, UNAS isrelying on a tried-and-true favela method: blaring messages from the speakers of a slow-moving truck. Heliópolis’ community radio station also dedicates daily programming to debunking “fake news” and raising overall awareness about the virus.

“We want to inform the population correctly and, in order to do that, we go after the authorities to understand what is happening,” said Israel de Jesus Silva, aka “Badega,” a radio DJ at the station. That means grilling them about case numbers, poor services, for accurate caseload statistics and the long-delayed financial aid for those in need. Badega also plays community therapist on his show by reminding his listeners that although their situation is hard, panicking about it won’t help.

“Brazilians are very supportive of each other”

Brazilians are raised to believe a national creed that they support one another; “Brazilians are so supportive” is a widely repeated quote in the country. We accept this idiom as fact from a young age, just as we accept the eye-watering social disparities inside the favelas that stare us in the face every but never change.

Even so, in the spirit of “Brazilians are so supportive,” favelas are receiving private donations from businesses and wealthy individuals. Some people are said to be sharing whatever they have. But favela residents need more than that, especially in the long term.

“We understand that what we are doing is important, we are guaranteeing that our families don’t starve,” Douglas Cavalcante said, “but we also understand that these are only palliative measures. People are anxious, people are confused. We have a president who says COVID-19is ‘just a flu’, so it’s hard, we need help from the government.”

I asked Cavalcante if he is scared when he has to venture out into the streets to make his deliveries. He admitted that he is. He worries about transmitting the virus to his partner, with whom he lives and who has mainly stayed inside during the pandemic. Even so, any fear of his to act is outweighed by a personal motive to support his community.. Growing up, he attended youth programs operated by UNAS. Now a UNAS worker himself, he’s trying to give people what he received as a boy. This inherited sense of solidarity is key to understanding how favelas are managing to survive right now, but lasting improvements will only come with structural changes and nuanced policies that take into account Brazil’s complexities.

Made by NYU's Studio 20 graduate journalism program.