The Silent Hecatomb: Pandemic in Rio’s Favelas

Rocinha favela, Rio de Janeiro. Author: Chensiyuan, Creative Commons.
Luís Costa discusses the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on residents of the favelas in Rio's divided city.

[Ed. note: This is part of a series of reports on the COVID-19 pandemic from global cities.]

Fruit and cake stalls, bars, groceries, and trinket stands line the access road to the Favela of Pavão-Pavãozinho in Rio de Janeiro. Buckets of rubble and wood scraps accumulate on the sides of the narrow street through which men and women make their way on an average Saturday morning. At the entrance to an alley, a whiteboard scrawled with a hydrographic pen advises residents to use gloves, masks, and hand sanitizer. The bar on the other side of the street has graffiti over a blue and red wall: “It is not the new coronavirus. It is the new world order.”

Set on a hill near Copacabana Beach, Pavão-Pavãozinho is one of the 763 slums in the city of Rio de Janeiro. According to the last Brazilian census, in 2010, around 1.4 million people—or 22% of the city’s residents—lived in these territories. The favelas encompass the urban peripheries in the largest Latin American country. As the COVID-19 pandemic advances in Brazil, they prepare themselves for a gloomy confrontation.

Favela, Rio. Author: Melissa Canabrava

As reported by Johns Hopkins University, in the beginning of May only the United States registered more new cases than Brazil. However, the toll is likely much higher: Brazilians, who are among the most affected on the globe, are by far the least tested. According to a survey by a group of researchers from Brazil’s national universities, it could have already surpassed 1.5 million cases at the end of April, a number almost 20 times greater than the 79,708 cases confirmed by the Ministry of Health at that time.

The data is even scarcer in the slums. Without tests, the number of infected people is often a matter of pure assumption, fueled by rumors in WhatsApp chats or by obituary notices from residents’ associations. Surveys of suspected cases made by public clinics also indicate the silent advance of the pandemic. In early May, Pavão-Pavãozinho had seven confirmed cases and two deaths from COVID-19 among its approximately 10,000 residents.

Blindly, favelas adopt alternative records of contagion. In the northern part of the city, doctors from the largest public clinic in Complexo do Alemão created an independent epidemic monitoring system. The cluster is a range of 17 slums spread over 296 hectares of hills, slopes and springs that surround the Serra da Misericórdia, a rocky massif in the northern region of Rio de Janeiro.

On May 2nd, there were 1,288 suspected cases of COVID-19 and 57 hospitalizations for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Official cases for the new coronavirus were only 17. The discrepancy in numbers is felt in the coffins coming and going in the cemetery of Inhaúma, at the foot of one of the favela’s entrances, which registered an increase of 62.7% in burials in April compared to the same period last year.

The complex has the city’s lowest Human Development Index (0.711). There, 29% of the approximately 70,000 residents live below the poverty line, with the average income being lower than half the minimum wage. Along the entrance streets of Complexo do Alemão, there are stretched handcrafted banners asking people to share water, a request repeated on stereos in cars driving around the community’s alleys. There are places where the water only reaches the taps twice a week, often in a scarce flow, almost as a drip. You have to be patient to fill and reserve buckets for the rest of the week. In the absence of water, hand sanitizer is an impossible luxury for most residents, whose average income per capita is about $45 USD per week. A quarter of the residents have no source of income.1Carvalho, C., Fridman, F., & Strauch, J. (2019). Desigualdade, escala e políticas públicas: uma análise espacial dos equipamentos públicos nas favelas cariocas. urbe. Revista Brasileira de Gestão Urbana, 11, e20180053. .

“COVID,” “pandemic,” “SARS,” and “lockdown” are words not commonly found in the lexicon of a population in which less than 50% have completed elementary school. A warm water, salt and vinegar gargling recipe promises to kill the virus still in the throat. In another fake news post, it is said that alkaline fruits make the body immune to the disease. An anonymous WhatsApp audio circulated in the favela warns about supposedly contaminated masks from China that would be distributed in the community.

Having relied on informality, the local economy barely adapts to self-isolation. In the Nova Brasília favela, bars and grocery stores are open, and street fairs attract hustle and bustle from locals and traders daily. Banks and lottery houses gather lines with people looking for the emergency assistance of approximately 100 dollars, just over half of the monthly minimum wage, offered by the federal government to unemployed and informal workers.

The denial of the destructive potential of the pandemic also fuels the skepticism. The neo-Pentecostal star-pastor Silas Malafaia, whose churches have branches throughout the complex (there are at least 11 in the vicinity of the hill), vociferates to his 1.4 million followers on Twitter against what he considers to be an exaggeration by the press when dealing with the pandemic. Malafaia is one of the most important religious allies of President Jair Bolsonaro, the leader of the Brazilian far-right who, since the beginning of the crisis, has used TV and radio broadcasts four times for public statements to minimize the risks of the pandemic. In the most famous of them, he called it a “little flu.”

In the favela, the so-called coletivos—formed by young residents of the community—try to create strategies to mitigate contagion. From Papo Reto came a didactic explanation about the risks of the pandemic through the popular rhythm of funk, whose electronic beat is echoed from the speakers fixed on top of the favela’s electrical wiring poles. Their members are among the founders of the “Crisis Office,” a part of the coletivos’ task force to orient the community and to collect and distribute basic needs, such as food baskets and hygiene items.

Complexo do Alemão. Author: Portal Voz das Comunidades

On the morning of April 27th, the Office had to abandon its schedule for that day after shots were heard in Fazendinha during a Military Police operation against drug trafficking. Hours later, doctors at the main public emergency room in the favela needed to suspend COVID-19 service to focus on removing bullets from newly injured patients. In April alone, Complexo do Alemão recorded 22 shootings, according to Fogo Cruzado, a virtual map from Amnesty International that monitors violence in the city.

In the early 1990s, the feeling of a shattered city, broken by urban violence, spread throughout Rio’s society. This sentiment not only permeated the academic field, especially regarding urban studies, but it was inoculated into everyday life in the city, fueled by extensive media coverage. At that moment, a series of major and well-registered episodes helped to shape the idea of ​​a city in flames. In July 1993, eight young homeless individuals were killed in an attack while they were sleeping downtown near the Church of Candelária, in an act of revenge perpetrated by police officers against minor criminal activities that some of them used to commit in the region. A month later, a death squad killed 21 residents of the Vigário Geral favela as retaliation against the assassination of a police officer by local drug dealers. In addition to those two episodes, the arrastões—a name given to a wave of mass robberies at Rio’s beaches which were led by young favela residents—started to gain media attention.

While violence increased in Rio, soon the idea of ​​a divided city emerged, highlighting a clear border between our city and their city. Favelas appeared in the media from a monochorionic perspective of a territory of violence and shambles—not only urban dysfunction, but above all a matter of public security. One of the main consequences of this division, in the public discourse, was the formation of a lasting rhetorical field, largely echoed and supported by the media, based on the defense of harsh and direct confrontation in the favelas, seen as a territory that fosters crime and threatens the formal city.2Márcia Pereira Leite, “Entre o indivíduo e a solidariedade. Dilemas da política e da cidadania no Rio de Janeiro”. RBCS 15, no. 44 (October 2000).

The representation of favelas as spaces of terror and violence resulted in the formation of the metaphor of the city at war, whose enemy was hiding in the alleys of the favelas, lurking to invade the city. The favelas were portrayed as the place of disorder and dysfunction, a geographical and human complex that provides the media with a script and characters of fear and strangeness.3Alba Zaluar and Marcos Alvito (eds.) Um século de favela. Rio de Janeiro: FGV, 2004. For example, Complexo do Alemão, a former bunker of drug trafficking in Rio, was occupied in 2010 by state security forces in a mega-operation in order to embed the so-called peacemaking police, a public security model for permanent military occupation of conflicted areas that Rio adopted in 2007. The model, which was expected to provide development and to promote the integration of the favelas into the formal city, quickly decayed and, like every fall, it became a symbol. In July 2013, bricklayer Amarildo Souza disappeared in the favela of Rocinha, a geographical colossus of 70,000 inhabitants on the banks of São Conrado Beach. Investigations concluded that Souza, illegally detained in a bar for allegedly storing weapons and ammunition for local drug dealers, was taken into custody and experienced 40 minutes of electric shocks, drowning and suffocating by plastic bags before he died. His body was never found.

The most populous slum in Brazil, Rocinha has the largest official number of COVID-19 cases among favelas in Rio. Its houses have poor ventilation and sunlight scarcely reaches some rooms, requiring lamplight even in the morning. Self-isolation is physically unattainable. If it were a city, Rocinha, with its 48,258 inhabitants per square kilometer, would have the highest population density in the world. New York, the global epicenter of COVID-19 and the densest American city, is about five times less dense.

The irregular topography of Rio de Janeiro’s landscape gave rise to the metaphors that, in the vocabulary of the city, underline the social separation between favelas and formal urban spaces. On the asphalt, would live the formal city governed by the rule of law, whose dwellers have rights and duties. On the hill, would live the erratically built impromptu housing complexes of the favelas, in which rights are residual and precarious, not guarded but endangered by the state’s police.

Journalist Zuenir Ventura, in a 1994 classic, coined the term by which the inequality between the hill and the asphalt would become known in urban and public security studies. Cidade partida, or “divided city,” described the phenomenon of two irreconcilable cities squeezed between the sea and the mountain, living spatially close, but socially distant lives.4Zuenir Ventura, Cidade Partida. Rio de Janeiro: Companhia das Letras, 1994. From the Rio favelas, Rocinha is an example of the ambiguity conveyed by this image. Established between upper-class neighborhoods in the city, its residents are the providers of the most basic services in the asphalt. Almost 30% of women are maids, the majority serving the upper-class condominiums that line the Atlantic coast of Rio, where the coronavirus first appeared in the city. The gradual and silent escalation of the contagion from the asphalt to the hill underlines the paradox of far proximity between cities that share the same territory. Unevenly integrated, favelas enter into the crisis of the new coronavirus broken by the historical legacy of marginalization, whose fragile conditions make fertile ground for a human tragedy. However, in the pandemic, the social abyss that defines inequality in the city is still hidden by the morbid and uncertain death estimations, only suggested by mathematical projections and funeral tolls.


1 Carvalho, C., Fridman, F., & Strauch, J. (2019). Desigualdade, escala e políticas públicas: uma análise espacial dos equipamentos públicos nas favelas cariocas. urbe. Revista Brasileira de Gestão Urbana, 11, e20180053. .
2 Márcia Pereira Leite, “Entre o indivíduo e a solidariedade. Dilemas da política e da cidadania no Rio de Janeiro”. RBCS 15, no. 44 (October 2000).
3 Alba Zaluar and Marcos Alvito (eds.) Um século de favela. Rio de Janeiro: FGV, 2004.
4 Zuenir Ventura, Cidade Partida. Rio de Janeiro: Companhia das Letras, 1994.
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