COVID-19 Crisis

Water shortages and solidarity: How Brazil’s favelas are dealing with COVID-19

In the country’s poorest areas, there is lack of information and basic necessities, however, there is also solidarity

Translated by: Ítalo Piva

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo |
Though they are the areas most affected, the poorest communities still aren’t able to get informed, debate and participate effectively in the fight against the pandemic - Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP

In a self organizing manner, people living in the ghettos of Brazil’s largest cities are coming up with strategies to halt contagion by the novel coronavirus in their communities. As of Monday (23), of all the 35 deaths registered in the country, 30 occurred in the city of São Paulo.

Cláudio Aparecido da Silva, resident of the São Luiz community, located in São Paulo’s south side, tells us that the mobilization of residents came about due to the lack of information and awareness in the peripheries of the city.

That’s why the Popular Committee Against COVID-19 was created, today counting on many different volunteers spread throughout the district.

The majority of victims of this pandemic will be the poor. People who have nothing or almost no reliable information. We thought it would be good to support the most vulnerable families, also people with chronic illnesses and the elderly, the families in need”, states da Silva.

We decided to organize in order to strengthen these people. We’re making our vehicles available for them to go shopping, or anything that requires transportation for the most vulnerable people, we are also organizing drives for food and hygiene items”, says Cláudio, adding that the group is also producing educational content with prevention tips against the virus, via Whatsapp and posters within the community.

Water

In coronavirus times, more important than cleansing your hands with sanitizers is washing them multiple times a day. This is one of the main recommendations given by the World Health Organization (WHO) to combat the worldwide pandemic. The reality in the favelas of Brazil’s largest cities is far from the ideal to combat COVID-19.

Over the last few days, the Community Voices channel, raised concerns about water shortages in Rio shanty towns. “I’m 74 years old, I can’t carry water and it’s been more than a month since we’ve seen a drop here, children don’t even have water to wash their hands, I’m scared of the coronavirus”, said Mrs. Jurema, resident of the Alemão community in northern Rio.

Other poor areas face the same problem, but it is not a new one for any of them. Patrick Lome, a 24 year old dweller of the Borel slum, and member of the Brota na Laje – Youth in the Ghetto collective, told Brasil de Fato that since he was born, he hears about, sees and experiences what residents go through due to lack of water.

It’s a structural problem that dates back a long time. Our complaints are always followed up by a justification from the water company, that we don’t pay for water. Rio slums aren’t charged for water because their services don’t get to us. We have a large water source with someone responsible for distribution. They don’t run this, it’s a service run by the associations of residents in these slums”, explains Patrick Lome.

The same hardship has been faced for years by those living in São Paulo’s previously mentioned, São Luiz community, as decried by the Popular Committee Agains COVID-19. They face a nightly cut to their water supply, which goes against the Health Ministry’s directives, increasing the risk of contagion.

Sabesp, the local water company, claims there are no such cuts and supply to all of São Paulo’s 373 districts is running normally.

In a recently published manifesto, The National Coalition of Poor Advocates Against the Coronavirus reinforced the notion that just like what goes on in the São Luiz community, many favelas all over Brazil don’t have continuous access to water.

Ingrid Farias, a resident of the Brasília Teimosa neighborhood of Recife, capital of the state of Pernambuco, is a member of the #Coronaintheghetto front, and believes that in order to properly educate and disseminate information on preventive measures, we need to communicate with people in a way they can access and understand.

It’s very hypocritical on our part, to arrive in the slums and tell them to wash their hands all the time even though they don’t even have water. A lot of people buy mineral water to drink and cook with. It also showcases this perverse side of the epidemic in Brazil, and how it deepens the inequality gap’, affirmed Ingrid.

Citywide

As the number of those infected rises, representatives from the popular committees, collectives, organizations and fronts that came about due to the crisis, are giving their all to strengthen their communities’ ability to counter it.

When asked what is behind their mobilization, organizing and dedication, committee reps give a unanimous answer: solidarity.

It’s a network of volunteers and residents who help themselves. For every 50 families, a volunteer goes out and helps with raising awareness, to ensure people don’t leave home. They guarantee the delivery of basic necessities that are donated, and monitor the situation just in case eventually someone falls ill”, says Gilson Rodrigues, head of the Residents Union of Paraisópolis, one of São Paulo’s biggest shanty towns. After tireless lobbying, he managed to get two ambulances to serve locals in case of an emergency.

Cláudio da Silva, from the São Paulo Jardim Luiz community, adheres to the idea that it is impossible to know when the pandemic will be over, and if we only think of ourselves, the struggle and hardship will be even more difficult to cope with.

If we can unite our strengths and help fulfill each other’s needs, be it the need for information, or food on a plate, together we’ll be better able to overcome this crisis. Those who have a little more will have to help those with nothing. This is a crisis to be overcome arm in arm. We will have to get together, hold hands and get over it”, da Silva argued.

What about the State?

In the view of the community leadership heard by Brasil de Fato, public policies to fight the pandemic are insufficient and don’t reach the ghettos, leaving those in need even more vulnerable.

The government should come up with policies specifically geared towards the favelas, assuring that workers will have food to eat, offering meals, assuring people have access to hygiene products like hand sanitizers and masks, assuring a basic income”, says Gilson Rodrigues from Paraisópolis (São Paulo).

On Facebook, one of the posts with the most shares over the last couple of days was one by producer Julio Ludemir, resident of the Babilônia slum, in southern Rio. He laid out the different issues in combating the coronavirus that are hardest to address, and yet given the least attention by authorities.

In a passage from the post, Ludemir wrote, “I’m sorry, governor (Wilson Witzel), who apparently isn’t being as pathetic as the president and the mayor, it means nothing when you tell our residents that we won’t be charged for water over the next two months. The problem here is getting running water in the first place, there’s never enough water for us to wash our hands several times a day, as is necessary at the time, let alone to wash all our clothes every time we get home”.

According to the community leaders and organizers, who recently formed The National Coalition of Poor Advocates Against the Coronavirus, though they are the areas most affected, the poorest communities still aren’t able to get informed, debate and participate effectively in the fight against the pandemic.

Edited by: Ítalo Piva, Leandro Melito, Mariana Pitasse e Rodrigo Chagas