‘We’re Excluded’: Coronavirus Prevention Tips ‘Forget’ Favelas Lacking Basic Sanitation

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For the original article in Portuguese by Lola Ferreira published in Uol Notícias click here.

This is the third article in what will be a spotlighted issue on RioOnWatch for the foreseeable future: the new coronavirus as it impacts Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. The series features both original RioOnWatch publications and those translated from other sources such as this one.

Washing your hands with soap and water or using hand sanitizer. These are simple steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus, yet they are impossible for a low-income portion of the population. Residents from two favelas in Rio de Janeiro, where open sewage and water shortages are part of daily life, spoke to UOL about their concerns relating to the spread of Covid-19. 

According to Raull Santiago, 31, founder of Coletivo Papo Reto, from the Complexo do Alemão favelas in Rio’s North Zone, unreliable access to clean drinking water is leaving the favelas’ residents “behind” in the fight against the virus. 

“Even before the pandemic, we had suffered from a long history of inequality. Many of us have never had daily access to running water and other basic rights. We don’t just save water because of environmental concerns, we save it because we have to. Because we know that if we have water one day we might not have it again for a week,” says Santiago. 

He shares a house with five other people, including four children. There, the water only “falls” (that is, becomes available from the tap) twice a week, and, on some days, the water pressure is very weak. 

In a pandemic, when we’re constantly told to wash our hands, how does one avoid getting sick? Santiago says that he does whatever he can to prevent infection, but his family is exposed to vectors every day, and because they don’t have the necessary access to water, he is very afraid. 

“We went to get the measles vaccine and we live at the top of the favela. In order to get down and back up, we had to take a kombi with 16 others—old people, children, adults. We’ve been trying to stay informed, save water, and wash our hands as much as possible. We’re doing all we can to avoid the infection, because if one of us gets it, we all will. But now we have more doubts than certainty in terms of prevention for the family,” he says. 

Santiago also points out that it’s difficult to buy hand sanitizer. Not just because of the shortage reported by residents of wealthier areas, but because of the cost. 

Prevention in the Favelas

In his opinion, the city and the state should be obliged to provide advice on preventing the disease, taking into account the plurality of Rio’s living conditions. “We need the government and health specialists to think about tips that can be used by people from favelas and peripheries.”

“As things are now, we’re being excluded, ignored in the reality of the spread of the virus in Brazil, because they are failing to consider the reality that we live in, one of extreme inequality.” — Raull Santiago, 31, founder of Coletivo Papo Reto

Edimilson Migowski, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), believes that the lack of basic sanitation in the favelas, coupled with the spread of coronavirus, will result in a “very serious” situation. 

“Access to clean, drinkable water is fundamental to preventing any infectious disease. When you combine overcrowding, poor ventilation, and a lack of minimal living conditions, the risk of infectious disease increases,” he explains. 

Migowski emphasizes that there is no short-term solution besides trying to follow the preventative measures as much as possible. “People living in high-risk areas, without sanitation, will have to double down their attention, more than anyone else. If it were possible to isolate yourself elsewhere that would be great, but we also know that that’s nearly impossible,” he says. 

Confirmed Cases of Coronavirus (Ministry of Health as of March 24)

  • São Paulo – 745
  • Rio de Janeiro – 233
  • Ceará – 163
  • Distrito Federal – 133
  • Minas Gerais – 128
  • Rio Grande do Sul – 86
  • Santa Catarina – 68
  • Bahia – 63
  • Paraná – 56
  • Pernambuco – 42
  • Amazonas – 32
  • Espírito Santo – 29
  • Goiás – 23
  • Mato Grosso do Sul – 21
  • Rio Grando do Norte – 13
  • Acre – 11
  • Sergipe – 10
  • Alagoas – 7
  • Piauí – 6
  • Tocantíns – 5
  • Pará – 5
  • Maranhão – 2
  • Mato Grosso – 2
  • Paraíba – 2
  • Roraima – 2
  • Amapá – 1

The Trata Brazil Institute, which has been analyzing basic sanitation in Brazilian cities for thirteen years, gave the city of Rio de Janeiro a score of 6 out of a possible 10. It ranks 52nd in a list of 100 cities. There is no sanitation ranking for different regions. 

In the latest National Basic Sanitation Study by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), Rio came in 228th out of 5,570 Brazilian cities in a relative index of broad access to adequate sanitation. 

In the Acari favela, in Rio’s North Zone, residents also live with water shortages. In addition to this, they are concerned about their proximity to the Ronaldo Gazolla Municipal Hospital, which was chosen by the city government as the reference unit for tending to the infected. 

Buba Aguiar, from the Fala Akari communications collective, speaks about the current problem for residents, who don’t have reliable access to water. 

“On some streets, there are certain times for when you can use the water pumps, and you don’t have water for the full day. Sometimes the water pressure is weak and even the pumps don’t work. People end up getting ill because of a lack of basic or modern sanitation. Then there’s this worry about whether or not you have hand sanitizer at home. But how could you have the money for hand sanitizer when you can’t even afford bottled water?” she asks. 

To help each other, the residents have mobilized. Whenever there’s a new delivery of hand sanitizer somewhere in the favela, an alert gets sent out to WhatsApp groups so that anyone who is able to can buy some. 

“But we are emphasizing that it’s enough just to wash your hands, so that people don’t feel they have to spend the extra money,” says Aguiar. As water is, once again and always, an issue, she ends by saying, “The best advice we can give is that, for whoever can stay at home, stay there.”

As of March 24, there were 233 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Rio state, and at least 61 suspected cases in Rio’s favelas.

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