Rio de Janeiro’s Favelas During the Covid-19 Pandemic: Neglect, abuse and resistance

Ana Clara Ribeiro Pellicer
BSc Anthropology

At first, a virus contamination on a global scale seems a democratic phenomenon, that does not distinguish who it strikes. However, the crises caused by the pandemic has served to evidence socioeconomic and territorial inequality. When the pandemic reached Brazil, it found a country fragilized, under strong austerity policies and dismantlement of social security. Example of this is the freezing of public spending on health and education for 20 years (issued by the Constitutional Amendment 95) the withdrawal of labour rights and pension law, the chronic underfunding of SUS (the public health system) and the attack on public universities through cuts on research grants. Within this scenario, a large pre-existing inequality became even more extreme. In urban spaces, the most vulnerable are the ones who live in subnormal living conditions such as homeless people and what is the focus of this essay: ‘favelados’, a population that has had a history of neglect, abuse and resistance. The aim of this essay is to address the deliberately promoted hyper-precarisation of life conditions in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas and explore the different modes of resistance and initiatives that emerge from within these localities during this pandemic. Even though each favela has very specific characteristics and aspects to their history, I will be referring to general aspects and focussing on the state of Rio de Janeiro, aware of the many exceptions. I will do so by firstly, very briefly presenting the historical politics of the landscape and its consequential characteristics (Tilley 2017); secondly by analysing some of the government action (and the lack of it) when it comes to dealing with the consequences of such prolonged history of neglect and abuse through this pandemic, using of concepts such as ‘Government by Scarcity’ (Freire, 2019), Biopolitics (Foucault 1976) and Necropolitics (Mbembe 2016); thirdly, almost as a postscript to the conclusion due to the word count limit is a brief note of the modes of resistance that emerged from these places; and an aspect that will follow this text throughout is, in the words of Silvio Almeida, ‘We cannot talk about politics, economics, law and communication without dealing with matters of race. Even more in a country like Brazil. What we want to point out is an element that is central to understanding reality as it is and how without it the rest becomes compromised even (specially) from a scientific point of view.”

Firstly, it is essential to address the historical politics of the landscape and its consequential characteristics that deeply affect all its residents in the past and even more during the ongoing coronavirus crisis. When it comes to analysing landscape, it is important to note that “We are not somehow outside it or contained by it; landscape is part of ourselves, a thing in which we move and think. Therefore, we cannot think of it in any way we like. It is not a blank slate for conceptual or imaginative thought but a material form” (Tilley and Cameron Daum 2017). The landscapes of favelas are not just a background for human action, people make them and are made by them. In Rio de Janeiro they emerged at the end of the 19th century after the Canudos War (Cunha 2008). When low-income populations (migrants, previously enslaved black people and other poor people who had no access to transportation and could not sustain a life in the periphery of the city) started to occupy hills in its centre, therefore being closer to where they worked. (Ferreira, 2009). The landscapes of the favelas were deeply influenced by its residents being “regularly forced to negotiate the terms by which their presence would be tolerated, so as to avoid invasion and removal” (Cunha 2008). The removals in the 60s and 70s were responsible for the displacement of around 140,000 people (Skidmore 2010). The historical and structural neglect of this area and its racialised and poor population, led to characteristics that are already detrimental to someone’s health as it is, and during the Covid-19 pandemic they mean the difference between life and death. Aspects such as not having regular and adequate access to water, basic sanitation, internet tools and technological apparatus, living in super populated areas and the majority of work being Informal and street-dependent. How can they protect themselves as advised, if in order to wash their hands regularly and quarantine they need water, sanitation and basic housing conditions? And what should they do if ‘being safe’ and not going to work means the imminent danger of hunger to themselves and their families?

Secondly, government action (or the lack of it) regarding favelas during this pandemic has put people’s lives at risk promoting a hyper-precarisation of living conditions. The president, Jair Bolsonaro, confirmed that only the daily data about the new coronavirus will be released and such modification leads to a justified concern towards data manipulation and its reliability (DW 2020). In the State of Rio de Janeiro, forced evictions and removals are still happening even though the Public Defensory of the State of Rio de Janeiro has already filed actions aiming to suspend such initiatives until the end of the critical stage of the pandemic; when it comes to SUS (public healthcare system) the current carioca city hall management has fired in the last few years hundreds of healthcare employees, closed clinics for the family, reduced the teams handling primary healthcare (more than 300 have been dismantled in this period) and made significant cuts in this area’s budget (Magalhães 2020). This is only a few examples that show explicit intention in making it even harder to survive as a favelado. An important concept when trying to understand neglect of certain populations in Brazil is ‘Government by scarcity’ (Freire 2019). It constitutes itself by actions that produce a notion that the public resources are ‘limited’ and ‘scarce’, in a way that its distribution and utilisation always depend on the establishment of priorities and equilibrium between individual needs and collective health policies. In short, the scarcity is not some type of ‘raw data’ of reality, but the fruits of a constant and excessive elaboration and reinstatement of an idea (Freire, 2019). In that sense, these policies of hyper-precarisation hidden behind a Government by Scarcity is a way of enabling Necropolitics (Mbembe 2016), that is, when the production of death (and a life constantly exposed to death) transforms itself in the central goal of the calculations of power.   

Following on the concept of Necropolitics (Mebmbe 2016) as a rereading of Foucault’s ‘Biopower’ (1976, translated by Hurley 1998), instead of exerting a “positive influence on life, that endeavours to administer, optimise, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulation”, it serves on the production of ‘death-worlds’. The production of such worlds is carried out through different factors one being the Necroeconomy, which regards how “modern capitalism would produce nowadays an excess of populations that could not be exploited anymore but require to be managed precisely through their exposure to deadly dangers and risks” (Pele 2020 about Mbembe 2016). Pele (2020) uses the destruction of public goods and rights as an example of such economy, but not only those apply to the Brazilian context, I would argue that the Covid-19 fits in this description exceptionally well. Even though it was not ‘created’, the coronavirus crisis has been handled in order to create ‘death-worlds’ within ‘undesired’ populations as it is the case in the favelas constituted by poor and mainly black people. The second aspect of Necropolitics entails the confinement of certain populations in particular spaces. Mbembe, holds that the ‘camp-form’ (refugee camps, prisons, banlieues, suburbs, favelas) has become a prevailing way of governing ‘unwanted’ populations. “The latter are enclosed in precarious and militarised spaces so that they can be controlled, harassed and potentially killed” (Pele, 2020 about Mbembe 2016). Favelas are ultimately a death-world as it does not only go through a process of hyper-precarisation, but also regular military interventions which lead to daily harassments and violent deaths. Most importantly, when considering ‘undesired’/ ‘unwanted’ population as has been the case for both analysed aspects of Necropolitics, it is essential to point out that the vast majority of the favela’s population is composed of black people, which historically undergo structural racism within Brazilian society. 

To conclude, the process of hyper-precarisation of the living conditions of favelados in the State of Rio de Janeiro is not to be taken lightly. It shows a clear intention for the very real life of these populations, and such purpose, as I have argued, has death as its aimed consequence. I regret needing to spend so many words arguing on the neglect and abuse suffered by this mostly racialised population, when my main wish when starting this essay was to write about the modes of resistance within these spaces, because there are so many and they are marked by generosity, inventiveness, collective political work, and knowledge. I left a list at the end with the websites that lead to some of them. A list that goes from a full dictionary of favelas that maps a broad spectrum of content ‘from the favela for the favela’ as they put it, initiatives that demand concrete measures that the government should be taking, as well as fundraisings to buy the essentials needed to go through this period. As well as a series of independent informative leaflets about the Covid-19 and how to protect themselves and each other, made from specific communities to themselves and therefore tackling the practical issues of a diverse population.

Title image: Panorama at night of Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro city, with the Morro Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers Hill) in the background, in June 2014. Photo by Chensiyuan

List of resources

Analysis/Proposals for tackling Coronavirus
Informative leaflets

  1. Cunha, O. M. G. 2008. The Sensitive Territory of the Favelas: Place, History, and Representation. Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut [online] [Accessed 23 June 2020].
  2. DW. 2020. DW view on Governo Deixa De Divulgar Total De Mortos E Casos De Covid-19. DW, [online] [Accessed 25 June 2020].
  3. Ferreira, A. 2009. Favelas no Rio de Janeiro: nascimento, expansão, remoção e, agora, exclusão através de murosRevista Bibliográfica de Geografía y Ciencias Sociales, 19.
  4. Freire, L. 2019. A Gestão Da Escassez: Uma Etnografia Da Administração De Litígios De Saúde Em Tempos De ‘Crise’. Ph. D. Museu Nacional/UFRJ.
  5. Foucault, M. and Hurley, R. 1998. The Will To Knowledge: The History Of Sexuality. London: Penguin Books.
  6. Magalhães, A., 2020. As periferias na pandemia: explicitação da política de precarização e de exposição à morte. TESSITURAS | Revista de Antropologia e Arqueologia, [online] [Accessed 20 June 2020].
  7. Mbembe, A. and Corcoran, S. 2016. Necropolitics. Duke University Press.
  8. Skidmore, E. T. 2010. Favelas in Rio de Janeiro, Past and Present. In: Brazil Five Centuries of Change. 2nd ed. [e-book] Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Accessed 23 June 2020].
  9. Tilley, C. and Cameron Daum, K. 2017. Anthropology Of Landscape. UCL Press.

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