The glass towers in Sao Paulo’s financial district are shuttered, bars closed and restaurants open only for delivery. But on the outskirts of the city, residents say they can’t afford to stop working, even if it means risking their lives.
“If you stay at home, you’ll just starve to death,” said Dejair Batista, who owns a hair salon in Brasilandia, one of the biggest favelas and the deadliest neighborhood in terms of Covid-19 fatalities, according to the Sao Paulo Municipal Health Secretariat. More than 120 residents have died from complications related to the virus so far, according to officials.
Overall, Brazil is Latin America’s hardest-hit country, with the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus climbing by the thousands every day. The death toll has topped 12,000 with more than 177,000 confirmed cases, according to health officials. Nearly 4,000 of the deaths are in Sao Paulo state.
President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly dismissed Covid-19 as a “little flu” and urged businesses to reopen even as many governors scramble to implement social-isolation measures and slow the spread. Sao Paulo has been under quarantine since March.
On a recent afternoon Batista cracked open the sliding metal door to his salon, put on a mask and called out to potential clients that he was open, defying a state-wide order to close all but essential businesses.
“If I could choose, I would stay at home. But I have to go out, there is no other way,” Batista said, explaining that he supports his sister and his niece. “I’m behind on all of my bills, last month, this month.”
Brasilandia, built into the hills in the northern part of Sao Paulo, is home to more than 260,000 people. In all, according to the official census, more than 11 percent of the city’s residents live in favelas and many of them work in the informal economy that has largely disappeared during the coronavirus crisis.
Nair Barbosa cleaned houses, but was let go when the family she worked for started sheltering at home. She has signed up for the temporary federal unemployment benefit worth $100 a month and waited in a crowded line with other residents for over an hour at the government agency office in Brasilandia to pick up her first check. She came out empty handed.
“The system crashed,” she said. “I’ll have to go home and come back later today.”
According to Sao Paulo Health Secretary Edson Aparecido, although coronavirus was brought to Brazil by wealthy travelers returning from vacations in Italy and the Colorado ski slopes, the poor will be hit hardest.
“Where people are dying is on the outskirts of the city. That’s why social isolation is so important,” Aparecido said.
But, as with many of the favelas, social isolation is very difficult in Brasilandia. Multiple generations are often packed under one roof and there are few public parks or other public spaces. For healthcare, there are clinics, but no big hospitals.
“It started as the so-called imported virus by people living in better conditions,” said Aparecido. “But now that it’s gone to the outskirts, you can see what’s happening.”