SÃO PAULO — With more than 33,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 2,600 deaths, São Paulo, is the epicenter of the pandemic in the South American country, claiming nearly one fifth of its total number of deaths.

The largest city in Brazil – and where the first Brazilian patients with the disease were identified – is still on the rising side of the curve of contagion, with poor districts being particularly hard-hit.

The situation in the city led Pope Francis to call Cardinal Odilo Scherer, Archbishop of São Paulo, on May 9. According to Scherer, the Pope expressed his particular concern for the poor during their phone conversation.

“There’s a number of complicating factors in the city, like the enormity of the human community, the poverty of a relevant part of its population, and the difficulties of assuring the effectiveness of precautionary measures,” Scherer told Crux.

Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of São Paulo is pictured celebrating Mass at the São Paulo Cathedral in 2013. (Credit: Paulo Whitaker/Reuters via CNS.)

The cardinal said despite the adequate efforts taken by the local authorities, there’s a risk of the healthcare system collapsing in the city. The bed occupancy rate of São Paulo’s hospitals reached 90 percent last week.

“Many people simply cannot stay home and that makes controlling the pandemic very difficult,” added Scherer.

Around 60 percent of the deaths in São Paulo occur in poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, where the social distancing rate is lower than in more affluent districts, which are usually close to the downtown region.

The area with the biggest number of deaths is Brasilândia, a working-class district with 260,000 inhabitants, many of them living in slums. At least 123 people have died from COVID-19 in the neighborhood.

“This disease came by plane with the rich, but we knew that its impact among the poor would be devastating,” said Auxiliary Bishop Devair Araújo da Fonseca, who oversees the area.

Fonseca told Crux that social distancing is impracticable for many in Brasilândia.

“In favelas, commonly three or four families share a small area. People have to leave their houses to work and bring the virus with them when they come back,” he said.

Volunteers working at Santo Antônio do Pari church in São Paulo, Brazil. (Credit: Father Wilson Simão/Courtesy to Crux.)

Most shops and local business are still open, even though the State government decreed that only a small number of essential activities should keep active.

“I’ve also seen a few small Neo-Pentecostal churches holding services,” Fonseca added.

Since the outbreak started in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has tried to minimize the seriousness of the disease, calling it a “little flu.”

He has promoted the idea of a so-called “vertical confinement,” in which only people with high risk of developing complications should be isolated. Bolsonaro has continually refused establishing a nationwide lockdown and has criticized Brazilian state governors who did so, especially João Dória Jr., São Paulo’s governor and Bolsonaro’s potential adversary in then next presidential election in 2022.

Bolsonaro has been backed by most Evangelical leaders in Brazil, and many Protestant ministers argue that social distancing measures aren’t necessary. In 2018, 53 percent of Brasilândia’s residents voted for the president, who ran on a strong law-and-order platform.

“When a high authority speaks, people listen to him. The people who voted for Bolsonaro still believe in him. He should be held criminally responsible for what he’s doing,” said Juçara Zottis, a lay Catholic activist in Brasilândia.

Zottis is part of a network of volunteers and civil society organizations that was constituted in Brasilândia a few weeks ago to deal with the pandemic.

Local parishes and other Catholic leaders are a vital part of that effort, Zottis told Crux.

“In the 1980s, our district was a strong model of popular Catholicism and commitment with the poor in São Paulo. Most of the current community organizers began to work in connection to the Church,” she said.

The alliance, named Rede Brasilândia Solidária [Brasilândia Solidarity Network], has already distributed 200,000 face masks in the neighborhood – its goal is to give out 500,000.

Volunteers working at Santo Antônio do Pari church in São Paulo, Brazil. (Credit: Father Wilson Simão/Courtesy to Crux.)

It’s also organizing food donations and working to raise consciousness on safety measures through the community radio station that Zottis coordinates.

“We received a donation of 12,000 hygiene kits from the Red Cross and have begun to distribute them now,” she continued.

Zottis says the government should be more effective in controlling the concentration of people on the streets and the parties organized by young people.

“The prefecture should also designate places such as local schools to shelter suspected cases of infection, given that most people aren’t able to remain isolated at home,” she said. Such centralized quarantine measures have been effective in fighting the disease in several Asian countries.

The movement has put pressure on the city government to inaugurate a local hospital a few weeks ago. The building’s construction had already been completed, but the hospital wasn’t open. Now it’s partially active.

Another district with a high mortality rate in São Paulo is the downtown neighborhood of Pari. With only 19,000 residents, the one-time industrial district is now a commercial zone, full of shops – and some of them remain irregularly open. There are currently 57.7 deaths per 100,000 in Pari, the second highest rate in São Paulo.

“There’s a significant population of elderly people, who are more susceptible to the disease. The husband of a very active lady of our parish was one of the fatalities,” Franciscan Father Wilson Simão, vicar of the parish of Saint Anthony of Pari, told Crux.

According to Simão, there is a growing number of people coming to the church to ask for food.

“Pari has a large population of immigrants, mainly from Bolivia. They usually work at sewing workshops, but now they aren’t able to sell their products,” he said. Volunteers are coordinating the distribution of donations among the immigrants. The parish’s industrial kitchen is currently being used by Franciscans from other regions who are cooking meals for homeless people.

Some of the people who died from COVID-19 had been hospitalized at the Emílio Ribas Institute of Infectiology, a specialized public healthcare unit. Father João Mildner, the hospital chaplain, told Crux that he has been providing hygiene kits to many patients since the outbreak started.

“Given that they’re kept in total isolation, their relatives don’t know their needs, so I try to help them. It’s a sad process,” he said.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, with hand on chest, attends a flag raising ceremony with his ministers outside Alvorada palace, the presidential residence in Brasilia, Brazil, Tuesday, May 12, 2020. The morning ceremony flew Brazil’s flag at half mast to mourn those who have died from the new coronavirus. (Credit: Eraldo Peres/AP.)

Mildner is only allowed contact with the sick only when they ask to receive the anointing of the sick. “Our presence brings them comfort. I daily try to encourage the healthcare professionals too,” he added.

The priest has been working at the Institute since 1992, when a large wave of HIV cases swept across Brazil.

“The Catholic Church was on the vanguard then, taking care and providing a home to sick people who were feared by their own families. It’s on the vanguard again now. Catholic communities have been extremely active in taking care of the sick and poor,” Mildner said.

Scherer stressed that the Church has been not only assisting the needy, but also working to prevent the further spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Since March, the archdiocese suspended all public celebrations and Masses and began to hold online services. Mildner, who is also the State coordinator of the Healthcare Pastoral Commission in São Paulo, says such attitude was very important to show to the Catholic people the seriousness of the disease.

Despite the fact that the spread of the virus hasn’t slowed in São Paulo, some Catholic Traditionalist groups have been putting pressure on the Brazilian episcopate to resume public Masses.

“It’s understandable that many people feel the need to take part in public celebrations in the churches, but I think we need a little more patience. We’re still getting to the most acute phase of the pandemic and it wouldn’t be prudent to resume presential celebrations,” Scherer told Crux. “[Virtual celebrations] are not the ideal or definitive form of celebrating, but it’s what we can do now.”