The Parque das Missões favela, on the north side of Rio de Janeiro, is a maze of shacks on the banks of the polluted Pavuna River, just across the bay from Galeão International Airport.
The majority of its residents are Black. Most work in the informal sector as street vendors, domestic workers or hairdressers. But for many, continuing to do their jobs has been difficult under COVID-19.
Fabiana da Silva lived there for years, and is the director of a local group that provides residents with weekly donations of nonperishable goods — it’s a lifeline for many in the community.
“People don’t have money. The government is providing an emergency stipend, but it’s not even enough to pay for cooking gas. Without gas, you don’t eat. Or, you spend your money on food and you cook over the fire, putting your home and your children at risk. That’s the reality for many families.”
“People don’t have money,” she said. “The government is providing an emergency stipend, but it’s not even enough to pay for cooking gas. Without gas, you don’t eat. Or, you spend your money on food and you cook over the fire, putting your home and your children at risk. That’s the reality for many families.”
More than 40 million Brazilians don’t have enough to eat and the hunger index has reached its highest point since 2004, according to a recent report. Unemployment is over 14%. The overwhelming majority — 72.9% — of those unemployed are Black.
More than half of Brazilians are of African descent. Three-quarters of Brazil’s poor are Black or pardo, the Portuguese term for multiracial. And they have felt the brunt of the pandemic — including myriad economic and health impacts — more than any other population in the country.
Racial inequality accessing health care
Brazil's Senate has begun an official inquiry into President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the pandemic. Though the spread of new cases of the coronavirus has been slowing in recent weeks, the country has seen almost 400,000 deaths from COVID-19. April has been the deadliest month so far, with a death toll of 70,000.
Black Brazilians have died from COVID-19 in greater numbers — 30% more than white people in 2020, according to research from the global health organization Vital Strategies and Afro CEBRAP, a São Paulo-based investigative center for race, gender and racial justice. Afro CEBRAP has produced eight reports about racial inequality under COVID-19.
“We have a lot of racial inequality in terms of accessing health, because the Black population is who most depends on Brazil’s public health care system. But it isn’t uniformly distributed around the country. It’s also more precarious. And in the period before the pandemic, there were huge cuts to funding.”
“We have a lot of racial inequality in terms of accessing health, because the Black population is who most depends on Brazil’s public health care system. But it isn’t uniformly distributed around the country,” said Márcia Lima, Afro CEBRAP’s director. “It’s also more precarious. And in the period before the pandemic, there were huge cuts to funding.”
Lima also explains that high-end health services, like intensive care units, aren’t equally distributed across Brazilian cities, so it takes Brazil’s poor and Black communities three to four times as long to reach help when in need. And they have to travel — to work and back — in packed buses.
“People are forced to take public transportation. They are forced to take it when it’s packed. And because of the traffic conditions, they have to spend a lot of time in these buses. This is an enormous means of infection,” she said.
On the north side of Rio is another favela: Jacarezinho. Cinder block homes. Narrow streets. It has a reputation for being one of Rio’s most dangerous favelas, as well as, having one of the highest concentrations of Black Brazilians.
Rita Helena Borret has been a primary doctor there for six years. She sees upwards of 30 patients a day, many of them with the coronavirus, or people who are afraid they may have it.
“We know that the Black population has more of a chance of getting seriously ill from COVID-19,” she said, “because of the high levels of diabetes and hypertension in Black communities.”
Similarly, “We know that they have less of a chance of accessing an ICU bed because of underfunding and unequal distribution of the public health care system. That’s the perversity of the situation in our country today,” she said.
She pins much of the blame on Bolsonaro, who has long denied the seriousness of the pandemic and called for the economy to remain open, despite the risk to many people’s lives, and in particular, the lives of Brazil’s poor.
“If we look at the majority of essential and informal workers in Brazil, the majority are Black, but they haven’t been prioritized in the national vaccination plan. So, the choices of who we prioritize to vaccinate first says a lot about Bolsonaro’s policies of death. It says a lot about the bodies that we’re going to let die,” she said.
As of late March, white Brazilians had received two times as many vaccinations as Black Brazilians.
“There is no doubt that we are passing through the worst moment in the country since the time of slavery.”
“There is no doubt that we are passing through the worst moment in the country since the time of slavery,” said Douglas Belchior, a history professor and member of Brazil’s Black Coalition for Rights, during an online talk about the pandemic earlier this month.
The coalition has a campaign to raise funds to provide food and cleaning products for hundreds of thousands of families in poor communities around Brazil.
“We never saw so many deaths in such a short period of time, in such concentration, in large part due to the state policies.”