By Luisa Fenizola
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – In Brazil, the coronavirus pandemic is expected to disproportionately affect favela communities. The State must never be exempted from its responsibility to provide health services, access to water, sewerage, and social protection, least of all during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, reacting to fill the gap in public services, as always, are favela residents. It is not the first time that residents and organizations from the favelas have organized to hold authorities accountable for appropriate, efficient action, or to offer solutions for their territories—not only in leading such solutions, but also in denouncing public authorities’ misplaced priorities and necropolitical actions, through which the State decides, every day, who lives and who dies in our society.
In past articles, we have shared online actions—concentrated foremost in the dissemination of quality information on coronavirus designed specifically for favela residents, united under the hashtag #COVID19NasFavelas—and donation campaigns in support favela responses to the virus. This article will focus on the resulting tangible actions taking place in the territories themselves.
Actions on Covid-19 in the Favelas
In Complexo da Maré, in the North Zone, the community NGO Redes da Maré (Maré Development Networks) distributed, over last week alone, 530 basic food baskets and 530 hygiene kits, in addition to to-go meals for the homeless. The products that make up the food baskets and meal containers were purchased within Maré as a form of strengthening the local economy. The group has also maintained an active dialogue with religious leaders, raising awareness on the need to avoid large gatherings.
Cars fitted with loudspeakers are also circulating throughout Maré, and banners and signs are being affixed to commercial establishments, residents’ associations, bars, and churches, all containing information on prevention, hygiene, and on the importance of remaining at home.
These are part of an initiative of the favela-based communications collectives Maré Vive, Maré 0800, and AmarÉvê, undertaken with the orientation of healthcare professionals. Videos and images are also being shared on social networks and in print, accessible here.
Gizele Martins, a communicator and member of Maré 0800 said in an interview that, faced with the lack of support and importance given to the pandemic by political leaders: “[we, from the favelas] decided to organize ourselves, as we have always done, and begin making decisions in response to the situation. We aren’t going to sit around and do nothing. We have never done that.”
“What we have managed to achieve is to unite a group of favela communicators to come up with a plan that takes into account the diversities and complexities of Maré in Rio de Janeiro,” she continued. “There are people that live here that don’t know how to read and don’t have access to the Internet or to traditional media outlets. That’s why the first [action] that we took was to ask healthcare professionals that know our reality to record audio messages with critical recommendations […] We also need to be very careful with the people that go out to hang the signs. It is important not to distribute pamphlets by hand, as this increases the risk of spreading the virus,” she said.
Similarly, in Complexo do Alemão, the coalition #JuntosPeloComplexodoAlemão, an existing group reactivated by the institutions that make up the Alemão Crisis Task Force, is installing informational banners and distributing donations. Among these donations, water is crucial, given that the favelas of Alemão have been some of the most affected by the lack of access to water. One of the group’s banners even requests that those residents with reliable running water at home share it with a neighbor that may not have it.
Last Friday the group held a meeting with Guilherme Campos, the director of public water utility CEDAE, together with the community’s residents’ associations and manobreiros (CEDAE employees or resident association representatives responsible for opening and closing water connections as well as directing water flow to different areas of the hills of Alemão) to address the problem. As immediate measures for confronting the pandemic, Campos vowed to increase the number of manobreiros, send water trucks to serve the community, and inspect the two central pumps that service the favelas.
Campos also said he would install a reservoir to make sure there would be no interruption in water flow in case one of the pumps burned out. For the medium term, Campos promised to activate the reservoirs of the Matinha and Alvorada regions and to build a water supply network for the neighborhood of Fazendinha—the favela has no such network and experiences the greatest frequency of water issues in Alemão.
One of the institutions that make up the collaboration, Coletivo Papo Reto, launched a funk carioca song on coronavirus prevention as a communication strategy. Similarly, B.A.S.E., an organization that works with youth in Santa Cruz, in Rio’s West Zone, recorded an awareness-raising funk song with MC Tchelinho, of the group Heavy Baile: “these words are for the favela, for my sisters and brothers […], let’s see if you can dig it: we need to wash our hands, hand sanitizer is the stuff, if you sneeze, cover it with your arm and don’t touch your face […] I’m not going out to gatherings, to the pagode or bailão, soon enough it will be fine to go back to having a good time.”
The favelas of City of God and Vila Kennedy, also in the West Zone, have each their own crisis task force, distributing water, foodstuffs, and cleaning materials to the population. In addition to the distribution of donations, they seek to pressure the State to fulfill its obligations, including that of guaranteeing access to water. The entire neighborhood of Brejo, City of God’s most vulnerable area, lacks running water, and depends on wells built by residents themselves. The Favela Vertical organization, which works with the communities of Gardênia Azul, is sending informational signs to residents with printers to distribute among their neighbors.
Similar initiatives are receiving and distributing donations throughout Greater Rio, as is the case of the #NaMinhaFavelaNão (#NotInMyFavela) network made up of four community organizations in São Gonçalo. “Deliveries will be handled by reduced teams with preventative equipment in order to avoid crowding and possible transmission,” said Thamiris Santos in an interview. Santos is the founder of Por Gentileza, one of the member organizations that work in the old Lixão de Itaoca area of Complexo do Salgueiro.
The catadores (waste-pickers) of the Transvida Recycling Cooperative, which works in the Vila Cruzeiro neighborhood of Complexo da Penha, have begun sewing face masks out of nonwoven fabric and distributing them to their adolescent daughters, who are part of the Instituto Lar dos Sonhos. “We began almost as a joke with the adolescents, to protect ourselves when we go out in the street. We were going to do a training on seeds and we decided to talk about the ‘seeds of health,’ about preserving health, and our activity was making the masks. It grew so much that now the girls have begun asking their mothers to make them.” The group is now accepting cloth donations to produce masks for the whole community.
Public Policy Proposals
Solutions proposed by Rio favela residents include not only actions within their territories, but also proposals for public policies to mitigate the effects of the crisis and guarantee the greatest possible protection for residents.
The Rocinha Residents’ Association, in partnership with other favelas, sent a letter to Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel, with 17 proposals, including: the distribution of basic food baskets and hygiene kits; guaranteed water distribution from CEDAE for all favelas, giving priority to areas without water; a recomposition of Community Health Agents in the favelas where the state government acts in basic healthcare, and guaranteed protection for all healthcare workers in the favela with individual protection kits (EPIs); guaranteed attention to severe cases of Covid-19 among favela residents, increasing the number of hospital beds in the public and private systems as well as renting unused hotels; the immediate suspension of removals and judicial as well as extrajudicial evictions in the favelas plus the prohibition of evictions for delayed rent payments; guaranteed social rent payments and the expansion of the number of recipients; exemption from energy bill payments and the prohibition of cuts to energy, water, and communications; temporary leave for all pregnant and breast-feeding workers and mothers with children below the age of 12 as well as favela residents in at-risk groups that work in the public or private sector, with guaranteed paid leave and continued employment; guaranteed housing support, food support, and basic income for informal workers as well as independent workers, self-employed MEI workers, domestic workers, day workers, and caretakers; the establishment of control mechanisms for the prices of hygiene products and basic foods baskets; and finally, transparency in the sharing of health data on favela populations.
The Corona in the Baixada manifesto, signed by diverse individuals and institutions that act in Greater Rio’s Baixada Fluminense region, also demands basic income payments for informal workers; the distribution of hygiene materials for residents of favelas, peripheries, and the homeless population; and guaranteed access to water (which is also a chronic problem in various neighborhoods in the region). In addition to these points, it presses for: testing for all patients suspected of being infected with the virus; circulation containment measures; the deep cleaning of streets; the bolstering of the Maria da Penha patrols [police patrols per Brazil’s anti-domestic violence law] and of actions against violence committed against women and the LGBT+ population during the quarantine; and for a policy of public security based in intelligence, integrating coronavirus prevention measures. In relation to the final point, Justice Minister Sérgio Moro authorized states and municipalities to shift unused resources in the areas of confronting “violent crime” to actions dedicated to public security and social defense in the fight to mitigate the effects of coronavirus. But in these territories, it is feared that such a measure may only reinforce the control of the circulation of black bodies.
In addition, the Federation of Favelas of Rio de Janeiro (FAFERJ) issued a letter manifesting their concern over the situation of water scarcity in Rio de Janeiro in light of the threat of Covid-19, to pressure CEDAE to guarantee a permanent supply of water and quality service. They invite residents’ associations, social projects, cultural groups, churches and civil society organizations that support favelas and peripheries where water supplies are insufficient to sign the letter here.
These and other mobilizations are already showing results. In Rio de Janeiro, at the state level, the government has already sanctioned the prohibition of cuts to water, energy, and gas in the case of delayed payment; basic food baskets and support funds for families of students that have had their classes suspended; the inclusion of hygiene products (such as hand sanitizer) in basic food baskets; and a minimum emergency income equivalent to half a minimum monthly salary for low-income economic and cultural entrepreneurs.
At the federal level, hundreds of collectives and organizations were successful in their campaign for a national Basic Emergency Income measure benefitting informal and independent workers. The measure, approved in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate, now awaits presidential approval. The project guarantees a monthly payment of R$600 (US$120) per individual adult without formal work and R$1200 (US$240) for single mothers over a period of three months. The organizations have pushed for the payment to be extended to six months and to include formal workers who have had their salaries reduced on account of quarantine measures.
Lastly, within these solutions initiatives, we have also identified numerous support networks seeking to help with the psychological impact of the pandemic in favelas, of isolation and confinement, of reduced income, of the risk of losing one’s job as well as the overload of domestic tasks and of the need to entertain children at home. The initiative Mãe de Cria, for example, offers pedagogical help online for mothers with children in the favelas and peripheries, and includes game instructions, educational guidance, stories to tell, and other resources (mothers that find themselves in a position of vulnerability caused or worsened by the pandemic can also register on the Segura a Curva das Mães map to receive assistance).
Guidance for workers during the pandemic can be found here, and there is a team of lawyers, working remotely at (21) 980318363 and (21) 987603459. Professionals available to offer free psychological assistance can be found here. A general guide for coronavirus prevention for the population of the favelas and peripheries can be found here. If you live in a favela that does not yet have a consolidated collective effort to address the pandemic, or if you know people that suspect they have Covid-19, you can find support at (21) 999313719 or contact the Rio de Janeiro Favelas’ Federation (FAFERJ) by e-mail ([email protected]) or the SOS coronavirus group ([email protected]).
This article is part of RioOnWatch’s 2020 reporting partnership with The Rio Times now focused on the impacts of coronavirus on Rio’s favelas.