The Post-Pandemic World of Favelas and Urban Peripheries: New Social and Economic Paradigms?

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This is our latest article about Covid-19 and its impact on the favelas and is also part of our reporting partnership with The Rio Times. For the article as published in The Rio Times click here.

The coronavirus pandemic brought the world the need to retreat into our homes. However, in Brazil, the possibility of staying at home, enjoying the company of relatives, and receiving care and comfort from family, for many, has always been a privilege. Despite this, such retreat continues to be the first priority in the attempt to contain the virus. Furthermore, in Brazil, the pandemic arrived accompanied by many political irresponsibilities and a low compliance by society as a whole to the internationally recommended public health guidelines.

The beginning of the quarantine, initially set to last until April, sparked fear among some families who live off day labor. Fear of the possibility of unemployment and income loss, and, above all, exposure to the virus. Yet nonetheless, businesspeople and politicians, uninterested in seeing their profits and political support plummet with an economic shutdown, contrary to all World Health Organization recommendations, pressured institutions to swiftly reopen the economy with no restrictions, regardless of the epidemiological curve.

However, unexpectedly, Covid-19 changed some directions in the economic debate. Social movements and sectors of the National Congress returned to a theme that was discussed very little before the pandemic: universal basic income. After all, the pandemic did not only decrease people’s earnings, but it also left many others unemployed and in extreme poverty. Many companies closed and declared bankruptcy. And it became impossible for many informal and autonomous workers to work and therefore guarantee their livelihoods. 

In these times of coronavirus, it became clear that the subsistence of millions of people was hanging by a thread and, therefore, so too were the conditions for the reproduction of the Brazilian economic system. According to data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), during 2020, almost half of all Brazilians lived in households that received the emergency aid of R$600 (US$113) approved by the National Congress, destined for low-income and informal workers affected by the economic and public health calamity.

The Political Economy of Favelas Post-Covid-19, According to Local Leaders

As the first weeks passed, we had to deal with the disconnect between public authorities’ three spheres—federal, state, and municipal. Among various crises, exposed in the changes in ministers of health, the country has for more than 110 days been without a health minister. After a hard battle, there was a victory in the approval of emergency aid, even at a level that borders on trivial. Even as many people shared memes deriding its recipients, for millions of Brazilians, this value did make a big difference. There are places (many of them) where it is impossible to wash hands and maintain physical distancing, because in these spaces, sometimes, an entire family is housed in one room. In the greater Rio metropolitan area alone, there are 300,000 homes with more than three people living in one room. The favela of Jacarezinho leads this ranking.

Still, there is a paradox in favelas and peripheries—in the places that most lack basic structures for life’s routines: there is a surplus of affection and collective care. There are more than enough chairs in front of doors for a chat at the end of an afternoon. There is more than enough sugar to lend to a neighbor. It is in these territories that people like Douglas Almeida, Fabbi Silva, and Ingrid Siss live. They are three community leaders who give up time with their families and moments of leisure to dedicate themselves to others, to do some (many) things for their communities. Almeida in São João de Meriti, Silva in Parque das Missões in Duque de Caxias (both in Greater Rio’s Baixada Fluminense), and Siss in City of God in Rio’s West Zone.

Douglas in a protest in São João de Meriti.

Almeida is an economist, Catholic, and acts as mobilization coordinator at metropolitan advocacy organization Casa Fluminense. He was one of the young Brazilians chosen to meet Pope Francis and participate in a conference entitled “The Economy of Francis,” which aimed to debate, with other leaders in economics, a less unequal future for the world. Asked about tomorrow, principally for favelas and peripheries, and the scenario for reduction of inequalities for territories that are at the margins of any social policy, Almeida was categorical in affirming that changes must happen. For him, “the pandemic is the event that brings urgency for Brazil to act.” It is necessary, according to Almeida, to find paths to overcome inequalities

The data have shown: in favelas and peripheries, Covid-19 is more lethal. The long history of difficulties accessing basic health facilities, for example, makes the black population even more vulnerable. Almeida cited various faces of inequality and abandonment: women suffering from domestic violence, children unable to study due to poor Internet access, elderly people with problems withdrawing their social benefits, and a public security policy that victimizes black youth in favelas every day through brutal police operations.

Project Sponsor a Smile distributes basic foodstuffs. Photo taken from 'Apadrinhe um Sorriso' (Sponsor a Smile) Facebook page.

In mainstream economics in Brazil, according to Almeida, endorsing participation or interference by the State remains at the margins, but in moments of crisis, it is common for State help to become the principal economic choice. The pandemic shows that the market alone cannot meet the demands of the poorest population. The biggest challenge, in his opinion, is showing that existing inequalities—which were deepened by the crisis—are the reflection of a society “addicted to money and accumulation.” Therefore, “the necessary change for the economy must prioritize people and the collective, countering capitalist, accumulative logic,” he said.

Silva, an educator, territorial organizer, and community leader, always points out that the dynamics of the favelas of the Baixada Fluminense are different than those of Rio, as they have still not attracted the attentive eye of researchers and the media. 

Parque das Missões, the place where she has directed her project Sponsor a Smile for ten years, is a favela in the municipality of Duque de Caxias. Through this initiative, Silva offers families and children reading circles and cultural activities, and it is not uncommon that she helps with basic foodstuffs and attending to various needs in the territory. For her, the coronavirus pandemic affected the routine of the favela, but life continues as it was before, because there are many material needs. “Some are afraid of what the illness brings, but the majority live in a reality of so much loss that Covid-19 is just one more thing to be faced. And I cannot process the ‘after’ in the craziness of living the ‘now,’” she said.

Siss is a psychologist from City of God who also leads a shelter project, Casa Dona Amélia, with conversation circles and cultural activities. She said that during our conversation, she reflected on certain issues for the first time, because there are many urgent demands from neighbors and children for whom she cares. Her vision, in one sense, was positive. As a mental health professional, Siss believes that all of us will exit this moment with new learning. For her, “that may be learning a new technique, a new tool, learning how to produce things with efficiency and quality in a new scenario or even with a new awareness, because we were never so forced to be with ourselves as we are now. We do not have the option of escaping what makes us uncomfortable, as before. Because of this, we are invited to look at ourselves. All of this individual comfort will point us collectively to a place that I do not yet know,” she reflected.

Ingrid and her family. Photo by Ingrid Siss.

The lack of public facilities to guarantee basic social rights to residents of favelas and peripheries was a point raised by Siss. She called attention to the low numbers of Centers of Reference for Social Assistance (CRAS) in the City of God region. The only facility that serves the surrounding area has a mere two psychologists for seven neighborhoods. For the psychologist, if there were more facilities for social assistance, access to information would be more effective and the demand for emergency aid would be better met.  

Siss pointed out that the CRAS network in cities like Rio de Janeiro, Nova Iguaçu, and São Gonçalo operates far over capacity. The norms of attendance establish that each center serves a maximum of 5,000 families. Finally, she cited the budget issue. The budget is a key element for public policies to be able to confront inequality. However, Constitutional Amendment 95, a 20-year austerity ceiling imposed on government spending starting in 2016, has forced limits the national budget for investment in health and education.

The coronavirus pandemic brought changes that can be incorporated for good into our routines. Remote work, as a strategy for reducing spending, can be adopted as a rule in some areas. However, it can create more precariousness in market relationships. The use of masks has become part of our wardrobe. Cleaning foods and spraying alcohol on materials that were bought out on the street certainly will also become part of new routines of life. However, as revealed in the comments of these favela leaders, the pandemic shows the need for a different way of living, beyond small changes in daily habits, for example by rethinking access to food and access to health facilities, and fighting to guarantee the minimum for people who do not have economic conditions for survival. Covid-19 did not produce any inequalities. The pandemic just accentuated old problems. 

The post-pandemic, a period of mourning and respect for the dead, will also demand a march in search of the affirmation of rights. Almeida, Silva, and Siss have attentive eyes and will always be debating, discussing, and proposing solutions. For them, the territorialization of public policies is fundamental, as well as creating new possibilities, new paradigms that, with creativity, seek to deal with specific questions of each territory.

Thábara Garcia, a resident of Magé, a city in greater Rio’s Baixada Fluminense area, is a teacher and a member of the collective Baixada Women’s Circle (Roda de Mulheres da Baixada).

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