Coronavirus: Rio’s favelas prepare for the worst

A poor population crammed into often insanitary housing, precarious health services: the favelas of Rio de Janeiro are on alert when the spread of the new coronavirus accelerates in Brazil.
“The irony is that this disease was brought to Brazil by plane, by the rich, but it is among the poor that it will explode,” said Paulo Buss, director of the center for international relations at Fiocruz. , a benchmark public health research center.

Confirmation on Saturday of a first case of Covid-19 in the City of God, an emblematic favela which inspired the film of the same name, sounded the alarm.

Almost a quarter of Rio’s inhabitants, or 1.5 million people, live in favelas, most of which are located on the hillside, often overlooking chic neighborhoods.

This is the case of the Tabajaras favela, on the heights of Copacabana, the most touristic district of the city, but also the one that brings together the most elderly people.

“Here, people are very afraid” of contamination from below, says Vania Ribeiro, vice-president of the local neighborhood association. “The nearest dispensary is the same one that welcomes elderly people from Copacabana and tourists from all over the world.”

“Social vulnerability”

Here, the guidelines for “social distancing” and “barrier gestures” are difficult to apply.

“We are told that you have to wash your hands all the time, but what if the running water is regularly cut?” We are not going to wash our hands with mineral water anyway, ”adds Vania Ribeiro.

The Rio city hall assured AFP that it had “intensified prevention campaigns in the favelas”.

The municipality recommends in particular the isolation in a separate room from anyone suspected of having been infected.

“If the home has only one room, infected people should stay at least a meter away from other family members,” says the town hall.

“Most of the favelas’ houses have two or three rooms, with five to eight inhabitants. How can we isolate an infected person under these conditions, ”wonders Paulo Buss?

The unsanitary conditions of certain dwellings also pose a problem.

“In the favela, most houses have few windows, which prevents good air circulation, the entry of daylight and promotes the spread of respiratory diseases,” said Patricia Canto, pulmonologist at the National School of Public Health of Rio.

In particular, tuberculosis continues to wreak havoc in the favelas, with infection rates sometimes ten times higher than the national average.

“For the coronavirus, we say that we must protect the most vulnerable by talking about the elderly, but we must not forget the cases of social vulnerability,” continues Patricia Canto.

Informal economy

Many people in the favelas depend on the informal economy and confinement risks taking away their livelihoods.

In Rio, there is not yet total containment, as in France or Argentina.

But schools and most shops have been closed, as have beaches and other tourist spots, where many street vendors from poor neighborhoods sell their products.

“People who do not have a formal job must continue to go out to work because they have no choice. Either they die of hunger, or they risk dying by catching the coronavirus ”, deplores Joelma Sousa, of the NGO Redes da Maré, established in a set of favelas near the international airport.

But she is especially worried about the precariousness of health services. “The clinics are sorely lacking in equipment and staff. These days, they closed at 3 p.m., three hours earlier than expected, because there was no longer a doctor, ”she said.

In Tabajaras, Vania Ribeiro also has to solve problems related to the very particular topography of her favela.

“Here, the most practical way to climb the heights is by motorcycle taxi. We are going to ask the police to no longer make it compulsory for the passenger to wear a helmet, otherwise the same helmet will go from head to head ”.

One of the many daily puzzles for Rio’s favelas in the midst of a pandemic.

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