Covid-19 and the injustice of life in the favelas and urban peripheries in Rio de Janeiro
In just a few weeks, the population in the slums (favelas) and urban peripheries of Rio de Janeiro has seen the State governor Wilson Witzel (of the conservative Social Christian Party) emerge on to the national political scene with some degree of common sense concerning the pandemic of Covid-19, that is, if compared to the position taken by Jair Bolsonaro. Contrary to the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO), the Brazilian President has been attending public events without any protection and downplaying the risks of the coronavirus, saying “it’s nothing but a little flu”.
The importance of the measures taken by the governor are undeniable. He has communicated to the population the health risks derived from COVID-19 and, then took legal measures to limit the traffic between the state’s countryside and metropolitan region. However, when we look at the cuts in state’s public budget, his disregard for the most vulnerable people who need social and basic income policies, particularly in the face of the health emergency, becomes clear.
Witzel considerably restricted the budget amid the pandemic, which directly affected social spending linked to housing and education. It is also worth noticing the contingency plan of R$7,6 billion made in the budget under the justification of the drop of oil prices and of the need of shift the budget to face Covid-19. The State Welfare Housing Fund, for example, also lost 29% of its budget, which could have been used to improve conditions in the slums. What is striking is that with the exception of health, the only sector not subject to budget cuts is Public Security (Military and Civil Police, Civil Defense, Firefighters and the “Police Present” Program). The decision of where to cut and where to invest budget is another example of the genocide policies of this government.
For people living in the favelas and the peripheries, such measures have already had direct consequences. The measures to contain the virus have already had a drastic impact on the livelihoods of communities composed mainly of black people, with limited access formal employment and getting by through work the service industry – which is generally precarious, intermittent and informal. One example is access to public transport. Using trains and travelling between cities now requires proof of formal employment. There was also a number of rights violations, as the train and bus stations were crowded and long lines formed, further exposing workers to the risk of infection. Another negative impact is the decrease of family income for residents of these areas that have been forced into quarantine because of state and municipal regulation, who have been forced into situation of extreme need. The pandemic, therefore, has made the most cruel aspects of living in a city as unequal as Rio de Janeiro visible: those who are left with the worst effects of Covid-19 are those who no longer have access to their rights.
No health, no water and “social isolation”
Long before the Covid-19 epidemic reached the favelas and peripheries, the health services in these areas were already in a precarious position. The neoliberal logic, which guides the management of public services, has dismantled Rio’s public health services, over the last few years. In its place, the so-called "Social Health Organizations" (SHO), which operate through a public-private partnership, have emerged. The poor quality of the health care offered by the Emergency Care Units (UPAS in its Portuguese acronym, Unidades de Pronto Atendimento) leaves no room for doubt.
The slowness and the lack of response by the authorities for the poor populations regarding the Covid-19 add to the feeling of helplessness that has already been felt by the population of the favelas and peripheries.
Another example of the denial of rights to the population of the favelas and peripheries occurred in 2019, when the city’s mayor, Marcelo Crivella, drastically reduced the staff working at Family Health, Oral Health and the Center For Attention to the Health of Families (NASF), and delayed the salaries of employees linked to these institutions. As a result, health professionals called a strike which, despite functioning at 30% capacity, directly affected the black and poor population, which has in the Universal Health System (SUS) its only possibility to access the right to health. In a similar vein, we cannot forget that at the federal level, the Proposed Amendment to the Constitution (PEC) 95/2017 froze public investment for the next 20 years. Therefore, the slowness and the lack of response by the authorities for the poor populations regarding the Covid-19 add to the feeling of helplessness that has already been felt by the population of the favelas and peripheries.
The reality of imposing social distancing and basic sanitation as a preventive measures, in slums, peripheries and occupied buildings poses huge challenges. We are talking about houses with only one room, without ventilation, where the space is often used by many people and where the elderly live with young people, adults and children. Therefore, social distancing in the favelas is almost impossible from the housing point of view and as well as the way of life, which is completely different from the middle class. The issue of washing hands becomes an issue because of the question “with what water?”. The right to water is not a reality for many residents of favelas and peripheries. It is not in vain that in these places houses usually have more than one water tank, as a measure to try to live with the intermittent and precarious supply. There, reserving water is a matter of survival.
Alternatives from the inside
Since the government has failed to implement actions aimed at the population of favelas, the residents themselves are mobilizing and creating alternatives to combat the spread of the Covid-19. These measures are based on four main ideas: sharing and compiling information on prevention and symptoms; collecting donations for the purchase of food and cleaning materials; educating people about the importance of water rationing; monitoring people considered to belong to the "risk group".
In the “Complexo do Alemão” favelas, for example, efforts are being made to collect food donations, hand sanitizers, soap. There are also several measures being taken to raise the inhabitants' awareness of the importance of social isolation and hand hygiene. These actions are carried out by cars with loudspeakers and posters displayed in the neighborhood. Due to the lack of basic resources, this favela is suffering from a precarious water supply. As a result, a large part of the population has not only taken steps to save water, but also to share it. The solidarity stands out in times of chaos.
According to Raull Santiago, a journalist living in the "Complexo do Alemão", a "community crisis office" was created with the aim of developing health awareness in the population, finding resources to deal with the pandemic and pressuring governments to act in the favelas to ensure the basic conditions for the prevention of Covid-19.
Beyond the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, there is a fear that, in the name of Covid-19, anything could be used as a justification for the suppression of rights.
At the same time, in “Complexo da Maré”, the residents use the local radios to spread information about prevention. As a way of reaching the most people possible, funk has even been used as a tool to raise awareness. The inhabitants are also recording videos that promote community information campaigns on Covid-19, as well as WhatsApp groups and channels to respond to questions and provide mutual support.
In another favela, called Manguinhos, two popular social movements (the Social Forum of Manguinhos and the “Mothers of Manguinhos”) launched a campaign on their social media to receive food and cleaning kits, as a way to help the residents who are unemployed or in more vulnerable situations.
In all of these favelas the residents are collectively caring for the elderly and monitoring their needs, so they don’t have to leave their homes. Volunteers and organizations are in constant contact with the health units so they can update information and measures that can be taken to help with prevention. And, despite the difficulties in accessing the Internet, their social media has been an important tool to spread information and tackle fake news, which is so widespread in Brazil at the moment.
Finally, in Baixada Fluminense region (literally translated to Fluminense Lowland), a very populous region in the State of Rio de Janeiro, we should highlight the initiative “#CoronaNaBaixada” which brings together some 100 social leaders and organizations to combat the spread of the coronavirus and to build proposals to confront the crisis. In its “Manifesto Letter”, signed by more than 50 groups, collectives and organizations of civil society, they condemn the fact that still there is no coordinated actions between the municipalities of Baixada and the state government, and presses for testing of patients with symptoms of the coronavirus.
At the moment, when people are struggling with low levels of subsistence, they are living with a constant feeling of uncertainty. The difference is that, for those who live in the favelas and peripheries, beyond the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, there is a fear that, in the name of Covid-19, anything could be used as a justification for the suppression of rights. This situation may result in deaths that have no connections with the virus. The violent acts committed by the security forces, by the precariousness of health and sanitation services are significant concerns.
Once more the population in the favelas and peripheries are subject to an overlap of various types of violence that, in our opinion, must be made visible and combated. At a time when there is an ideological dispute between "saving lives" versus "saving the economy", it is essential to defend the social principles that guided the construction of the welfare state. Although this is far from being a reality in a country like Brazil, the defense of rights is strategic to dispute the current political drama.
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