With the state absent, low-income communities banding together to fight Covid-19

. Apr 09, 2020
With the state absent, low-income communities banding together to fight Covid-19 Santa Marta favela in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Kocheise_Lea and Lennart/Shutterstock

In 2019, a report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (Eclac) showed the extent of inequality in the continent: until last year, over 191 million people were living in poverty​​​​​​ — which represents 31.8 percent of the region’s total population. The portion living in extreme poverty reached a stunning 11.5 percent. In almost all cases, the state has failed these needy populations.

Now, with the worsening of the Covid-19 pandemic, Latin America is fearing a region-wide collapse of its

national health systems. In Ecuador, where poor and misinformed people in the Guaya region are disrespecting quarantine orders, a genuine <a href="">trail of bodies</a> can be seen on the streets. In Haiti, Latin America&#8217;s poorest country, government reports on the outbreak have been inconsistent, leaving doctors from Port-Au-Prince<a href=""> complaining of being left in the dark</a>.&nbsp;</p> <p>In Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega is nowhere to be seen for almost a month, a lack of information and consistent measures against the pandemic has encouraged people to take things into their own hands. In the capital city of Managua, citizens are leading an “unofficial” lockdown, even making fun of Mr. Ortega’s public disappearance: “do as the president, stay off the streets,” they say.&nbsp;</p> <p>Brazil, as the region&#8217;s largest and most populous country, is no stranger to cases of populations being abandoned by the state. One article on news website <em>G1</em> <a href=";utm_medium=social&amp;utm_campaign=g1">showed that</a> in the sprawling São Paulo favela of Paraisópolis, residents are banding together as a &#8220;sub-state&#8221; to solve what the government has neglected to. Alongside community leaders of the ten biggest Brazilian favelas — which they refer to as the G10 — they created a program to help families affected by both Covid-19 and the resulting lockdown.&nbsp;</p> <p>Off their own backs, the Paraisópolis residents&#8217; association has hired a full medical team and 24-hour ambulance service to care for the local community. In its first week, these doctors saw to 28 cases, not limiting themselves to Covid-19 complaints. Due to the precarity of the existing health system in the community, the new medical team are dealing with a wide variety of health complaints.&nbsp;</p> <p>Furthermore, with many favela residents having jobs in the services sector, several families have now been left without income due to the paralyzation of the in-person economy. However, residents are not waiting for the hope of financial assistance from the government, and to avoid the starvation of those who are out of gas and food, a team of 15 women is preparing and distributing around 1,300 free lunches a day.</p> <h2>People without a state, a state without a cause&nbsp;</h2> <p>Paraisópolis is an exception to the rule. While favelas in Brazil are trying to create alternatives to survive, it would require the effort of a parallel government to help all the 30 million Brazilians who don’t have access to safe drinking water.&nbsp;</p> <p>According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), at least 11.4 million people lived in favelas in 2017. In cramped and sometimes unsanitary conditions, this means that some 6 percent of all Brazilians may not even be safe from the pandemic while self-isolating at home.&nbsp;</p> <p>According to Acácio Augusto, a Unifesp professor and coordinator of international security analysis laboratory LASInTec, “the favelas, or subnormal agglomerations [as they officially described by the IBGE], already bring the potential for self-organization, while they also represent a contradiction.”&nbsp;</p> <p>“Among other factors, the favela is born as an initiative of people interested in living in the city, where the state did not impose itself in terms of urban planning. But it also maintains an ambiguous relationship: while the favela is where the state, in theory, is not present, it responds to a demand that the state itself has created,” he told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.&nbsp;</p> <p>According to the expert, the socio-cultural context of Brazil, especially throughout the 20th century, helps to understand the process that led to a series of communities to occupy new places, typically following a demand for labor. During Brazil&#8217;s industrialization period, millions were attracted to the centers of growing cities around the country, looking to live as close as possible to factories. As low-income individuals, these communities quickly became cramped and insalubrious.</p> <p>&#8220;One solution would be to institutionalize these spaces by the logic of the welfare state, where the residents of these places wouldn’t depend on these &#8216;supplementary organizations&#8217; which toe the line between legal and illegal. This is unlikely to happen, however.”</p> <h2>Organized crime, with emphasis on &#8216;organized&#8217;</h2> <p>In El Salvador, one of the poorest nations in Latin America, President Nayib Bukele’s administration reached 97-percent approval ratings since the coronavirus outbreak hit the continent. But despite his government&#8217;s huge efforts — including a state-imposed lockdown before the country had confirmed a single Covid-19 case — Salvadoran society is typical of the rest of the region, with high levels of inequality and a lack of trustworthy medical advice reaching the poorest populations.&nbsp;</p> <p>That said, the feared crime gangs known as <em>pandillas</em> have decided to impose a curfew in peripheral areas to help fight the pandemic. According to the leaders of rival groups Barrio-18 and Mara Salvatrucha, gangs will not even collect protection money from local businesses while the quarantine is in effect. A series of <a href="">videos</a> have circulated online showing alleged gang members physically punishing civilians who disrespected their isolation orders.&nbsp;</p> <p>El Salvador, at least, can count on a leader that is truly taking the Covid-19 pandemic seriously. In Brazil, under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, that’s not the case. In favelas in Rio de Janeiro, organized crime has been forced to step in as a parallel state.</p> <p>In some favelas, crime gangs and police mafias have banned traditional street parties and ordered shops to close their doors. Some residents have anonymously reported that this is now the rule in the city&#8217;s major favelas, regardless of what the federal, state, or municipal government may say.

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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