Rio de Janeiro: Urban precariousness and misinformation

What can you do to look after a population whose president would encourage them to believe Coronavirus is no threat at all? Taísa observes the Brazil's ambivalence in her city of Rio, and thinks of those who can least afford the risk.


Requests for isolation arrived on 13th March 2020. Schools in Rio de Janeiro would be closed from Monday 16th, initially for 15 days, which would then be extended for an indefinite period. But how to guarantee isolation in a city where almost half a million people live in precarious housing conditions, with little or no access to basic sanitation? How to ask people to stay at home, in a country where thousands live on the streets?


In the city of Rio de Janeiro, one solution found was to transfer the elderly residents of the favelas to hotel rooms, from where they will not be able to leave until the situation normalizes. In addition, the homeless were taken to the sambadrome (where the carnival parades are held annually), in a measure that seeks to offer minimum conditions for maintaining life once, with the decrease in people circulating on the streets, the residents would otherwise have less access to food and help.


'Going through this is having to fight daily not only against the virus, but against the fake news disseminated by the president himself...'

Against these measures, on 24th March, President Jair Bolsonaro delivered a speech on national television, arguing that social isolation should be suspended, as the disease is not so serious. He said: “A few state and local authorities must abandon the scorched earth concept, the ban on transportation, the closing of trade and mass confinement. What is happening in the world has shown that the risk group is that of people over 60 years old. So, why close schools?”. Despite having suffered retaliation, the president repeated his posture on March 26th, with an absurd statement: "Brazilians are used to swim in the sewer, and it will not be this disease that will kill us".


Going through the pandemic in Rio de Janeiro, and in Brazil in general, is to expect the worst both from the perspective of spreading the virus and from a social upheaval. The lack of infrastructure for the most vulnerable in the population is such that part of civil society has organized itself into small collectives to try to avoid the worst, filling a space that the State does not occupy and trying to reach those that could not otherwise be found because simply do not have a place to live, a home to stay in. Going through this is having to fight daily not only against the virus, but against the fake news disseminated by the president himself, which has put thousands of lives in danger.


A street vendor on Rio's Ipanema Beach. Creative Commons photo by Edmund Gall


The federal government has not yet announced a complete lockdown, so on the streets there are those who do not work in places aware of the seriousness of the problem, informal workers who need to receive their daily payments to survive (such as domestic workers), and those who don’t believe the pandemic exists. Whatsapp groups were organized to try to help, sending bank account details of popcorn- and street-vendors so that they do not starve due to the slowed movement in the streets. Since I started my isolation, for example, I have participated in collective donations to groups supporting the prevention of the virus in favelas and in a group of mothers contributing to the people who sell popcorn and sweets at the door of our children’s school. But this is not enough and is restricted to a small portion of the population. In many slums in the city, the residents themselves are the ones who have determined their social isolation, knowing that they cannot expect anything from the State but violence.


'In many slums in the city, the residents themselves are the ones who have determined their social isolation, knowing that they cannot expect anything from the State but violence.'

Life in Brazil under the Coronavirus exposes the country's precariousness and urban segregation in several ways: on buses still full of workers, in the absence of sanitation in favelas, while those who can remain at home, and those who can't continue to work. The country's first death is a portrait of that reality: a lady who worked as a domestic worker was contaminated by her employer, who returned from a trip to Italy infected and did not dismiss the employee.


Information is still given daily and there is a lot of uncertainty about the future. Grocery shopping exposes the difficulty in dealing with mismatched information, with some people believing in the information disseminated by the president and others trying to protect themselves to the maximum. Yesterday, when I went out shopping, I had to ask a man to stand away from me while queueing, as he insisted on staying a few centimetres away. The market clerk, for her part, told me she was too afraid of working, while cleaning her hand with gel alcohol. When I was leaving, one person who was in line to buy meat sneezed without protecting the others, as another shouted asking for more vigilance. The market still keeps employees handling quantities of meat and bread on demand.


This story was shared by Taísa, a PhD candidate in sociology who lives in Rio de Janeiro.


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