#COVID-19NasFavelas: impacts, community response, and future perspectives

di Enrico Fedi - 30 Settembre 2020

 from London, United Kingdom

   DOI: 10.48256/TDM2012_00136

The impact of the global pandemic has exacerbated many of the already present inequalities in several developing countries. As a matter of fact, the COVID-19 is unevenly affecting the poor and vulnerable communities. Because of this, it is of interest to spread light on how communities are impacted, and on how they are reacting to this unique situation.

The article will focus on the Brazilian favelas. These are densely populated areas, where access to basic services and social protection are not guaranteed. There is a lack of clean running water, and social distancing is almost impossible to respect. Furthermore, the economy is predominantly informal. Thus, the street covers a crucial role in favelas’ everyday life and represents a means of subsistence for many families. Therefore, it is hard to coordinate an efficient action to prevent the spread of the virus and allow people to survive.

Access to basic rights such as healthcare and food security is threatened. Residents of the informal settlements are using the hashtag #COVID19NasFavelas to highlight these inequalities, and how the pandemic has further accelerated the state of exception of these communities (Ortega & Morsini, 2020)

Given the incapacity of the government to intervene in these areas, several initiatives have been undertaken by communities (and not only) to tackle the effects of the pandemic. Thus, social infrastructures are now playing a fundamental role in providing access to basic needs to the communities.

The article aims to show how COVID-19 has deepened social inequalities in the country. To do so, it will analyse the uneven impact in the favelas, with a focus on food (in)security.  Then, it will show the different forms of social mobilization to tackle the virus. Lastly, it will discuss possible perspectives – as well as their limits.


Source: The Guardian, 2020

The exacerbation of social inequalities

The pandemic has exacerbated the structural socio-economic inequalities of the country. Nowadays, favelas are one of the most hit areas by the virus, and tackling the disease appears to be very hard. In a country in which the public health service is collapsing, favelas cannot put in action the minimum safety requirements such as clean running water to clean the hands and keep a safe social distance (Wilkinsons, 2020).  For instance, in Heliopolis– one of the largest favelas of São Paulo- 140 thousand people live in 1.2 km2 (Manfrinato et al, 2020). A huge percentage of the population is composed of informal workers and other “invisibles”, who cannot interrupt working or work from home (Ikemura Amaral et al., 2020). Thus, opting for self-isolation is not an easy choice because social protection is inadequate. Therefore, already vulnerable communities are exposing themselves and their families to the virus to guarantee their survival.

A racial democracy

Furthermore, the pandemic is also highlighting the racist patterns of Brazilian society. Following Nogueira et al. (2020), Brazil is a case of racial democracy. In other words, access to rights such as health care, education, and social mobility is better guaranteed to privileged people, namely white Brazilian communities. Pardo and Black communities, instead, face a higher level of vulnerability. Today, the COVID-19 is making these differences clearer. Particularly, in regard to access to healthcare. In fact, despite Pardo and Black communities being the most infected, the percentage of those who have access to hospitals is way lower compared to the white community. To show this, only 23% of black people have access to treatments in front of 73.9% of white people (Shadmi et al., 2020). In this regard, RioOnWatch has identified examples of necropolitical practices that make survival more precarious by denying the right to health (Ortega & Morsini, 2020).

Strategic ignorance

Other patterns of racism can be found in the government’s COVID-19 denial. According to Ortega et al. (2020), the federal government is strategically ignoring the virus based on racist assumptions towards BIPOC*. The lack of a coordinated health action plan is increasingly marking a line between a “healthy” community and a “sick” one, composed of vulnerable people. In this regard, it can be mentioned the homeless community of Cracolândia (Crackland), São Paulo. There, drug addicts cannot access public health, they are left behind by social policies and are now expected to be a COVID-19 hotspot in the city (Richmond, 2020).

By choosing to do nothing, the government is actively constructing a narrative that combines being vulnerable with being sick. In this way, concepts such as higienização (hygienisation) are gaining relevance within the leading community (Garmany & Richmond, 2019). The idea itself proposes dispossession practices and the displacement of communities for the ease of the privileged. Yet, it does not address the structural factors that have led to the current situation. Therefore, it is clear how COVID-19 is unveiling the structural racism of one of the most unequal countries of the world (UNDP, 2019).

Food (in)security

Another issue regarding informal settlements in Brazil is food security. The supply chain in Brazil is fragile and does not always close the “last mile”: favelas. These settlements often face food deserts, and fresh food is hard to find in cases of crisis (Jones et al., 2020). Food distribution in favelas happens through street vendors and “mom and pop” stores that sell highly processed foods, rich in calories. This alimentation is not healthy and as a result, obesity and malnutrition are spread. Indeed, many people in favelas suffer from chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardio-respiratory conditions, comorbidities likely to aggravate COVID-19 (Nogueira et al., 2020).

To find fresh food, people –especially women- have to do long journeys to the city and it is common to see them carrying heavy loads on uneven paths. The COVID-19 has worsened the situation: food prices have increased, and fresh food has almost disappeared in favelas. According to a survey conducted in two favelas of São Paulo, half of the participants experienced severe food insecurity, and 10% was hungry (Manfrinato et al.,2020). According to the Folha (March 2020), 72% of the population has lowered its living standards and 92% of mothers believe they will not be able to buy enough food without income for one more month (BBC, April 2020) (Ikemura Amaral et al., 2020). Meanwhile, because of school closure during the lockdown, children do not have a free meal anymore.  With unemployment on the rise, the socio-economic drawbacks of the crisis are mainly affecting families.

Community response

Despite this unique situation, groups in favelas are organizing themselves, and are trying to guarantee access to basic needs and prevent the spread of the virus. In favelas, state regulations rarely apply. Generally, a complex and informal network of social infrastructures allows the pursuing of everyday life. To mention one example, in Tijuca -Rio de Janeiro-, locals have developed a system of sustainable urban agriculture to provide the community with fresh food (Rekow, 2015). These networks can be very helpful in case of a crisis, and enhance food security. Also, these kinds of social infrastructures advance social development, realize the right to food, and promote inclusive citizenship.

Two urban farmers in Carioca, Rio de Janeiro 2012 (Rekow, 2015)

Collaborative systems during the COVID-19

Wilkinsons (2020) have highlighted the possibilities to control the virus through locally developed strategies and flexible bottom-up approaches. Despite this, Rekow (2015) argues that the informal roots of these forms of support, in a violent resource-scarce environment, can easily fail to achieve the aim.

Regarding COVID-19, communities are organizing in several ways in different cities. In the “Complexo do Alemão”, Rio de Janeiro, grassroots advocate the increase of testing in favelas. Moreover, they donate food baskets and hygiene kits, send water trucks, and distribute storage supports (Ortega & Morsini, 2020; Duque Franco et al., 2020). In other favelas, communities have created food supply centres and have agreed on the rental of hotels for the elderly and partnership with car companies. A distinct characteristic of this crisis is also the intense use of social media such as WhatsApp and Facebook, which allow for a better sensibilization of communities and provide reliable information (Ikemura Amaral et al.,2020). Meanwhile, philanthropies and crowdfunding campaigns have been critical in helping the realisation of protective measures. According to the Brazilian Association of Fundraisers, a broad range of (inter)national actors have donated 1$ billion so far (The New Humanitarian, May 2020).

A case of success that is worth mentioning is the favela of Paraisópolis in São Paulo. A study of the NGO Instituto Pólis, concludes that the favela has reached a better control of the virus than the city itself. Effective containment measures were made possible through the “Presidentes da Rua”, who monitored families and developed activities to raise awareness. The community also converted two schools in isolation centres and hired ambulances. Thus, local initiatives efficiently defy one-size-fits-all and top-down strategies (Ortega & Morsini, 2020).

The role of criminal organizations

Ultimately, but not importantly, criminal organizations have proven to cover an important and interesting role. According to Berg and Vasori (2020), COVID-19 is increasing their influence. Because of their efficient control on favelas, they are restricting movement, controlling price volatility, promoting health messages, and distributing hygiene kits. By doing so, they provide governance functions in communities that are poorly served by the official institutions.

Cohesive institutions and political will

Despite the attempts and all the good intentions of local communities, Brazil is the third most hit country in the world by the virus (WHO, 2020). Moreover, gathering data in an informal settlement is highly complex. It is therefore expected that the number of cases is way higher. As suggested by Calmon (2020), a coordinated federal action could relieve the country. At present, Brazil cannot deal with the crisis without cohesive institutions determined in funding the public health service and putting in place effective public policies (Rodrigues et al., 2020). Probably, the state might not be able to intervene in the favelas. Anyway, willingness and a narrative that does not minimize the virus will certainly be helpful. Moreover, in such critical times, Calmon (2020) recognizes the importance of the forensic community in the management of the crisis in Brazil. Thus, this is explicitly downplayed by the President.

The article has previously shown the strategic ignorance and the racial bias of the President and his entourage. As in many countries, the health crisis has been politicized. Therefore, without a cohesive and willing political action, the situation will not get better. However, Bolsonaro is not changing his thoughts at present. Rather, he explicitly shrugs off the situation. “So what? I’m sorry, but what would you want me to? ” (Estadão, April 2020) is just one of the many contested statements of the President regarding the rise of the death toll.

Universal basic income

Lastly, the unique situation created by the COVID-19 has re-opened and given importance to the debate on a universal basic income (Nogueira et al., 2020). People have lost their job, stability will become a privilege and economic recession is expected (IMF, 2020). In the short-term, basic universal income could relieve many vulnerable communities: food security could be enhanced, people might be able to stay home, and the virus spread could be slowly reduced.  In the long term, such kind of social policy could extend the rights of people and connect the informal settlements to the institution. Nevertheless, the debate is still going on, critics are not missing, and again, politics will determine its outcome.



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Autore dell’articolo*: Enrico Fedi, studente di Master in Environment and Development presso London School of Economics and Political Science e Dottore in Scienze Internazionali e Diplomatiche presso l’ Università degli studi di Trieste. Come sempre pubblichiamo i nostri lavori per stimolare altre riflessioni, che possano portare ad integrazioni e approfondimenti.


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