In the absence of state assistance — President Jair Bolsonaro has pledged to crush criminals “like cockroaches” — gangs have intensified. Where before they peddled narcotics with the gun rule, now they also push curfews, social distancing and food distributions for the poorest.
“We fear the virus, not Bolsonaro,” said Ronaldo, a gang member who, like most interviewees, either requested anonymity or gave a false name. “We cannot count exactly how many have already died. Hospitals kill more than if you stay home and take care of yourself.
A drug gang granted CNN access to one of Rio’s poorest and most socially isolated communities to illustrate how it treated Covide-19. It is an area inaccessible to state health care. Alcohol gel, drugs and cash donations are all part of a system that gang members were eager to post, with Brazil now the country with the second highest number of coronavirus infections behind the United States, and where cases are still doubling every two weeks.
Four young men get off their motorcycles and start lifting large plastic bags from the back of a pickup truck. The first pack of groceries goes to a manicurist who has been unemployed for four months. The second goes to a street vendor.
“Things are getting very difficult,” said the street vendor, who requested anonymity. She says she is trying to set up a stand in the community, but there is no one to buy her products.
“I’m at least trying,” she says. “Children and a lot of people get sick. The food they give us helps a lot.
She says her stepfather died in April from Covid-19. He appeared stable, she added, until he was transferred to the hospital, where he died later that day.
“Ustingt now, we didn’t have a full report on what happened, except it was Covide-19,” she says. It took two weeks for him to be buried. »
She says her uncle is now ill and hospitalized after catching the virus while he was at work at the supermarket.
Medical assistance is available in the community, and hospitalizations are rare.
“The doctors in the community voluntarily help the sick,” said Ronaldo. People who have money can get help. Those who just can’t.
The local community sometimes fleas to pay for funerals, says Ronaldo.
“The isolation was going well here, but now even the president himself – in his own words – is ignoring it,” Ronaldo said. “We can’t facilitate it. We’ve seen a lot of deaths. We know that is not a small thing.
While he was talking, two teenagers were playing at the nearby pool. Many here violate the rules of social distancing, as they do on the richer coast below.
“It’s hard to impose quarantine on people,” Ronaldo said.
These drug dealers — young and armed with old semi-automatic rifles, short-barreled M4 and, in Ronaldo’s case, a Glock pistol suitable for a rifle — have become as knowledgeable about Covide-19 as they are about narcotics.
When asked if they would accept one of the two million doses of hydroxychloroquine that the United States has agreed to send to Brazil — despite the fact that the drug is deemed ineffective against Covide-19, and possibly dangerous by the World Health Organization — Ronaldo replies:
“I don’t think hydroxychloroquine helps. It’s BS. Everything that comes from Brazil from abroad has already been contaminated.
The streets seem busy for curfew. The bars are closed, however, and business has adapted to the pandemic.
Neia, a hairdresser before the pandemic, turned to making masks. She sells them through her front window, which allows her to stay indoors. They are free for children, and three masks cost 10 reals (about 1.75 $US) for adults. But Neia says the dealers give her 15 reals.
“I’m more afraid of the virus than anything else here,” she said. “An elderly man who lives there (next to her house) has died. In general, people respect isolation.
Crime has often cut this community off from the rest of Rio. Police regularly raid the area as part of Bolsonaro’s crackdown on favelas. He said that a police officer who does not kill is not a real police officer. And the resulting rise in deadly operations has sparked an outcry from human rights defenders.
The most recent raid near this favela occurred ten days ago and left at least seven people dead. Signs of another raid may be in its path are everywhere: a big rock blocks a road, the sound of firecrackers from a roof – a warning that a lookout has seen something strange, and the police can come back.
Almost everyone we spoke to had a history of death or coronavirus infection. Daniel, who runs a street food stand, told stories of deaths he had heard about while preparing pastels.
“Today there was a girl who lives nearby who died,” he said, adding one of his friends with diabetes and heart disease also died suddenly at home. The street where he lives left two people dead, he said.
“There’s less movement in the streets,” Daniel said. “E wash my hands here all the time. I use a lot of hand gel, masks and I clean the stall a lot.
Dealers have banned restaurants from leaving tables, he said.
“The virus is in control here,” Daniel said. “Even dealers are afraid. It is not possible to control everyone.
Motorcycles whistle back and forth, some carrying armed men, others carrying teenage girls for the night. The streets are buzzing with activity. Sometimes it feels like a world before the locks.
But the locals say so are pretty empty. Bars, they say, normally humming with music and drug trafficking would be more prevalent.
Areas like these will be a lasting concern for health care workers as the pandemic develops. The state will know little about how the virus has spread in these communities. Residents here can live outside Rio’s wealthier neighbourhoods, but many work there, nonetheless, and can spread the virus.
The firecrackers suddenly crackle again, and a lookout fears that the police are on their way.