Brazil has 2,100 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, the highest in any Latin American country to date. President Jair Bolsanaro has been widely criticised and accused of risking the lives of millions of Brazillians by shirking advice from experts and downplaying the severity of the coronavirus referring to it recently as “a little cold”.
In the absence of any domestic actions from their government, one of Rio de Janeiro’s most notorious favelas has had a strict curfew imposed on it by the local gangs in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The criminal gangs have assumed a responsibility usually bestowed upon a national government saying that the authorities were failing to protect the city’s poor.
Residents of the Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela have been told to stay indoors or risk being punished in light of the first confirmed case in the community.
It was reported that local gang members have been seen driving through the favelas on patrol blasting warnings through a loudspeaker, saying:
“Who ever is in the street screwing around or going for a walk will receive a corrective and serve as an example. Better to stay home doing nothing. The message has been given.”
So far there have been around 50 deaths throughout the country but the risk of an outbreak in the ill-equipped, densely populated favelas would likely see this number skyrocket exponentially.
Around one fifth of the population of Rio de Janeiro live in the favelas, where the authorities’ power is often tenuous at the best of times. These communities suffer from poor access to a continuous water supply and a lack of adequate sanitation and an ability to adhere to social distancing leave them particularly vulnerable.
It has often fallen upon the gangs or other informal institutions to act instead of the authorities in the neighbourhoods.
Community leaders from a neighbouring favela, Rochina, have filed an official request to the
state tourism department to ban all foreigners from entering the hilltop neighbourhood.
However, Edmund Ruge, a Rio-based editor for the RioOnWatch news site which covers the favelas, said that while the imposition of curfews spoke to the Brazilian state’s long standing neglect of such areas, it remains to be seen whether these measures will be sufficient.
Speaking to the Guardian newspaper, Ruge said:
“It isn’t the majority of favelas and it’s not coordinated. It is sporadic things around the city. It’s the exception to the rule – the rule being that civil society is really stepping up right now because they know that the state is not going to do it for them…Favela activists have been scrambling very effectively, It has been really impressive. The question is whether or not it is going to be enough.
Bolsonaro used a televised address earlier in the week to actively criticise the authorities in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo for restrictions that were imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
In his address he urged authorities to “abandon their scorched-earth ideas” such as closing public transport, businesses and placing restrictions on assembly. Bolsonaro also cited that those most at risk were aged over sixty “so why close schools?”.
The sixty-five year old has himself twice been tested for the virus with both tests coming back negative. However, at least 22 members of those that accompanied him on the diplomatic trip to the United States, where they dined with President Trump, have since tested positive for COVID-19.
It is not just organised crime that has taken things into their own hands in the face of their federal government’s inaction. State governments in Brazil have also begun taking measures to fight an outbreak.
Rio’s mayor, Marcelo Crivella, ordered an indefinite shutdown of non-essential businesses from Tuesday. Schools and beaches in the municipality were closed over a week ago.
Officials will leave free soap at the entrances to favelas and there are now plans in place to move elderly residents with known health conditions to hotels. Mr. Crivella has also already signed a deal which secures 400 such rooms.
The leader of the informal Paraisópolis neighbourhood in Sao Paulo, Gilson Rodrigues, has set up a “solidarity network” of volunteers this week to warn the 100,000 favela residents about the impact of the coronavirus and hopes to expand the initiative into other areas.
Speaking to The Times, Rodrigues said:
“It’s worrying because many people are still out in the street working, and then come back home to the favela. The government has abandoned the favelas. There’s no plan at a federal, state or municipal level to deal with the spread of the virus, It could get very serious, very quickly.”