COVID in Rio: between prudent favelas and a genocide Republic

COVID in Rio: between prudent favelas and a genocide Republic

Marcelo Carvalho Loureiro

Brazil as a nation-state encompasses diverse and opposed socio-economic realities which co-exist in neighbouring territories, but do not share the same national reality. A 25-minute drive separates the neighbourhood of Rio das Pedras – an urban favela founded in the 1970s with a human development index (HDI) as low as Botswana’s – and Leblon – Rio’s South side neighbourhood home to economic and political elite holder of a HDI superior to the one of Norway. The two regions, despite being far from one another on the socio-economic aspect, are highly interdependent when it comes to their local development, their services and labour force.

Daily, several workers from Rio das Pedras and surrounding communities, some dating back to the slave enclosures of the 1880s, travel to Leblon and the neighbouring civil parishes of Ipanema and Copacabana for work. This economic micro-migration from small, overcrowded and improvised homes in the favelas to the heart of Rio’s South side is normally done in overpeopled city buses that connect the two divergent realities.

The relationship between Rio das Pedras and Leblon, is just one of the hundreds of other urban interdependent relations between poor and rich regions that rely on one another for income on the one hand, and services on the other. If episodes of this separate-but-equal contexts are already remarkable in their normal (abnormal) conditions, with COVID-19 the socio-economic canyon between the social groups living in poor and rich zones expanded even more.

With flights departing from Italy to Rio and São Paulo being the main instruments for the spread of the disease in the country, wealthy residents were the initial vectors for the dissemination of the virus in Brazil. The number of cases in Rio are still concentrated in the richer zones of the city, but lately the number of infected residents of favelised and marginal areas of the metropolitan region has been increasing considerably.

However, focusing on the cases instead of the deaths of Brazilian citizens can be a tricky manoeuvre. While the death rate in the richer zones of Barra and Leblon vary between 2,5 and 4,2% the ones in the poorer areas of the city, such as Campo Grande, Realengo and Bangu, reach numbers between 12,3 and 21,1%.

The high mortality rate of Brazilian favelised zones revealed and increased by the Covid pandemic sheds light on the systematic oppression this marginalised population has been suffering, especially after the political coup of 2018 that removed Dilma Rousseff. This biopower tactic to eliminate marginalised population is now based on a triple strategy: i) a continuous depletion and weakening of the under-resourced Brazilian Universal Health System, Sistema Único de Saúde or SUS, responsible for delivering health solutions for more than 200 million citizens; ii) an increasingly aberrant government that targets the elimination of minorities by both political force and anti-scientific manoeuvres; and finally  iii) the inflation of an anti-democratic ideal amongst middle and upper classes through fire-hosing propaganda directed at eliminating Brazilian Labourism and on the political and social ‘other’.

The conflation of these three elements constitute what can be understood as a genocide republic in action, a government acting actively not only to eliminate its political opposition, but to ablate all traces that constitute ideals of alterity inside both polity and society.

Bolsonaro’s reiterated position in denying the gravity of the virus, in proposing prophylactic home use of Hydroxychloroquine, in stating the non-transferability of the virus to poorer populations used to filth and wretchedness and in ignoring global guidelines on prevention changed the rules of the political game in the country. If by the end of 2019, Mr Bolsonaro and his far-right coalition possessed sturdy popular and political approval, despite the growing number of Brazilian self-exiles in Europe and the economic failure of his neoliberal agenda, the scenario started to deteriorate with the pandemic.

Formerly, allied state governors of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo broke with Bolsonaro’s administration in late February to start imposing WTO guidelines on Covid-19 prevention. Even the more faithful popular movements, municipal and state allies started to abandon the far-right coalition when, despite the approval rate of 71%, the president removed Luiz Mandetta from the head of the health portfolio due to irreconcilable political differences regarding social distancing and economic priorities.

Bolsonaro’s complete disregard for citizen’s lives and basic constitutional rights, whose breaches he promotes live and effusively through his nationally televised speeches, started to trigger actions from every political segment of Brazilian society. The most surprising examples coming from Brazilian micro-structures of power came from the para-military organisations inside Rio’s favelas in trying to contain the virus. Mandatory curfew was established and reinforced, bars and restaurants were requested to remain closed, traditional funk-style musical events were cancelled and forbidden for the forceable future, self-isolation was thoroughly imposed and business were just allowed to work on a takeaway basis.

Amongst generalised national confusion with a federal government in scientific denial intimidating states not to follow global guidelines on prevention, the poorest enclaves of the country controlled by para-military parallel power were the ones imposing WHO measures to prevent more mortality. COVID-19 contention measures were imposed in the majority of favela complexes in the city of Rio, including the two biggest favelas of Rocinha, located between Leblon and Barra, and Complexo do Alemão, spread between several neighbours of the Northern zone of the city.

The complexity of Brazilian political power and the existence of a highly polarised society and polity created in Brazil’s most vulnerable citizenry an even more pronounced distance from official State powers and a natural proximity to the parallel powers present in the forgotten territories of favelas. Wherever the official force of the genocide Republic cannot control, federalised states and the local parallel powers inside favelas, now follow the same prudent strategy. Both of these political actors are attempting to preserve the already endangered lives of the political and social outcasts of Brazilian society, who now besides having to deal with economic misery and political exclusion, are also confronted with a bio-political act of genocide eugenics.


Marcelo Carvalho Loureiro is a lawyer and political scientist developing his PhD in Postcoloniality and Citizenship Law at the Law School of the University of Birmingham, where he is also a Teaching Fellow in Political Sciences and Law. He is deputy convenor of the Global Legal Studies Group at Birmingham Law a member of the DECISO – Research Group in Law and Social Sciences of the Institute of Social and Political Studies (UERJ-Rio de Janeiro).

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