The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brazil’s favelas, neglected by the government, organize their own coronavirus fight

When the coronavirus hit Brazil, 24-year-old Laryssa da Silva signed up to help her neighbors as street president of Viela da Harmonia in the São Paulo favela of Paraisópolis. “We play the role of the government,” she said. “Covid-19 is already coming very close to us, people infected in the community, with deaths happening. But better than fear is the feeling of helping others.” (Rafael Vilela for The Washington Post)
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When the president of Viela da Harmonia walks down the street, her constituents take note. An elderly neighbor needs groceries. A mother is looking for diapers. Another family asks for soap.

Just weeks ago, Laryssa da Silva didn’t know where her next meal would come from. Now the 24-year-old single mother is responsible for making sure the 70 families who live on her street survive Brazil’s coronavirus outbreak.

Da Silva is one of 400 new “street presidents” in Paraisópolis, responsible for helping her neighbors in São Paulo’s largest slum secure food, aid and health care.

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The program, created as cases in Latin America’s largest country began to explode, is one of many solutions the people of Brazil’s low-income favelas have found to bypass a divided government response to a worsening health crisis. Community leaders in some of the country’s hardest-hit neighborhoods are hiring their own ambulances, creating unemployment funds and even building independent databases to track cases and deaths.

While Asia, Europe and the United States are attempting to reopen from long coronavirus lockdowns, cases in Latin America are exploding. The World Health Organization reported more than 136,000 new cases worldwide on Sunday, a record.

The WHO has declared Latin America the pandemic’s new hot spot. Brazil has reported more than 772,000 cases, second only to the United States, and more than 39,000 deaths. But the official numbers are highly contested; epidemiologists believe actual cases and deaths are substantially higher.

Da Silva lost her restaurant job in March. Within weeks, she could no longer afford to feed her children, ages 2 and 5. She was staring at her pantry one afternoon in April, down to her last scoop of beans, when a neighbor rang her doorbell to beg for flour to tide over her own children for one more day.

“That was the moment when I said I have to do something,” she said. “It became more important to help others than to be scared.”

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The virus has struck Brazil’s poor, mostly black favelas disproportionately. In São Paulo, people who live in poorer areas and contract the virus are up to 10 times more likely to die than people in wealthy areas, according to data released by the city’s health department. Black São Paulo residents are 62 percent more likely to die from the virus than white residents.

Doctors blame Brazil’s rising death toll in part on the government’s divided response. Even as cases spiked, President Jair Bolsonaro denounced social isolation measures imposed by governors and joined protests calling for the economy to reopen. He’s on his third health minister since the start of the crisis; the first two refused to back his calls to end social distancing measures and push hydroxychloroquine treatments.

“We regret all the deaths,” Bolsonaro told reporters. “But it’s everybody’s destiny.”

Many in Brazil’s slums are rejecting that fate.

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Favelas have long been cradles of activism. Many have been overrun by violent criminal gangs that ­impose restrictions on who can enter and leave. Cut off from government services, informal communities have often created parallel institutions — including mail, Internet and sanitation systems — and supplemented weak health and education systems.

That tradition of creative problem-solving has spread during the outbreak. When the people of Rio de Janeiro’s Complexo do Alemão favela saw that the city’s coronavirus statistics were leaving out cases from slums, they created their own database to track the disease. The residents’ association in Rio’s Cantagalo community joined with a local nongovernmental organization to spray disinfectant.

After 20-year-old Juliana Carmo saw messages spreading on social media telling the people of Rio’s Honório Gurgel neighborhood that warm climates would curb the coronavirus and that donated masks were contaminated with the virus, she teamed up with other young people around Rio to map and combat fake news.

They produced a video addressing the most common misinformation and established a hotline to help people vet claims.

“We have always suffered from a lack of information,” Carmo said. “Truthful and reliable news is more important now than ever.”

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Da Silva signed up online to represent Viela da Harmonia — “Harmony Alley” — an unpaved road that weaves through Paraisópolis, a sprawling slum of 100,000. Each day, she ventures out among the plywood and tin houses to deliver masks and alcohol gel, check for covid-19 symptoms and sign up hungry families to receive donations.

The program provided her with a six-hour first-aid course led by the local fire department, which showed her how to monitor the progression of the virus, when to call an ambulance and how to help patients suffering from severe symptoms.

Gilson Rodrigues, president of the residents’ association in Paraisópolis, saw cases starting to climb in March. He knew that slums like his, where families are packed tightly together and many have no choice but to continue working, would be ravaged. He started the street president program to closely monitor and slow the spread of the virus.

“We decided to create alternatives so that if the government didn’t do its job, we would be able to mobilize to prevent suffering in the community,” he said.

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Rodrigues organized several dozen volunteers to make masks, converted the neighborhood’s closed schools and gyms into isolation wards and established an online platform on which unemployed residents can apply for financial aid.

After residents complained that the government was not responding to emergency calls in the slums, the association hired a 24-hour ambulance exclusively for the neighborhood. To pay for the projects, the association started social media crowdfunding campaigns that brought in thousands of dollars.

Sandra Jovchelovitch, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, studies the role of resilience and identity in grass-roots organizing in favelas. She has worked with the United Nations to spread bottom-up development — people finding solutions for themselves where the state has faltered — to Africa and the Middle East.

She believes that low-income communities in the United States and Europe can learn from the favelas’ response.

“The pandemic will never be defeated through top-down policies,” Jovchelovitch said. “There needs to be community-rooted action.

“In this way, favelas have a lot to teach the North.”

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