SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Brazil, on February 26, health authorities have been telling the population to increase hygiene measures and avoid crowded places. For large segments of the Brazilian working class, however, most recommendations of that kind are useless.
At least 11.4 million Brazilians live in favelas, the slums that exist in every big city of the country. A significant proportion of the people that live in such neighborhoods don’t have running water or sewage at home and have to share a small living space with several family members.
There’s also a growing number of homeless people in the South American county. A recent study showed that there are at least 101,000 people living on the streets, but the actual number may be higher. Between 2015 and 2019, the homeless population of the city of São Paulo alone rose from 16,000 to 24,300. Without regular access to basic sanitation facilities, the hygiene regime necessary to tackle the pandemic are almost impossible.
Lack of information is another major issue.
“The other day, a homeless person asked me why everybody was wearing masks on the streets,” Caio Ferreira told Crux.
Ferreira, who lives in São Paulo, is a member of Missão Belém (Mission Bethlehem), a Catholic organization that works with homeless people and helps them to rebuild their lives. Missão Belém momentarily changed some policies in order to deal with the pandemic. Its missionaries are now working to get elderly and sick people off the street.
“Unfortunately, we’re having to say no to the healthier brothers and sisters that express their wish to leave the streets in order to privilege the ones who most need it,” Ferreira said.
The consequences of the coronavirus may be devastating for the homeless, given that many of them have other diseases. Alcohol and drugs are also a major problem among those living on the streets, and Ferreira said this and can make their health condition even worse.
At Missão Belém’s downtown residential facility, the missionaries and residential guests are always wearing masks and using hand sanitizers.
“We have intensified our activities to assist the people during such a difficult time. We decided that, if the authorities impose a full quarantine, we’ll stay with the homeless on the streets,” Ferreira said.
The small Favela do Moinho (Mill Slum), where 6,000 people live in a tiny downtown area in São Paulo, presents a great challenge for enacting coronavirus prevention measures.
“There’s no sanitation here. The only access to water people have at home comes from irregular connections to a street water pipe. But it comes and goes over the day,” Roberta Sousa de Torres, a lay missionary told Crux.
Torres lives with three other missionaries in a shack in the favela. Since the pandemic began, they suspended their activities – they run two daycare centers – and stayed at home, speaking to people through their window.
Social distancing is impracticable, given that houses and shacks are very close together and many families have up to 12 people sharing a very small area.
“People are trying to stay at home, but many still have to go to work,” Torres said. A significant part of the Favela do Moinho’s residents are waste pickers who walk great distances in the city collecting aluminum cans and cardboard boxes to sell to recycling centers.
According to Torres, the community is mostly Catholic, and the missionaries had to suspend evangelization activities and weekly Masses at the local chapel due to the pandemic.
“There’s an atmosphere of depression, but people are not desperate with the outbreak. They’re used to face severe hardships,” she said.
That’s the reality in several slums in Brazil. In the Cidade de Deus (City of God) Favela, in Rio de Janeiro, residents are working hard to keep safe since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the region. With 38,000 inhabitants, the favela has now at least 19 new suspected cases.
“Our parish has suspended all activities. We’re live streaming celebrations and praying the rosary through social media,” said Mônica Oliveira, a member of the parish’s communications pastoral group.
Oliveira said that some of the houses in Cidade de Deus don’t have running water or sewage.
“The large concentration of people inside the residences is another major problem,” she added.
Authorities in the State of Rio de Janeiro established a major lockdown for at least 15 days, so many inhabitants of Cidade de Deus are not leaving the neighborhood to work.
“We’ve been using the internet in order to raise consciousness among our neighbors about prevention. That’s what we can do while no concrete actions are possible,” Oliveira said. The first live videos from the parish had hundreds of views, which was a positive surprise for the organizers.
In small cities and rural areas, extreme poverty many can look very different than in the major metropolises, but it can be just as devastating.
“We don’t see so many favelas and homeless people, but there’s a mass of poor workers struggling with a precarious position,” Bishop José Reginaldo Andrietta of Jales, in São Paulo State, told Crux.
According to the Brazilian census of 2010, there are no sewage systems in at least 28.6 percent of the rural residencies in the country. In 35 percent of rural homes, not enough running water.
“In our region, there’s a number of camps and settlements of landless peasants waiting for a land grant. In most encampments, there’s no sanitation. Prevention is hard in this situation,” said Andrietta.
As a result of the pandemic, street vendors and day laborers in small cities were joined by a mass of laid off workers and are now at risk of extreme poverty and hunger.
“We’ve been trying to promote solidarity and the organization of a sense of common life. People with more resources have to make a small sacrifice in favor of the most vulnerable ones,” the bishop added.
Andrietta said the Church is making a huge effort to keep distributing donations to poor families and to encourage the community to be supportive. “
We’re not prepared as a society to deal with this pandemic. The Church is making use of its means to influence the people towards the common good,” he said.