Drug gangs in Brazil’s favelas enforce coronavirus lockdown

The messages first arrived via WhatsApp. Stay at home or otherwise.

It was a harsh warning to people in Brazil’s densely populated slums – but not the federal government, health officials, or even the state police.

While President Jair Bolsonaro dismissed the pandemic as a “sniffle” and criticized regional foreclosure measures, drug gangs and paramilitary groups across the country intervened to impose social distancing to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

“Anyone caught on the street will learn to respect the measure. We want the best for the people. If the government is unable to manage, organized crime will disappear, ”read a message to residents of a slum in Rio de Janeiro.

Another message, addressed to the inhabitants of a different slum, said: “We are on the street taking risks so that you can sleep in peace, we leave our families to protect yours, so respect the order that we have given. ” He warned that for anyone caught on the street after 10 pm, “it will be bad!”

Favela activist Gilson Rodrigues coordinates aid to residents © Andres Schipani / FT

The involvement of criminal organizations more often associated with bloodshed and violence than disease mitigation strategies highlights the gravity of the situation in the slums of Brazil, where more than 11 million people live, who generally live in cramped makeshift housing, often with limited access to potable water.

The number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Brazil increased to 2915 and 77 deaths Thursday – an increase more than tenfold over the previous week. Experts fear an explosion of coronavirus infections that could contribute to social unrest in communities long neglected by the state.

“Due to the failure of Brazil’s national leaders to prevent and contain the spread of COVID-19, we can expect a dramatic increase in infections, hospitalizations and deaths in the coming weeks,” said Robert Muggah, director of research at the Igarapé Institute, a think-tank in Rio de Janeiro. “As infection rates rise, control measures are imposed and panic spreads, the favelas of Brazil are a time bomb.”

This represents an opportunity for criminal gangs, he added. “They describe themselves as the last line of defense against chaos and the” real “providers of public order. The pandemic reveals the systemic weakness of the Brazilian state. “

Many of today’s slums were first built in the 1970s when rural workers moved to cities in Brazil and built basic houses with concrete blocks and tin roofs.

Such was their construction that, even with the intervention of gangs and militias, social distancing would be difficult to achieve. They “have a high population density, houses are very close to each other and people live crammed into one space,” said Mario Dal Poz of the Institute of Social Medicine at Rio State University in Janeiro and former official with the World Health Organization.

Many lack access to sanitation and water – conditions that are now threatening to worsen the coronavirus epidemic.

“How are we going to take care of each other and ourselves if we live crammed into a small house?” How are we going to wash our hands if we don’t always have running water? “said Marcos Vinícius dos Santos, a 22-year-old from Paraisópolis, a slum in São Paulo.

Feverish, dry and breathless cough, Mr. dos Santos is one of 300 suspected cases in the favela, which shelters some 100,000 inhabitants in a 10 km square area and has five confirmed cases.

“Here there are only small houses with a group of people inside. If someone catches it and enters the house, there is no way to quarantine it. The family is automatically infected, ”he said. Her cousin, who sleeps in the same room, is already showing symptoms.

Self-help: residents prepare to distribute soap © Andres Schipani / FT

On a football field in the center of Paraisópolis, community leader Gilson Rodrigues distributes donated products, including soap, disinfectant and food. “There is no government here. Only U.S. If the communities do not organize, they will die, “he said.

“Bolsonaro does not even say the word” favela “. There is only contempt for the federal government, which has no idea that there are slums in Brazil, that there are millions of inhabitants slums in Brazil that need a public policy and that must be saved, “he added.

This is anger at the President’s response that many consecutive nights this week, many slum dwellers in large cities have taken part in a panelaço – a demonstration which consists in knocking pots together in front of a window and shouting insults such as “Bolsonaro, out!” and “Bolsonaro Assassin!”

Many are concerned about the impact of the coronavirus on the little income they have.

“We don’t know if we’re going to get the virus, we don’t know when we’re going to eat next because we don’t have the money,” said Sueli Dias dos Santos, a mother of five who works as a wife. housework. Neither she nor her husband, a street recycler, have been able to work recently.

Even with gangs and militias imposing closures, many people will still try to leave to go to work.

“Our biggest challenge is getting people to stay at home,” said Renata Trajano, community leader of the vast Complexo do Alemão, a group of favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

“Most people are self-employed and begin to wonder what tomorrow will look like without money or food.”

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