Coronavirus: Inside Brazil’s slums where COVID-19 is at risk of spreading like wildfire

Brazil is now only second behind the United States as the worst affected country for coronavirus cases.

That is despite the central government and its president, Jair Bolsonaro, continuing to play down the spread and effect of the disease.

The worst hit city in Brazil is Sao Paulo and its enormous favelas are the chief breeding grounds for COVID-19, which has been claiming the lives of around 1,000 people a day across the country – although those official figures are hotly disputed as being too low.

In truth, if the figures are not much worse than that already, then they are likely to become so very soon.

These slums are home to millions. Millions who live with poverty, disease and crime at the best of times – but these are the worst of times.

We were taken inside the Tiradentes favela by a motorbike gang. They provided security. We could not move without them – it is far too dangerous for outsiders.

They call themselves the “Cartel” gang, working the streets of the east zone of Sao Paulo, which has the worst infection rates in the city.

The Cartel is modelled on the images of the original Hell’s Angels, but they are not a crime gang.

In the absence of effective state aid here, they are the ones delivering food and teaching people how to keep clean, wash hands and stay alive.

Here, the word “angels” to characterise this gang has a completely different meaning. For these communities, they actually are angels.

They work with community leaders who tell them where they need to go to help.

Vanderlei Rodrigues, the gang’s leader, standing next to co-founder Rubia Oliveira, said: “At the moment COVID is in the back of these families’ minds, they will only believe it when someone in their immediate family dies from it.

“It is difficult for them to understand it, we hear this a lot.

“We try to fight by giving them information, fighting fake news, taking out the politics and appealing to the rational part of people.”

The fake news and the politics he is referring to is the continuing scorn the national government, and in particular the president, pours on the danger of COVID-19.

While they are in denial, the people in favelas – who are experiencing death and being made unemployed daily – are living in fear.

Whole communities are closing their streets to outsiders, with only actual residents allowed in.

The living conditions are utterly miserable, but it is all they have and they are determined to protect it.

We travelled from the east of the city to the north, which has the highest mortality rates from the virus.

In the Brasilandia favela, we met community groups who raise money to hand out food boxes to people who have lost their jobs.

They are also handing the food out to try to stop people going out to find work and endangering themselves and their families – something they have to do just to eat.

Their charismatic leader Claudio Rodrigues Melo and his team closely control social distancing, making sure the recipients stay on the other side of a busy road until they are called forward for their food box.

Claudio said there are three big problems for the communities and why they are in so much danger.

“There are no [health] services, people are poor and they live so close together that social distancing is impossible,” he said.

After a long period of national denial and a fear of stigma, the poorest now realise they are the most likely to die from this pandemic, and in the slums they are trying to teach each other how to survive.

Many live in fear.

Refusing to open the metal gate to her shack, Ruth Leite, is self isolating. She has already been ill in hospital, tested and discharged.

Fourteen days later she still has a cough and has not received her test results. She assumes she is still in danger.

Ruth moved from her previous street where 22 neighbours died of COVID-19. She is terrified of the disease and terrified of being totally ostracised by society.

“I’m afraid, I was in the queue [to get food] and as soon as I said I’d had COVID everyone moved away from me – I was left alone,” she said through the bars.

“I’m staying here locked in my house because I’m so afraid that I don’t even show my face here. I just move between my garage and my house,” she said, coughing continuously.

All the favelas have community leaders who are at the forefront of trying to teach people of the dangers of the virus and the need to isolate and distance wherever possible.

Marta Sampaio took us through her community called Nova Uniao, a relatively new favela, and everywhere you look people are building new shacks as well as brick homes, but in a very piecemeal way.

It is rough. There is raw sewage in the streets and the new builds cling precariously to muddy hills facing an utterly polluted river.

It is frankly awful and it is clear that in these densely populated semi-illegal settlements there is no protection from the disease and it will spread like wildfire.

Marta said: “It’s only natural, you see the conditions they are living in, there is no sewage system, there’s no infrastructure, these are the challenges we face.

“But the situation here is critical, people here don’t even have the means to build a home.”

Marta holds President Bolsanaro responsible for the continuing virus spread.

She said: “He doesn’t believe it’s a virus that is killing people. He’s giving speeches saying ‘it’s a little flu’, but we as Brazilians know that this is not a joke.”

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