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ROCINHA, Brazil — In many ways, Arthur Carvalho still lives in pre-coronavirus times.
One of more than 100,000 residents of Rocinha, Brazil’s biggest favela, Carvalho goes out nearly every day: to get food, look for gas, maybe score some detergent, or visit his mother.
Carvalho, a 22-year-old bricklayer, doesn’t really have a choice: He can’t afford to buy all he needs for an extended lockdown in one shopping trip, which would at least allow him to shelter at home six days a week.
But then, if the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, is to be believed, maybe this doesn’t really matter. Just last week Bolsonaro urged supporters not to “run away from the virus like cowards” and to go back to work. Bolsonaro, a right-wing former army captain, has said the disease caused by the coronavirus, COVID-19, is nothing more than “a little cold.”
Health experts say Bolsonaro has set Brazil, with a population of almost 210 million, on a dangerous path. Home to some of the largest and most densely populated neighborhoods in Latin America, these experts warn the coronavirus is likely to spread there with staggering speed.
Across the region, almost all countries shut down their borders early on and imposed travel bans. Some implemented nighttime curfews and deployed the army. Even Mexico, which was criticized for its sluggish response to the coronavirus, has called for residents to stay home through the end of May.
Bolsonaro cuts an increasingly isolated figure on the continent — not just ignoring the advice of experts but actively encouraging people to go out, putting their lives at risk. He has continued touring markets and accused journalists of stoking fear to undermine his administration.
Those most at risk? People who live in favelas.
It is one of the many cruelties of the coronavirus pandemic in countries like Brazil: initially spread by the wealthiest people after returning home from trips abroad, it is the poorest people who must keep leaving their houses to earn a days’ wage. It is they who are the least likely to get proper medical care if complications arise. And Brazil has the highest income inequality gap in Latin America.
For these Brazilians, life has been reduced to a Catch-22: Many want to stay home and stop the spread of the coronavirus, but they live cramped together in tiny quarters, where one contagion can quickly multiply. But mostly, they simply cannot afford not to go out to work.
In mid-March, as the number of deaths from the virus grew exponentially across the world, Rocinha — which at 18,520 people per square mile has nearly twice the population density of Manhattan — came to a grinding halt after criminal gangs decided to take matters into their own hands and impose a curfew, according to the Guardian. Video of the favela during those days showed motorcycle taxis parked on the side of an empty, winding road that is generally bustling with activity around the clock. It looked like a ghost town.
After a few days, however, people started streaming outdoors again. Today, some bars and shops have reopened across the sprawling neighborhood, and movement there has resumed.
One of the problems is that many of those who live in favelas work for the upper classes who expect their staff to keep their houses clean, their buildings safe and their lawns manicured no matter what.
“There’s the doorman, the cleaning lady,” Severino Franco, of the Rocinha Association of Culture, Art, and Sport, told BuzzFeed News. “If that person doesn’t go to work, they lose. This moment shows the social disparity between the hills and the city.” The coronavirus pandemic, after all, is not the great equalizer that some have claimed, as seen in the US where black and Latino communities are among the hardest hit.
Carvalho was recently fired from his job and has been unable to claim unemployment benefits because he made a mistake while filling out the paperwork and the office that deals with this is now closed, he said. His wife, too, lost her job at a restaurant. All she could think to do afterward was to sell her cellphone.
“We needed to buy food,” Carvalho said.
On March 17, Cleonice Gonçalves, a housekeeper, became the first coronavirus-related fatality in Rio de Janeiro. Gonçalves’s employers, who lived in the exclusive Leblon neighborhood, had recently returned from a trip to Italy. When they realized Gonçalves had become ill, they put her in a taxi and sent her home.
Across the country, 37,437 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and 2,388 have died. Across Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, at least 10 people have died so far. In Rocinha, where Carvalho lives, there are at least 34 confirmed cases. But the number is probably much higher, according to experts.
Margareth Dalcolmo, a pulmonologist who is part of the committee of scientists advising the Rio de Janeiro state government, estimates that for each confirmed case there are another 15 infected people not being reported.
“This pandemic has shown that the emperor has no clothes and is exposing, in a very cruel way, the obscene concentration of income in Brazil,” said Dalcolmo, who works at the Fiocruz health institute, which along with other public health institutions has been at the forefront of the fight against the coronavirus in Brazil.
Poor, overcrowded, constantly battered by high crime rates and stigmatized by the middle and upper classes, Brazilian favelas were already difficult places to survive before the coronavirus set the world on edge.
Big families crowd into single rooms, where they sleep and cook, offering little chance for personal hygiene or the kind of distancing needed to prevent the spread of the virus. They navigate steep roads and unpaved paths on motorcycle taxis and walk through snaking alleyways to get from home to the nearest main highway. Some areas do not have running water. Most overlook the wealthiest neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro, nestled between the foothills of the mountains and the white-sand beaches.
Access to health care in favelas is poor and disease there has been rampant for years. Take tuberculosis, an infectious disease that attacks the lungs: While the average rate is 34 cases for every 100,000 inhabitants in Brazil, in Rocinha it stands at 300 per 100,000 people.
Dalcolmo, who has worked on a project to reduce the incidence of tuberculosis in Rocinha for the last decade, said the government must step in to stop the spread of coronavirus in Rocinha and other favelas.
“We believe there need to be big donations of basic goods packages so that people do not have to go out,” said Dalcolmo. The state needs to “send large quantities of liquid soap, gloves and masks to residents” and guarantee the supply of water even for those who miss payments, she added.
Nowadays, the sound of pots being banged and people whooping and cheering out of their windows has become a symbol of the coronavirus era.
But it means very different things depending on where you are.
In New York, residents do it to show their support for overworked health care workers. In Brazil, people do it as a form of protest against Bolsonaro. And it has grown more deafening in recent weeks, as has support for the health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta.
Clashes between the two became increasingly public and Mandetta emerged as a figure akin to Anthony Fauci, President Donald Trump’s top virus expert.
Meanwhile, the number of people infected continued to grow exponentially and has reached the upper levels of government. On Tuesday, two governors, including Rio de Janeiro’s, said they had tested positive for COVID-19.
So what did Bolsonaro do? On Thursday, he fired Mandetta.
In Rocinha, national politics can feel incredibly distant. Community leaders are stepping in to support residents as the state's efforts to help fall short. Antonio Ferreira, director of the Rocinha Residents Association, said his organization is managing the distribution of donations.
“We have identified the residents who need it most. We have a list and have made appointments with them to pick up their packages at our headquarters,” said Ferreira. He said that despite this, it’s not always possible to avoid overcrowding.
Part of Ferreira’s job today is convincing people to stay at home.
A bus driver for a college in the city, Ronaldo Deolindo, 61, spends his days doing pushups and running and up and down the 30 steps that lead to his house. Since he has a 4-year-old daughter, his wife goes out to buy milk and bread only when it’s necessary, and takes precautions.
Deolindo isn’t sure if he’ll ever go back to work.
For others, staying at home is simply too difficult. It’s not just that basic food supplies are needed — there’s also the tedium of being stuck inside with few distractions to help pass the time.
Carvalho, the 22-year-old bricklayer, said he has to go out almost every day. “Boredom ends up to be too consuming.”
This post was translated from Portuguese.