This article from Vidigal, in Rio’s South Zone, is the fourth in a series about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on daily life in the favelas. The series is made possible through a partnership with the Behner Stiefel Center for Brazilian Studies at San Diego State University.
We’re on our own! This is the way those of us who live in favelas feel, faced with this additional survival challenge. People who live in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas already face the daily fear of losing our own lives, or one losing a family member, due to police operations. Now, as we face the reality of this pandemic, we’ve never felt so underserved.
Overnight, we have lost access to the street, the place where a large proportion of informal workers and favela residents make their earnings. We were made to self-isolate in our homes, waiting to hear what welfare policies will be created to help us. But what can we expect from the same politicians who, until recently, joked about opening fire on favela residents, dismantled the public health system (SUS), and fought against the consolidation of labor laws (CLT)? Are these the people we should expect to throw us a life jacket?
Daily Life in Vidigal
I live in Vidigal, in Rio’s South Zone, and since the first days of the quarantine I’ve seen that many residents are not self-isolating. It’s as if the danger lies outside the favela, in the formal city, where the State concentrates its social isolation efforts. In Vidigal, businesses are functioning, people meet up in the streets and on rooftops to socialize and many who work inside the community are continuing with normal life. On the other hand, I have also borne testimony to community leaders working hard to raise awareness among residents about the need to respect the quarantine rules, to the frequent Civil Defense alarms reminding people of the importance of self-isolation, and to Family Health Clinic workers bringing hygiene information. We are located between Leblon and Barra da Tijuca, the two [wealthy] neighborhoods with the largest number of Covid-19 cases in the city, and we’ve already had one case confirmed here. I think this fact has made people more aware of the risks and the need for protection.
The isolation decrees have already been going on for over a month and psychological stress is starting to hit people who need to support their families. Here in Vidigal, a scene we hadn’t seen before is becoming familiar, where supermarket shelves are full of food but their corridors are empty, because people no longer have money in their pockets to buy supplies. In the meantime, we are anxiously awaiting the vouchers of R$600 (US$113) in support payments to help the poorest amongst us who depend on informal work. One more day without eating is another day of despair for those who need to feed their children. People know that if they don’t die of coronavirus, they’ll die of hunger.
Community Solidarity and Hope
Faced with this situation, different sectors of society have started to mobilize independently to help the most vulnerable, organizing crowdfunding campaigns or collecting material donations. This is the case of the Network of Communities and Movements Against Violence, who organized a campaign called Donating Hope, with a donation platform to raise funds for the mothers and relatives of victims of police violence, for people deprived of their freedom, and favela residents. The campaign mostly supports women-led households, many of whom are unemployed, self-employed or live off odd jobs, and are unable to work due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Initiatives such as this one need to gain visibility, because they are saving people’s lives. The Donating Hope campaign has already supplied more than 150 families in favelas across the city with staple food parcels and hygiene kits. The campaign organizers hope that more people will join them because there are many more families waiting for support.
Those with first-hand experience are those who know the importance of this work. The vast majority of people on the frontline of the Network of Communities and Movements Against Violence are relatives of victims of State violence, black women, favela residents, or residents of peripheral neighborhoods. Beyond organizing campaigns to deliver food parcels to families who are most in need, these women have links with favelas and play a vital role in helping families understand the quarantine and hygiene guidelines to help contain the pandemic.
On March 30, a food parcel from the Donating Hope campaign was delivered to my house and received with a sigh of relief. During this dark time, this community solidarity network is not just nourishing us materially, but spiritually too. It is comforting to know that, even physically isolated from one another, we are not alone. Since the beginning of the quarantine, many initiatives have sprung up to collect donations for families in need. Here in Vidigal, a supermarket is asking customers for help donating food to the families who are most in need.
It is in the midst of the horror that we see the flourishing of beautiful demonstrations of love for our neighbors and respect for life. I believe that Brazil is going to take on coronavirus and I believe in the strength of favela residents. We’re the best we’ve got!
Click here to make a donation directly to the Donating Hope campaign, which is distributing donations among numerous favelas around Rio. You can also make an international donation to the above campaign here by writing in the ‘earmark’ category: Network Against Violence.
Rachel Gepp, 36, is a self-employed worker, a mother, communicator, and resident of Vidigal. Gepp is a human rights defender and an activist fighting State violence in favela territories in Rio de Janeiro. She uses photography and communication as tools to share the viewpoints of people who live and experience what happens in the favelas.