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Community / Public health

A Brazilian favela is combating Covid through community

Distrustful of the government's pandemic response, residents took matters into their own hands.

In February, one of the first cases of Covid-19 in Brazil was confirmed in São Paulo in the neighbourhood of Morumbi. This region – famous for its high-class condominiums, skyscrapers at the shore of the Pinheiros River and one of the most famous soccer teams in the country – also houses the second-largest favela in the city, Paraisópolis. Favelas are poor and crowded areas in Brazil.

A Brazilian man with a mask
Of the pandemic, says Gilson Rodrigues, leader of the Paraisópolis residents’ association, “I pictured the worst scenario.” (Photo by Isabella Galante)

“Paraisópolis is turning 99 this year, and it has a history of community and organisation,” says Danielle Klintowitz, an urban planner and coordinator of the urban data centre Polis Institute.

The institute’s studies show that in June, Paraisópolis had a death rate of 21.7 for every 100,000 residents, while the municipality of São Paulo had 56.2. Through a series of initiatives by leaders and joint efforts from hundreds of locals, the favela managed to maintain the upper hand over the virus for months.

Favelas are alarmingly dense, and buildings are rudimentary, often built with bricks and other cheap materials. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, Paraisópolis reportedly is home to 70,000 people, a rate of 61,000 per square kilometre (by way of comparison, São Paulo has 73,000 per square kilometre). Local leaders, however, claim there are as many as 130,000 residents in Paraisópolis, many of them undocumented. Add to that a polluted river and areas that have access to water only three days a week and you have a fertile ground for a powerful virus. “I pictured the worst scenario,” says Gilson Rodrigues, leader of the local residents’ association, who is widely known as “the mayor of Paraisópolis.” “We said, ‘Many people will die – the government won’t do a thing.’”

That scenario was enough for Rodrigues to build a community-based system that kept the favela below the rates of contamination of the rest of the city for months.

Local interventions

Rodrigues’s first measure was to appoint “street presidents” – 652 volunteers who would be in charge of monitoring 50 families each. Those leaders were trained to follow up on residents’ needs and to check for symptomatic citizens. Rodrigues delivered a plaque to each denizen that read: “On behalf of all residents, we thank you for your work to the community and the fight against the pandemic.”

A meal distribution center
This kitchen, established by the neighbourhood association to feed local residents, distributed over 10,000 meals per day. (Photo by Isabella Galante)

As the pandemic worsened and São Paulo began a shelter-in-place initiative, a trend of firing informal workers, such as housekeepers and babysitters, erupted. In response, the association created a program called “Hire a Cleaning Lady” to help women acquire new jobs. Another one, “Employ the Community” came to be known as “the favela’s LinkedIn”, as it places people in companies willing to hire from Paraisópolis. With so many residents unemployed or unable to work, access to food became all the more pressing. Two kitchens were set up in the favela to prepare and distribute lunchboxes and baskets of food items. All resources were purchased locally to empower the 14,000 small businesses operating there. The organisers were able to serve up to 10,000 meals a day, over 800,000 thus far.

The residents’ association rented three ambulances to offer medical assistance to locals. Access to medical staff and services had been a challenge even before Covid: since favelas are so crowded, medical staff is typically unable to navigate through narrow alleys. As a result, Rodrigues explains, “people often die on the way to the hospital, as they have to be carried down and rushed into a car.”

Further, Paraisópolis had a great communications strategy in place, amplifying information about the virus and prevention, which, says Klintowitz, “the state failed to do”. For locals, the impact of the initiatives was massive. “I saw the cleanliness on the streets, the presence of the street leaders, and basic measures such as sanitisers made available,” says Ana Paula Alves, a resident of Paraisópolis, who adds that locals generally wear masks.

Financing this vast array of initiatives has been challenging, especially without any real municipal or state support. The federal government’s emergency welfare program offered a monthly assistance payment of 600 reals ($106), which helped part of the community, yet a complex bureaucracy kept many from receiving it. Mostly, private donors funded the community’s efforts. “We gave up on the government – they’re just not worried [about us],” says Rodrigues.

The only support from the municipality was to allow two school buildings in the region to be used as isolation sites for those contaminated. That ultimately was also beneficial for the schools, as residents made several fixes to the buildings, cleaning and painting them. To foster the local economy, incentives were created for citizens to shop within the favela. In partnership with financial institutions, debit cards were distributed and used to keep track of where and how people were spending money.

Declining funding led to an increase in cases

But in August, the Polis Institute noted an increase of 237% in the number of deaths in Paraisópolis due to Covid, a shift coinciding with a deep decrease in private donations. The three ambulances have been reduced to one, and after next month, there will no longer be funding for it. The number of daily meals being served has been cut in half, from 10,000 meals to 5,000. And the special use of school buildings has ended, as the municipality plans to resume classes in early October.

The dramatic boost in mortality rates has also coincided with the reopening of the city. People returned to work, as home offices aren’t really an option given that 69% of Paraisópolis residents work as cleaners, construction workers, waiters and the like. Klintowitz pointed to studies that show how focus points of contamination match with large public-transportation routes in São Paulo. This indicates that even with all the efforts from Paraisópolis, the lack of further help from the municipality drove the virus into the favela.

“One of the mistakes from the municipality was a lack of territorial strategy,” Klintowitz says. “The city was treated as if it was egalitarian and balanced, where everyone has equal access to medical assistance and the possibility of isolation.” She believes the initial success achieved by the favela should inspire state policies and could be replicated in other favelas around Brazil as the pandemic threatens further waves of contamination.

Despite the growth in cases, the initiatives remain and Paraisópolis’s numbers are still significantly better than in other favelas throughout the country. Rodrigues continues his efforts here as well as helping to implement initiatives in slums in other cities in Brazil, such as Fortaleza, Natal and Rio de Janeiro, by developing manuals and video tutorials.

Women in a sewing shop
The Paraisópolis residents’ association continues to help members of community get back on their feet. These women are sewing masks and clothing for locals. (Photo by Isabella Galante)

As the actions continue to bring results for Paraisópolis, Rodrigues and the other leaders from the residents’ association plan to keep their efforts going long after the coronavirus is gone. “We are a continuous movement of support for Paraisópolis,” he says. New programs are being created, among them a plan to build 1,000 community vegetable gardens, a fashion week for tailors from the favela, workshops for mask production and a strategic focus on the more vulnerable areas of the region.

“We want a new Paraisópolis,” says Rodrigues, adding that its lessons are relevant not just for other favelas or poorer areas but more prosperous ones, as well, where the sense of community showed by the favela is not so common. It is that very sense of community that prevents a larger tragedy.

Chris Goldenbaum is a Brazilian journalist whose work has appeared on Channel News Asia and in National Geographic, Vice and many other publications.

Isabella Galante is a Brazilian journalist and filmmaker.