RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - The “baile funk” dance parties have been called off. Some open-air drug markets are closed for business. Gangs and militias have imposed strict curfews. Coronavirus is coming, and Rio de Janeiro’s lawless favelas are gearing up for the onslaught.
City of God, a sprawling complex of slums made famous in a hit 2002 movie of the same name, registered the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Rio’s favelas over the weekend.
Now, with the state government woefully underfunded and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro widely criticized for a slow response to the outbreak, criminal gangs that have long held sway across Rio’s favelas are taking their own precautions against the virus, according to residents and press reports.
According to well-sourced Rio newspaper Extra, City of God gangsters have been driving round the slum, blaring out a recorded message to residents.
“We’re imposing a curfew because nobody is taking this seriously,” the message said, according to Extra’s Tuesday story. “Whoever is in the street screwing around or going for a walk will receive a corrective and serve as an example. Better to stay home doing nothing. The message has been given.”
Reuters was unable to confirm the veracity of the recorded message, but City of God residents, who declined to give their names for fear of retribution, confirmed an evening curfew and other restrictions.
The gangs’ concern over the outbreak echoes fears nationwide about the fate of Brazil’s nearly 15 million favela residents confronting what some have dubbed “the disease of the rich.”
The coronavirus landed in the country with wealthier Brazilians returning from Europe, but is quickly migrating into poorer communities, where crowded quarters, informal labor and weak public services threaten to accelerate its spread.
Drug gangs or rival paramilitaries often act as de facto authorities in the favelas. With little or no government presence in the neighborhoods, gangs enforce social contracts. They also engage in regular shootouts with each other and police forces.
Across Brazil, some 40 million people lack access to the public water supply, while 100 million - nearly half the population - live without a connection to sewage treatment, according to the country’s National Water Agency.
“Basic sanitation is terrible,” said Jefferson Maia, a 27-year-old resident of the City of God. “Sometimes, we don’t even have water to wash our hands properly. We are very concerned with the coronavirus issue.”
Thamiris Deveza, a family doctor working in Rio’s Alemao complex of slums, said residents had been complaining for the last two weeks about a lack of water in their homes, making it difficult for them to clean their hands and protect themselves from the fast-spreading virus.
She said many pharmacies in the neighborhoods had run out of hand sanitizer. When available, it was prohibitively expensive.
Coronavirus cases are expanding quickly in Brazil. The country had 2,201 confirmed cases on Tuesday, with 46 related deaths, according to the Health Ministry.
Rio state, where around a fifth of the population lives in favelas, now has 305 cases. Governor Wilson Witzel warned on Friday that the state’s public health system was in danger of “collapse” within 15 days.
Rio Mayor Marcelo Crivella has said that officials will deposit free soap at entrances of the city’s favelas and relocate older people with health problems to hotels. The city has already signed a deal to secure 400 rooms, he said.
“Those most at risk need to be protected as soon as possible,” Crivella told journalists on Saturday.
On Tuesday, Rio’s urban sanitation unit Comlurb kicked off a more comprehensive cleaning of some of the city’s most transited areas, including around hospitals, the mayor added.
But the favelas are still likely to be a major public health challenge, said Edmilson Migowski, an infectologist at Rio’s Federal University.
“The entry of the coronavirus into denser, less planned and less culturally assisted areas could be devastating,” he said. “Where water, soap and detergent are lacking, it will be difficult to stop the spread.”
Reporting by Ricardo Moraes, Debora Moreira and Rodrigo Viga Gaier; Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Brad Haynes and Aurora Ellis