The Hidden Pandemic: Stories Behind Covid-19 Numbers in Favelas, Part 1 [VIDEO]

Social project Jacarezinho Against Coronavirus distributes basic foodstuffs to mothers that were affected by the pandemic. Photo by Gerente.

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This is our most recent article on Covid-19 and its impacts on the favelas, and the first 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 2, click here

This first part presents aspects of the pandemic in the context of the favelas and examples of community mobilization to combat the spread of Covid-19.

Since March, the people of Brazil have been living through a completely new reality due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The city of Rio de Janeiro and its Metropolitan Region, despite the lag in official data, have been experiencing high numbers of both cases and deaths. Furthermore, there has been no mass testing system implemented to test those with or without suspected contamination.

In most of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, the situation is made even more complicated by high density living, irregular or nonexistent basic sanitation, and the difficulty of accessing water and basic health services. The absence of public authorities in these locations makes it even more necessary and important for community leaders to take action.

In turn, hospitals that should be ready to serve citizens, fully equipped with all the necessary materials, testing, and health professionals, exist in a chaotic reality where doctors, nurses and assistants work with frequent delays in payment, broken equipment, and a lack of basic supplies such as medicine.

New Coronavirus patient denounces having been hospitalized on a chair in Adão Pereira Nunes Municipal Hospital. Photo by IG.

Acari resident Maria Cristina Porte da Silva, for example, who contracted Covid-19, was unable to receive care either at the nearby Family Health Clinic or at the Ronaldo Gazola Municipal Hospital. She ended up being admitted into the emergency department of the Francisco Sales Municipal Hospital and, later, referred to a field hospital in Leblon. Speaking at the most recent press conference for the Covid-19 in Favelas Unified Dashboard, Da Silva said that at the field hospital, she received the best possible treatment available, and that “if others [from her favela] had access to the medical care I had, many would not have died.”

In addition to these factors, there is also the issue of conflict among the different spheres of public authorityfederal, state and municipalthat have failed to agree on a unified discourse that is capable of connecting with the public, raising awareness, and providing instruments for the fight against Covid-19. This has resulted in a sense amongst the population that the only way to succeed in the face of the pandemic is to take individual action and, consequently, a sense of responsibility has been taken away from the government agencies that should bear the ultimate responsibility in this situation.

The Favelas’ Response: Community Mobilization to Fight Covid-19

Favela residents’ perception that action by public authorities was very limited, whether in terms of financial aid or in the dissemination of accurate data on Covid-19 cases and deaths, mobilized innumerable community groups to focus their efforts on combating the novel coronavirus. Contrary to the media’s stigmatized coverage of the pandemic in the favelas, as if they were Covid-19 hot spots, the main movement in the favelas has in reality consisted of favela-based collectives coming together to create a network of support for residents.

At the Covid-19 in Favelas Unified Dashboard’s press conference, Rafael Oliveira of the Favela Vertical collective in Gardênia Azul said that “since the beginning, we have had a fallacy that the communities would be the driving force behind Covid-19 in Rio de Janeiro, a racist and unscrupulous misrepresentation.” Seimour Souza of LabJaca, a resident of Jacarezinho, pointed out how the favela is rendered invisible by the mainstream media and public authorities, saying that it is not only with the Covid-19 pandemic that this happens, but also in relation to other diseases, such as tuberculosis.

For Douglas Heliodoro, from the Peripheral Connections collective (Coletivo Conexões Periféricas) in Rio das Pedras, media coverage that initially sounded like concern ultimately only intensified stigma against favelas in the face of the pandemic. Heliodoro highlighted the network of existing social projects in Rio das Pedras, such as Corrente do Bem, Cine Rock, Semeando Amor Project, Aliança do Bem, Coletivo Semente, and NGO Social Bit, among others, who came together to gather information about Covid-19 in the community through online Google forms. With over 100,000 residents in Rio das Pedras, conducting interviews with each household was not a viable alternative.

Anna Paula Sales, the community leader of A.M.I.G.A.S. (Women’s Association of Itaguaí, Warriors and Community Connectors), said that her organization’s work to identify infected people was initially done “in an intuitive and empirical way, without any commitment to exact science, such as statistics… [it was done] in terms of community-based information.” For their true fieldwork, amid the lack of technological devices such as laptops and easy access to the Internet, interviews were conducted and cases counted street by street in different favelas.

In Jacarezinho, through the Jaca Against Corona Campaign, basic food supplies were collected and distributed along with hygiene and cleaning materials, materials for babies, personal protective equipment, and informational handouts. In addition, before the partnership with the Covid-19 in Favelas Unified Dashboard arose, families were registered, including details such as race and skin color and whether people had already been tested or had any symptoms.

In Maré, as reported by Dani Moura of Redes da Maré, there was a perception that the distribution of basic food supplies, the first action taken, needed to be extended in some way. A telemedicine program called Health Connection was created with general practitioners and psychologists in order to assist people in vulnerable situations, and if they had contracted coronavirus. Through that program, a mass testing program was also started in partnership with Brazil’s national health foundation, Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (Fiocruz).

In the mainstream media, some actions taken by residents were reported, such as the cleaning of alleys, installation of public water faucets and sinks, distribution of masks and soap, and efforts to count cases and deaths. Nill Santos, president of the Association of Assertive Women with Social Commitment (AMAC) in Duque de Caxias, said that lack of access to water is currently one of the most serious problems. In the favela where she lives, it was the residents themselves who raised money to buy 25 pipes to transport water to areas that do not receive water from the state utility CEDAE.

Santos also explained that the biggest challenge facing community leaders today is making people aware of how to keep themselves safe, especially those who deny the dangers posed by the pandemic. Santos said that the biggest current denialist is the government, which “tried to silence us, does not want to hear us. It doesn’t help us, but we are the ones who are saving this country. We are the communities and the networks that are transforming our country. We are not alone, we are many and we are here truly resisting.”

This is the first 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 2, 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.

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