Pandemic in the Impoverished Communities - A conversation with Activists

/ Online Transmission - Zoom

The social isolation of each family in their home does not work in impoverished communities, and public authorities must implement strategies to face the novel coronavirus pandemic in these areas through talks and community building with local movements and leaders. Unfortunately, governments –at the national, state, and municipal levels – are practically inactive in these places.

That’s what activists Guiné Silva, Eliana Silva and Jailson de Souza e Silva had to say in this Fernando Henrique Cardoso Foundation webinar, discussing the impact of COVID-19 on impoverished communities and how they have reacted to reduce the infection and death and help residents to face the socioeconomic crisis resulting from the pandemic, which is finishing its fourth month in Brazil with an upward curve.

According to the activists, isolation is impractical in large impoverished communities, not only because of the precariousness of most of the houses but also because several generations of the same family live together. Almost all of them need to continue working, and many use public transportation. 

“The pandemic shoves the historical neglect of public policies in the impoverished Brazilian communities on everyone’s faces. That’s where thousands live in unhealthy homes, with small rooms with no ventilation and no bathroom, sanitation, or drinking water. What kind of democracy is this? How can you isolate yourself in these conditions?” Asked sociologist Guiné Silva, a specialist in social project management and development coordinator at Fundação Tide Setubal (São Paulo, Brazil).  Guiné is a resident of the East Side in the city of São Paulo, which has about 4 million inhabitants, and a significant part of them live in informal and impoverished settlements.

“The measures and protocols for coping with the coronavirus speak little to the reality of the citizens in the impoverished communities, where social inequality is most intense. It is necessary to work with concrete conditions and real demands. We have made a tremendous effort, with support from different sectors of society. However, there is a lack of structural action by the federal, state, and municipal governments,” said Eliana Silva, director of the NGO Redes da Maré (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) and coordinator of the “Maré says no to coronavirus (Maré diz não ao coronavírus)” campaign.  

“The social isolation in the communities has to be territorial and not domestic. Instead of requiring isolation that others can adhere to, but with which we are unable to comply, measures that respect the characteristics and dynamics of the impoverished communities need to be adopted,” said geographer and educator Jailson de Souza e Silva, founder of Observatório de Favelas (RJ). 

      ‘Territorial isolation’

Jailson spoke of protection barriers at the impoverished community entrances to measure the temperature, carry out tests and distribute masks, soap, and food as an example of “territorial isolation,” reinforcement of state action in the areas of healthcare and social assistance, including providing beds and suitable quarantine locations, as well as emergency aid to secure income during the acute phase of the pandemic.

“We need field hospitals that are closer to the impoverished communities and quarantine houses, such as the one created in Paraisópolis for receiving residents who need to be isolated but do not have a suitable place to do that,” said Guiné. “The elderly even try to protect themselves by staying at home, but the younger relatives have to leave, and upon return, they put their parents and grandparents at risk. Without classes, children and teenagers play or gather on the street, as there are no more controlled and safe common areas,” explained Guiné.

Securing drinking water and electricity 24 hours a day and access to broadband and mobile data packages, essential for students to maintain some contact with the school during the pandemic, would also help to face the coronavirus with more security and dignity. “When school officials say that online classes and jobs will be the new normal, what new normal are they talking about? One in five students in impoverished communities has no access to internet, not even via cell phones. Where are the digital inclusion measures promised in the past?” said Guinea. The Centro de Estudos Periféricos on the East Side Campus of the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP) published a manifest with 23 measures for combating the coronavirus in impoverished communities.

There are 44 elementary/middle schools and three high schools in the Maré community (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), which has 16 impoverished communities. After classes were suspended, the students were left with zero educational contact for about a month and a half. “The solution was to create an online forum to bring parents and guardians together and think about ways to maintain educational activities during the pandemic, at least,” said Eliana.

         Three paradigms     

For Jailson, General Director of the Universidade Internacional de Periferias (UNIperiferias), the new coronavirus pandemic uncovers three paradigms in the impoverished communities. The first paradigm is absence: “The impoverished community is the non-city space. While the dominant groups in society have everything — higher income and access to modern equipment and quality services, impoverished communities are precarious and needy,” he said.

The second paradigm is hostility: “We were already accustomed to prejudice and violence, we, poor blacks from the impoverished communities, are seen as suspicious, and have always been regarded as dangerous. But Brazil’s current President has drawn hatred to the center of public life,” he continued.

The third paradigm is strength: “The pandemic is showing that the impoverished community is more than all that. We are supportive and creative. We are showing that we know how to be empathetic when giving possible solutions to the challenges brought on by the coronavirus, organizing campaigns for information, raising money and organizing donations of basic necessities, communication, and logistics,” concluded the sociologist. 

For Jailson, it is time to “value the creative power of the local communities and practice the pedagogy of living together, because impoverished communities cannot close themselves, they have to work with other societal sectors to shatter prejudice and exclusion.” 

        'A panic-free pandemic (Pandemia sem neurose)'

Communication is one of the crucial lines of action in impoverished communities. One example is the Panic-free pandemic (Pandemia sem neurose) podcast, produced by Alma Preta - Jornalismo Preto e Livre, whose objective is to combat misinformation and fake news about the coronavirus. One of the podcasts discussed a statement by the governor of São Paulo, João Doria, that the Military Police could arrest people who violated the isolation rules, a measure soon discarded by the police itself. Another gave tips on how young people who need to work can adopt protective measures for elderly relatives.

“It is important to think about the mental health of impoverished community residents,” said Eliana, who partnered with Fiocruz to inform the approximately 130,000 inhabitants of Maré with podcasts, sound trucks, and murals painted on the walls. The WhatsApp group “Keeping an eye on the coronavirus (De olho no corona)” maps out the evolution of the virus, street by street, with information about COVID-19 symptoms, when to go to a clinic or family healthcare team, and tips on how neighbors can help patients safely. There is also an action for permanent hygiene, which has already disinfected 900 streets.

Recently, the Maré Census identified the 6,000 most vulnerable families in the community, who began to receive food and hygiene products. Out-of-work community restaurant and buffet cooks with no income are preparing up to 300 meals a day for the homeless, and are getting paid for their help. Seamstresses are making 20,000 masks a week.

According to the activists, impoverished communities have received several donations from companies and individuals since the pandemic began. The donations have been used for emergency actions and to support community businesses – most of them paralyzed – with low-interest long-term loans. To donate, see the initiative’s page Matchfunding Enfrente – fundraising platform for initiatives that tackle the effects of the coronavirus in impoverished Brazilian communities, which has already raised more than 6 million BRL, and the Maré contra o coronavírus campaign page. “Fortunately, the donated resources are reaching the targets, but how long can we count on them? Private initiative is essential, but the Federal Government cannot back down,” said Guiné.

          ‘Brazil’s Historic Federal Supreme Court decision’ 

The activists described Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin’s decision to ban police operations in impoverished communities during the pandemic as historic. “In Maré alone, the police clashed with armed groups on three occasions in the past few weeks, causing panic and chaos in the middle of delivering food baskets,” criticized Eliana.

“Here in Rio, the right to public security does not exist within the impoverished communities. The police are practically present only in BOPE (SWAT team) operations. Controlling the police action is just as important as controlling the action of the armed groups’ action,” said Jailson.

          ‘What have we learned from the pandemic?’

As soon as the most critical phase of the pandemic is overcome, the Observatório de Favelas intends to organize a series of meetings with representatives of impoverished communities across Brazil to discuss what lessons were learned during the pandemic. “We need to consolidate the lessons learned and prepare for other health emergencies that may occur in the future. We invite the Fernando Henrique Cardoso Foundation to participate in this initiative,” said Jailson de Souza e Silva.

When asked by mediator Sergio Fausto, director of the Foundation, if new community leaders were emerging in the context of fighting the coronavirus, Guinea highlighted the involvement of young university students. “The people from the impoverished community who are graduating from college form an intelligence group that has been gaining recognition and legitimacy within those communities. I see no room for experimentation without a strong link to the reality of each location,” he said.

According to Jailson, impoverished Brazilian communities are very heterogeneous and require different solutions. As action points for a common agenda, he cited the creation of a universal basic income program; combating prejudice, racism, and sexism; quality education and healthcare; reducing violence and a security policy that respects the residents of impoverished communities; strengthening the impoverished communities’ cultural groups; and free access to technology.

“Only the impoverished communities can provide solutions for the city if it is to become more just, fraternal, and democratic. We face the challenge of integrating movements from all over Brazil to speak with civil society, government officials of the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary branches, and from the federal, state, and municipal levels of government, and the private sector,” he said.

“Impoverished communities continue to be innovative and lead the way. We are doing our part, but the responsibility lies with the whole of society, especially the Federal Government, which has the resources to scale. Unfortunately, exchanges with the governments are sporadic, slow, and complex,” concluded Guiné.

Otávio Dias, journalist, specialized in politics and international affairs, former correspondent for Folha in London and editor of the website. He is currently a content editor at Fundação FHC.

Portuguese to English translation by Melissa Harkin & Todd Harkin (Harkin Translations)

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