covid spreads through brasil's largest favela
“Roça,” in Brazil, refers to a plot of land used for agricultural production. Farmland. Rocinha, a favela community in Rio de Janeiro, used to be just that. In 1930, it began to be parceled out—hence its name, Rocinha, the diminutive form of “roça.” Many believed, erroneously, that Rocinha supplied Rio with virtually all of its food products. A decade later, people in search of viable and cheap housing options started to populate the area. Particularly in the 50s and 60s, great numbers of Brazilians migrated from the Northeast to work in civil construction.
The first time I saw Rocinha, I was mesmerized. Situated between the mountain and the sea, wedged between the upscale neighborhoods of Gávea and São Conrado, it is one of Brazil’s largest favelas. An estimated 150,000 residents live within a few square kilometers.
Due to its sheer size, it is tough to single just one problem facing Rocinha. It has a history of neglect and prejudice. In the favela, resistance is a verb. And yesterday’s problems are today’s. Social inequality, lack of public investment, police brutality, drug trafficking, lack of urban planning, unhealthy conditions in its alleys. Surrounded by a forest, the community’s backstreets are unbearably humid. This is indeed catastrophic, and one of the reasons why Rocinha is the favela in Rio with the greatest number of respiratory illnesses. Direct sunlight rarely enters homes, ventilation is scant, and basic sanitation is a far-off dream. Imagine living somewhere that is always night. Rocinha has already weathered several epidemics. Tuberculosis has been a problem for over 40 years, and today Rocinha has one of the highest rates in the country, with one out of every two residents contracting the illness at some point. And then there’s HIV, cholera, measles, dengue, yellow fever, Zika virus, and Chikungunya. Rocinha has seen it all. And now, on top of all that: Covid-19, a serious threat given Rocinha’s narrow streets and clustered homes.
When the pandemic first struck, my head immediately went to Rocinha. My heart, too. Situations like these can catalyze profound change. Or they can drastically worsen an already grim reality. Unfortunately, this may be the case in Brazil’s largest favela. Statistically-speaking, the novel coronavirus has a low mortality rate. Here in Brazil, we amount to more than 210 million people. And today, as I write this article, over 22,000 have died from Covid-19. We’ve become the new global epicenter of the disease. And as the curve of cases and deaths continues to climb at an alarming rate, Covid-19’s fatality rate in favelas hovers around 30%. As of now, there have been more deaths in Rio’s favelas than in 16 of Brazil’s 26 states combined. But counting the dead takes much more than statistics.
Brazil is a complex country. With the Covid-19 pandemic in full swing, a political crisis has taken shape, with states and the federal government unable to reach virtually any consensus on the best path to prevent and contain the virus. President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly called COVID-19 a “little flu”. I will repeat this as much as I need to: Brazil is a complex country. Due to its size, diversity, and above all, extreme inequality. Not even Brazilians know how to explain Brazil. Our melting pot goes far beyond our famous racial miscegenation. We are Manichaean. Our relationships are intrinsic. Our society is a mix of sensory planes that I’ve yet to see anywhere else. And Rio is Brazil’s most complex city. Here, social classes live side by side, geographically on top of each other, but worlds apart. Still in Rocinha, at the São Conrado waterfront, a favela resident earning minimum wage can bump shoulders with a millionaire who makes 300 times his income. How do we save the population from Covid-19? Vertical isolation measures are much more feasible in less populated, more egalitarian countries. I’m still not sure what my country should do. And I don’t know if I ever will be. Remain isolated and starve to death, or walk in the streets and risk infection?
Like most favelas, Rocinha has a strong and historical sense of community. Since its struggle is for space, families have traditionally built their homes on top of each other, strengthening fraternal bonds in the process. This is both a blessing and a curse. In times of Covid-19, entire generations of families are isolated in tiny spaces, fearful and anxious that the contagion will spread quickly. Those who need to leave their homes might be responsible for contaminating their whole families.
Among those empty alleys and backstreets, the favela’s very soul has gone into hiding. Through closed doors, I can make out the muffled sounds of children playing, samba and funk music blasting from speakers, voices chatting indoors instead of in the streets... and prayers. “The alleys are just as empty as they are during a shootout,” one resident tells me. I feel the humidity on my skin, a chill even under this blaring sun, the cramped quarters, the wet floor. I do not know if my knowledge of Rocinha is genuine. I do not live there. I visit. I come and go as I please. But the chill echoes through those narrow streets. And genuine or not, it impacts me. It takes no acute sense to perceive the fear of a shot fired in an alley, the fear of torrential rainfall, of not knowing whether your home will have water tomorrow, or electricity, or if you’ll have food, or hospitals, or an ambulance to rescue you from your home. And today, the fear of running out of coffins.
There is an inexplicable feeling in Rocinha that something is about to happen. As Covid-19 continues to spread, young people in other favelas are getting brutally murdered by Rio’s police—the deadliest police force in all of Brazil. What is the biggest threat to favelas? Covid-19 or reality itself? An epidemic within an epidemic.
Rocinha is immense on the inside, too. It has its own inequalities, its own culture, its own artists, poets, musicians, and athletes. It is like five Brazilian states rolled into a single, clustered area. There are people born in Rocinha, who have lived there for over four decades, who still have things left to learn about the favela. There is a whole city inside. Homes, businesses, hospitals. There are people who never leave. Nor do they have to. There are people who are proud to be from Rocinha, and people who are not. There are people who call themselves children of the community. And there are foreigners, immigrants, and people from all over Brazil. A country within a country.
Clustered, isolated, abandoned, sick, vulnerable. But also resilient, joyful, passionate, hard-working, unique, complex, mesmerizing, warm, welcoming. Favela da Rocinha still resists.