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“Solidarity can save lives”

Brazil favelas are joining efforts to fight the pandemic.

In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, several favelas are joining efforts to fight coronavirus. Residents have told us about the lack of running water, intermittent power and rising unemployment. However, a wave of solidarity between rival communities is working to make life easier for everyone. By Marta Portocarrero.

“The government doesn’t come here, so we rule ourselves”, 25-year old Rennan Leta told TMIK on a Whatsapp call.

Rennan is a journalist and activist who lives in Alto da Boavista, a favela in the north of Rio de Janeiro.

He told us how a lot of residents could be seen outside during the lockdown, mainly on weekends. He thinks that Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro attitude of downplaying the effects of the crisis and not believing in the need of social distancing and quarantine – despite having contracted Covid-19 himself – is also to be blamed. “People who vote in Bolsonaro believe him, but the virus brings some irreparable damages”, Rennan said.

According to the WHO, more than 2 million people were infected in Brazil. Almost 96,000 have died.

In Rio de Janeiro, there are 169,000 confirmed cases (official data). Independent media have looked at the figures in the favelas. So far, 4,301 cases and 636 deaths have been reported.

During the pandemic Rennan has been on the front line fundraising, buying food, distributing food parcels enough to feed a family for two weeks. He spoke of a strong wave of solidarity, in which “everyone helps each other” in the favela since lockdown started in March.

The cost of the crisis

In Rocinha, one of the biggest favelas in Rio de Janeiro, Jorge Kadinho, 45, has also been helping out his community.

From cleaning the streets to handing out leaflets with important information, one can see dozens of posts of solidarity actions on his Twitter account.

Kadinho himself is not on the front line, but he’s doing another essential job: debunking fake news on social media and putting people in need in contact with those willing to help them.

He’s proud of the thousands of people he already helped and also described a big wave of solidarity going on in Rocinha: “I’ve never seen anything like this. People who didn’t use to talk to each other are now helping each other out. We’re all walking in the same direction”.

His cheerful voice hides his worries about the impact of the crisis. Since lockdown was imposed on the 13th of March, the estate agent stopped being able to pay his son’s school fees, had to cancel the internet and TV licenses and asked for a loan to help pay his monthly expenses.

Unfortunately, he’s not the only one. According to Data Favela, 47% of the people who live in Rio’s favelas are informal workers, such as cleaners. Due to the pandemic, many lost their jobs and were forced to ask for money on the streets.

Every little help counts

In the same favela, Wagner, 40, is physiotherapist and the president of ACAER, an non-profit organization that promotes cultural and sports initiatives.

During lockdown, they’ve been delivering hot meals, food parcels and telling residents to wash their hands regularly and wearing face masks, because Covid “is way more serious than what everyone thought”.

He described the day someone turned up at his organization with two packs of beans to donate: “They didn’t know if we would accept only two packs, but of course we did. Every little help counts.

In the first three months of the pandemic, ACAER delivered approximately 100 food parcels.

While the effort is impressive, Wagner stressed the importance of external donations to help out the community which is not getting enough support from the government.

Covid spreads faster in favelas

As of the 6th of August, there have been 451 cases in Complex of favelas Maré, followed by 422 in Penha and 393 in Complexo do Alemão.

The urban planning of a favela makes self-isolation harder. The houses are tiny and built very close to each other. In a 4-sq metre flat can live five people, so it’s impossible to keep social distancing.

Besides that, the lack of running water and basic sanitation make hygiene more difficult and contribute to a faster spread of the virus.

Solidarity among favelas

Vanessa, 24, has started a network of solidarity between the favela of Acari, where she was born, and other communities in need, such as favela de Para Pedro and Morro da Quitanda, which don’t get the same attention in the media.

With the group Coletivo Fala Akari, in the first six weeks of action, Vanessa delivered 289 food parcels among the communities: “Initially, people were a bit suspicious, but when we showed them that we could share our food with them, they were very happy and we were very welcome on our next visits”, she told TMIK.

She thinks that favela residents have “been totally forgotten” by the government: “No one from Rio de Janeiro City Hall, or the national government, or from our national health system has come to visit us here. We, residents, are doing everything: carrying and delivering food, searching and filtering information so that everyone feels guided”.

Solidarity interrupted by gunshots

“They don’t come in to help us, but they come in with police operations”, Vanessa told TMIK.

In July, there have been 23 shootings in the favela of Vila Kennedy, followed by 21 in Vicente de Carvalho and 11 in Tijuca, where two people died.

However, a survey from the Public Security Observatory shows that police operations decreased 74% in favelas of Rio de Janeiro during the pandemic, causing __60% __less deaths.

According to Fogo Cruzado, a platform that registers shootings in Brazil, in July there were 383 shootings in the region of Rio de Janeiro, 52% less than the year before.

Rennan, from Mata Machado favela says that “the government keeps treating favelas like a war zone”.

“This is a violation of human rights. During the pandemic, people are indoors, many of them without running water or food, and the government sends police to shoot us. They come in with armoured cars instead of giving us emergency help packages. It’s solidarity that saves lives”.

How you can help:

  • Donate to help Rennan deliver more food parcels in Alto da Boavista.
  • Donate to help Wagner through his organisation ACAER.
  • Help Vanessa bringing more food and hygiene items to several favelas.