Coronavirus in South America What the Death of a Maid Means for Brazil

Well-off Brazilians have brought the coronavirus back home with them from their travels. Many of them also employ domestic workers from the country's favelas - who they're apparently unwilling to protect by telling them to stay home. Brazil's poorest class could make easy quarry for the disease.
By Marian Blasberg in Rio de Janeiro
Commuters crowd into a bus in Rio de Janeiro during the coronavirus outbreak.

Commuters crowd into a bus in Rio de Janeiro during the coronavirus outbreak.

Global Societies

For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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For 63 years, Cleonice Gonçalves, a maid and domestic worker, led a life that went unnoticed by anyone in Rio de Janeiro. Gonçalves worked in a chic apartment in Leblon, down near the beach, where property values are higher than anywhere else in Brazil.

She cleaned toilets and door handles, cooked and ironed. Four days a week, she slept in the tiny servant's quarters in an apartment that belonged to her "patroa," her boss. On weekends, she drove home to Miguel Pereira, two hours away, where she lived with her family in an unplastered house beside a gravel road.

Gonçalves, who spent her life being invisible in a faceless sea of cheap labor, commuting from the slums to the city in overcrowded buses and trains, didn't register on Brazilian society's radar until she died recently. Her death terrified the country.

Commuters in Rio de Janeiro

Commuters in Rio de Janeiro

Foto: Silvia Izquierdo/ AP

Gonçalves' boss, the media reported, had traveled to Italy for Carnival. After returning home, the elderly woman had herself tested for the coronavirus, though she didn't think it necessary to inform Gonçalves of this fact -- or to withhold her services while she waited for her test results.

Things continued as normal until Gonçalves sought medical attention on March 13 because of pain during urination. The doctor prescribed her an antibiotic. Two days later, she started having trouble breathing. Gonçalvez, who was a diabetic and suffered from high blood pressure, went to a hospital, but again, no one recognized her symptoms.

Gonçalves died on March 17, the same day her "patroa" received her positive test result. The fact that a woman like Gonçalves became, in all likelihood, Rio de Janeiro's first coronavirus victim, was more than just symbolic. It was a harbinger.

A Virus Carried in by Elites

Like in many other countries in the southern hemisphere, the coronavirus was brought to Brazil by a wealthy, predominantly white middle and upper class -- people who have the means to travel. It's no coincidence that Rio de Janeiro's first coronavirus cases were reported in the wealthy urban areas of Leblon and Ipanema.

But there's an even bigger concern: What will happen if the virus first begins to spread in the poorer neighborhoods, where the people live who keep city life going, domestic workers like Gonçalves, the cooks and nannies, doormen, supermarket cashiers, bartenders and waiters and all the merchants who sell their wares on the sidewalks?

The daily newspaper O Globo articulated this fear a few days ago in a massive, front-page photo that required no further explanation. It showed a section of the favela Rocinha, a boundless tangle of houses and huts all nestled on top of one another. It's a place where tens of thousands of people live together in an extremely confined space.

In the Rochinha favela, around 50,000 people crowd into a single square kilometer.

In the Rochinha favela, around 50,000 people crowd into a single square kilometer.


Not only did the image seem to carry an apocalyptic message for what was to come, it could have also been interpreted as a call for help aimed at Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, who was initially adamant in his dismissals of the virus as a "minor flu." Brazil can't be compared to Italy, the president said not long ago. Italy has 200 inhabitants per square kilometer who are overwhelmingly old. In Brazil, there are 24 people per square kilometer, and they are predominantly young. But this is statistical nonsense, and it has left a growing number of Brazilians shaking their heads.

According to official figures, there are almost 50,000 people crowded into a single square kilometer in a place like Rocinha. In the Complexo de Maré, there are 31,000. In the Complexo do Alemao, there are 23,000. A total of 1.7 million people live in the nearly 1,000 favelas of Rio de Janeiro -- and conditions there are often extremely precarious.

The state has withdrawn from many of these settlements, allowing them to be taken over by militias or drug gangs. Uncollected garbage piles up on many street corners. Sewage flows out in the open. In homes where six or seven people share a single room, social distancing is illusory.

A homeless person in Rio de Janeiro

A homeless person in Rio de Janeiro

Foto: Wagner Meier/ Getty Images

These days, as life in Rio de Janeiro reluctantly slows to a halt, the coronavirus is spreading in places like this. There are confirmed cases in numerous favelas and dozens more suspected cases. This is one of the reasons why Bolsonaro's minister of health, Luis Henrique Mandetta, has now said that the country's health care system will probably collapse by the end of April.

"If nothing is done, a tsunami will hit the public hospitals!" says Raull Santiago, a young man who lives with his wife and four children in a small house in Complexo do Alemao. He believes the real problem lies in Brazil's social inequality. As a poor person, he's at risk.

Raull Santiago wonders what will happen to the neediest people who don't have any savings or a social safety net.

Raull Santiago wonders what will happen to the neediest people who don't have any savings or a social safety net.

Foto: privat

"All it takes is one look at what's going on with the water," Santiago says. The water does, in fact, seem to be jinxed this year. In January in Rio, all that came out of people's faucets was a brown, foul-smelling soup, because no one noticed that an algae had contaminated the municipal wastewater treatment facility. In February, it rained so heavily that there were mudslides in some favelas. Entire houses were dragged down the steep hillsides, burying their inhabitants underneath. Santiago says the tap water is reasonably clean again, but several days a week, nothing comes out of the faucet at all for some reason. This makes it impossible for people to follow the first rule of virus prevention: wash your hands regularly.

Hand sanitizer gel, which has been part of everyday life for many Brazilians since the swine flu in 2009, is now so hard to find that even a small bottle costs a fortune. "Up here on our hill: three euros, sometimes four or five," Santiago says.

A volunteer carries soap and laundry detergent to the Rochinha favela.

A volunteer carries soap and laundry detergent to the Rochinha favela.

Foto: Leo Correa/ AP

A few years ago, Santiago founded an artists' collective with a few friends. They called it "Papo Reto," or straight talk. During the collective's events, he would normally talk about topics like violence or racism. These days, though, he's having posters printed that he and the others will hang in strategic places in the favela, like the entrances or where the taxis and buses are, which many people still rely on to get to work in the city. They suggest, for instance, that people who still have water should collect it in buckets and share it with their neighbors.

Several times a day, Santiago and his friends drive around the favela with a loudspeaker and remind residents to avoid large crowds and ventilate their homes thoroughly. He says they're taking action because the government isn't doing enough.

How Will They Eat?

No one knows exactly how many Brazilians work in precarious conditions. Or how many are losing their jobs these days. The question is: Who's looking after these people? What will happen to the neediest people, who have no savings and who aren't protected by any social safety net? How will they eat?

People wait in line in Rio de Janeiro for coffee and bread.

People wait in line in Rio de Janeiro for coffee and bread.

Foto: Wagner Meier/ Getty Images

In order to prevent a humanitarian emergency, the national favela association CUFA published a catalog of 14 demands. One of them was that residents of the slums be provided with free soap for the duration of the crisis. Internet access should also be free, they argued, so that people could keep informed. Support is also needed for the owners of small shops. And those who have been hardest hit should be receiving regular food packages.

CUFA Chairman Zezé Preto expects their demands to fall on deaf ears within the government. "They're not interested in people like us," he says.

Paulo Guedes, Bolsonaro's neoliberal economy minister, said recently that the poorest of the poor could be given 200 Brazilian real (34.89 euros) a month, but no one has heard anything about this proposal since. Bolsonaro himself tends to concern himself with other things. In his eyes, panic over the coronavirus will only lead to an unnecessary slump in Brazil's economic growth. That's why he's now demanding that governors reopen businesses in their states. Traffic should return to normal and schools should be reopened, since children and young people aren't at great risk of suffering from COVID-19.

A man like the renowned infectologist Edimilson Migowski has a hard time remaining calm when he hears such statements. The virus is spreading faster than many experts expected, he says, adding that if the government doesn't act, it will be too late.

It's important to keep an eye on poor populations especially, Migowski says. Due to the circumstances of their lives, a disproportionate number of them suffer from pre-existing conditions. A lack of proper hygiene and dark, poorly ventilated rooms mean that the proportion of people suffering from tuberculosis or asthma is five times higher in the favelas than in more affluent districts. There are also many diabetics due to poor nutrition.

"If you want to protect these people," Migowski says, "then you have to try and isolate them somehow, even if it's in empty hotels. In order to prevent them from spreading the virus, they must be tested as early as possible. And not only the severe cases, but also the mild ones, because they are no less contagious." Over the weekend, it was revealed that the city was renting hotels to isolate the elderly from the favelas.

Where Poor People Go for Medical Attention

But Brazil still doesn't have enough tests. And hospitals don't have enough protective masks and gloves. In Rio, cuts in the billions to the public health care system have resulted in the loss of 1,051 intensive care beds at the city's hospitals in the past two years alone. Personnel at hundreds of family clinics, which offer free initial consultations, has been thinned out to such an extent since the economic crisis that began in 2014, that they can now only reach half the population. Some of the clinics are kept open by unskilled workers because so many doctors have quit their jobs after not receiving their salaries for so long.

These are the places where people like Cleonice Gonçalves go when they're feeling sick. They were overwhelmed even before the coronavirus hit.

Today, tents have been hastily erected in front of many of these clinics in order to separate coronavirus patients from others. Soldiers have also set up several field hospitals around the city, but Raull Santiago, the activist from the Complexo do Alemao, is still preparing for the worst. "Our best case scenario would be to have a situation like Italy," he says.

Recently, a night-time curfew went into effect in some of the city's favelas. Over loudspeakers and WhatsApp, the drug gangs made an announcement: "We want only the best for our people. If the government is incapable of providing security, organized crime will."

This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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