For our Global Community project, journalists around the world will write about social, sustainability and development issues in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. This series will include features, analysis, photo essays, videos and podcasts that see behind the curtain of globalization. This project was generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
For 63 years, Cleonice Gonçalves, a maid and domestic worker, lived a life unnoticed by anyone in Rio de Janeiro. Gonçalves works in a luxury apartment in Leblon, near the beach, where property values are higher than other places in Brazil.
He cleaned the toilet and door handles, cooked and ironed. Four days a week, he sleeps in a small butler’s room in his “patroa” apartment, his boss. On weekends, he returned to Miguel Pereira, two hours away, where he lived with his family in an unplastered house beside a gravel road.
Gonçalves, who spent his life unseen in a sea of faceless, cheap workers, traveled from the slums to the city in overcrowded buses and trains, not listed on the Brazilian public’s radar until he died recently. His death frightened the country.
The Gonçalves boss, the media reports, has traveled to Italy for Carnival. After returning home, the old woman herself did a test for the corona virus, although she did not feel the need to tell Gonçalves about this fact – or to withhold her services while she waited for the results of the test.
Things continued as usual until Gonçalves sought medical attention on March 13 due to illness during urination. The doctor gave him antibiotics. Two days later, he began to have difficulty breathing. Gonçalvez, who has diabetes and suffers from high blood pressure, goes to the hospital, but again, no one recognizes the symptoms.
Gonçalves died on March 17, the same day his “patron” received positive test results. The fact that a woman like Gonçalves is, most likely, a victim of Rio de Janeiro’s first coronavirus, is more than symbolic. That is a sign.
Viruses carried by Elites
As in many other countries in the southern hemisphere, coronaviruses are brought to Brazil by wealthy middle-class and upper-class people – people who have the means to travel. It is no coincidence that Rio de Janeiro’s first coronavirus case was reported in rich urban areas in Leblon and Ipanema.
But there is an even greater concern: What will happen if the virus begins to spread in a poorer environment, where people live who guard city life, domestic workers such as Gonçalves, cooks and caregivers, doorman, supermarket cashiers, bartenders and waiters and all traders who sell their wares on the sidewalk?
Daily newspaper O Globo expressed this fear a few days ago in a large front page photograph that does not require further explanation. It shows the part of Rocinha’s favela, the boundless fabric of houses and huts which are all perched on top of one another. This is a place where tens of thousands of people live together in a very limited space.
Not only does the picture seem to carry an apocalyptic message for what is to come, it can also be interpreted as a call for help addressed to Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who was initially adamant in stopping the virus as a “minor” flu. “Brazil cannot be compared to Italy, the president said recently, Italy has 200 inhabitants per square kilometer that is very old, in Brazil there are 24 people per square kilometer, and they are mostly young, but this is statistical nonsense, and it is making more and more Brazilians shake their heads.
According to official figures, there are nearly 50,000 people crammed into a single square kilometer in a place like Rocinha. At Complexo de Maré, there are 31,000. In Complexo do Alemao, there are 23,000. As many as 1.7 million people live in nearly 1,000 favelas in Rio de Janeiro – and conditions there are often very dangerous.
The state has withdrawn from many of these settlements, allowing them to be taken over by militias or drug gangs. Piles of rubbish that are not collected accumulate in many corners of the road. Waste flows out in the open. In homes where six or seven people share a room, social distance is an illusion.
Lately, when life in Rio de Janeiro was reluctant to stop, coronaviruses spread in places like this. There have been confirmed cases in many favelas and dozens of suspected cases. This is one reason why Bolsonaro’s health minister, Luis Henrique Mandetta, now says that the country’s health care system may collapse by the end of April.
“If nothing is done, the tsunami will hit a public hospital!” said Raull Santiago, a young man who lives with his wife and four children in a small house in Complexo do Alemao. He believes the real problem lies in Brazilian social inequality. As a poor person, he is at risk.
“All that is needed is to see what happens with water,” Santiago said. In fact, water seems to be a curse this year. In January in Rio, all that came out of the people’s taps was a stale, brown-smelling soup, because no one noticed that algae had polluted the municipal wastewater treatment facility. In February, it rained so heavily that there were landslides in several favelas. The whole house was dragged down the steep hillside, burying its inhabitants beneath it. Santiago said tap water was clean enough again, but several days a week, nothing came out of it at all for a reason. This makes it impossible for people to follow the first rule of virus prevention: wash your hands regularly.
Hand sanitizing gel, which has been a part of everyday life for many Brazilians since swine flu in 2009, is now very difficult to find that even a small bottle is expensive. “Up here on our hill: three euros, sometimes four or five,” Santiago said.
A few years ago, Santiago founded a collective of artists with a number of friends. They call it “Papo Reto,” or direct conversation. During collective events, he usually talks about topics such as violence or racism. However, lately, he has posters printed so that he and others will hang in strategic places in the favela, such as the entrance or where taxis and buses are located, which many people still rely on to start working in the city. They suggest, for example, that people who still have water should take it in a bucket and share it with their neighbors.
Several times a day, Santiago and his friends tour the favela with loudspeakers and remind residents to avoid large crowds and ventilate their homes thoroughly. He said they took action because the government did not do enough.
How do they eat?
No one knows exactly how many Brazilians work in dangerous conditions. Or how many lost their jobs today. The question is: Who looks after these people? What will happen to people who need it most, who don’t have savings and who aren’t protected by social safety nets? How do they eat?
To prevent a humanitarian emergency, the CUFA national favela association published a catalog of 14 demands. One of them is that slum residents will be given free soap during the crisis. Internet access must also be free, they argue, so people can stay informed. Support is also needed for small shop owners. And those who were hardest hit had to receive regular food packages.
CUFA Chair Zezé Preto expects their demands not to be heard by the government. “They are not interested in people like us,” he said.
Paulo Guedes, Bolsonaro’s neoliberal economy minister, said recently that the poorest of the poor could be given 200 Brazilian reals (34.89 euros) a month, but no one has heard anything about this proposal since then. Bolsonaro himself tends to pay attention to himself with other things. In his eyes, the panic of the corona virus would only cause unnecessary decline in Brazilian economic growth. That’s why he now demands that the governors reopen businesses in their countries. Traffic must return to normal and schools must be reopened, because children and adolescents are not at great risk of suffering from COVID-19.
A man like the infectologist Edimilson Migowski found it difficult to remain calm when he heard such statements. The virus is spreading faster than many experts predicted, he said, adding that if the government does not act, it will be too late.
It’s important to monitor the poor population in particular, Migowski said. Because of their living conditions, a large number of them suffer from pre-existing conditions. The lack of proper hygiene and dark and poorly ventilated rooms means that the proportion of people suffering from tuberculosis or asthma is five times higher in favelas than in the more affluent districts. There are also many diabetics because of poor nutrition.
“If you want to protect these people,” Migowski said, “then you have to try and isolate them somehow, even if it’s in empty hotels. To prevent them from spreading the virus, they must be tested as early as possible. And not only severe cases, but also mild ones, because they are no less contagious. “Over the weekend, it was revealed that the city was renting a hotel to isolate the elderly from the favela.
Where Poor People Go for Medical Attention
But Brazil still doesn’t have enough tests. And hospitals don’t have enough masks and protective gloves. In Rio, cutting billions into the public health care system has resulted in the loss of 1,051 intensive care beds in city hospitals in the past two years alone. Personnel at hundreds of family clinics, which offer free initial consultation, have thinned out in such a way since the economic crisis that began in 2014, which now can only reach half of the population. Some clinics remain opened by unskilled workers because so many doctors have quit their jobs after not receiving their salaries for so long.
This is a place where people like Cleonice Gonçalves go when they feel sick. They are overwhelmed even before coronavirus attacks.
Today, tents have been erratically set up in front of many of these clinics to separate coronavirus patients from others. The army has also established several field hospitals around the city, but Raull Santiago, activist from Complexo do Alemao, is still preparing for the worst. “Our best case scenario is to have a situation like Italy,” he said.
Recently, a curfew was imposed in several favelas of the city. More than loudspeakers and WhatsApp, drug gangs make announcements: “We only want the best for our people. If the government is unable to provide security, organized crime will.”
This section is part of the Global Society series. The project ran for three years and was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe about injustices in the global world, social challenges, and sustainable development. Features, analysis, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appeared in the SPEREGEL DER Overseas Desk, will also appear in the SPIEGEL International Global Community section. The project was originally planned to run for three years and received financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) funded the project for a period of three years at a total cost of around € 2.3 million.
No. The Foundation does not exert any influence on the story and other elements that appear in the series.
Yes Large European media outlets like Guardian and El País has similar sections on their website – each called “Global Development” and “Planeta Futuro” – which is also funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
In recent years, DER SPIEGEL has completed two projects with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the European Journalism Center (EJC): “BeyondTomorrow Expedition,” about the goals of global sustainability, and the refugee journalist project “The New Arrival,” which produced several award-winning multimedia features on migrant and refugee issues.
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