Courtesy of Fabiana da Silva
Fernando Guedes sat alone in the Val de Cans International Airport’s food court. A mechanical technician, Guedes had been working in the Amazon for three weeks. He didn’t want to go home to São Paulo, which has been hard hit by the coronavirus. São Paulo has almost half of all of Brazil’s confirmed cases of the coronavirus.
“I’m worried, because São Paulo is really complicated. There are a lot of people together, in the metro, in the São Paulo airport. I’m worried, but you have to do what you can.”
“I’m worried, because São Paulo is really complicated,” Guedes said. “There are a lot of people together, in the metro, in the São Paulo airport. I’m worried, but you have to do what you can.”
At Val de Cans, nearly everyone, including Guedes, wears a mask even though this part of the country has remained relatively unscathed by the pandemic. The huge Amazonian state of Pará has just over 100 cases, and most have been confirmed over the last few days.
The virus is spreading quickly across Brazil. As of Monday, there were 11,721 people infected with COVID-19 and 516 deaths in the country, according to state health department information. Brazil has closed almost all its borders, and it’s now blocking foreigners from flying into the country. Of major concern are the millions who live in Brazil’s densely packed favelas, as well as its Indigenous people.
Meanwhile, President Jair Bolsonaro has been working hard for weeks to convince his country that the coronavirus isn’t such a big deal.
“In my case, with my history as an athlete, if I were contaminated by the virus, I wouldn’t have to worry. I wouldn’t feel anything, or at worse, I would just have a little cold or a stuffy nose,” Bolsonaro told the country in late March.
Brazilians have greeted his nationally televised addresses by banging pots and pans in protest. On Sunday, Bolsonaro led evangelical supporters in a day of prayer and fasting to "free Brazil of this evil" coronavirus pandemic.
Recently, Bolsonaro broke a quarantine imposed by the governor in Brazil’s capital Brasília, walking the streets and greeting supporters. He says restrictive measures should be lifted because high unemployment and potential financial collapse would harm more people than the coronavirus would.
Ironically, 24 top officials in Bolsonaro’s government have come down with the coronavirus; they seem to have contracted it on their trip to visit US President Donald Trump in Miami last month.
According to a recent Datafolha poll, more than half the country believes Bolsonaro is hurting the fight against the coronavirus. Meanwhile, approval for Bolsonaro’s Health Minister Henrique Mandetta has risen to 76%.
Mandetta and most of Brazil’s state governors are ignoring Bolsonaro as they try to protect the country. A lockdown has been ordered for much of Brazil. The country’s universal public health care system is gearing up for the virus. Field hospitals are being erected to handle demand in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
In Brazil's favelas, or informal settlements, millions of residents do not have access to running water.
“The chance of transmitting the disease is greater, and these are the people with the most difficult access to health services.”
“The chance of transmitting the disease is greater, and these are the people with the most difficult access to health services,” said Osvaldo Vitorino Oliveira, a retired doctor of infectious diseases.
Many residents in these communities worry not only about the virus, but simply surviving and having enough to eat.
“The situation is desperate. It’s totally desperate,” said Fabiana da Silva, who lives in the Parque das Missões favela, just north of Rio de Janeiro, where she leads a small arts and education organization for local children. There, rows of wooden shacks line dirt lanes along the edge of the polluted Pavuna River. Few families there have access to water.
On Sunday, da Silva and representatives from several community groups distributed bags of nonperishable food to families in need. Most of these families eke out a living by housekeeping or selling things on the street. With the lockdown, they have had no way to make ends meet. Fabiana says their children are getting hungry.
Courtesy of Fabiana da Silva
“With the quarantines, these people have had no support,” da Silva said. “It feels like we are wiping up melting ice, and the state isn’t helping at all.”
Last week, Brazil’s Congress approved a monthly stipend of $114 for workers in the informal sector. These are housekeepers, street vendors, contract workers and the self-employed, who freelance to make ends meet, like the residents of Parque das Missões. But distribution of these funds hasn’t begun yet.
Another population under threat is Brazil’s nearly 1 million Indigenous people.
“We are here. But we are worried,” said Andre Karipuna, the 27-year-old chief of the Karipuna people who live on their territory in the Amazonian state of Rondonia.
Some members of his tribe are accustomed to traveling to the capital Porto Velho every few months for goods and supplies. Those trips are being postponed.
“I am telling everyone that no one should leave the village. Only in an absolute emergency. We are going to have to wait for this to pass.”
“I am telling everyone that no one should leave the village. Only in an absolute emergency,” Karipuna said. “We are going to have to wait for this to pass.”
Karipuna also fears that the nationwide lockdown and decreased government oversight may further embolden land-grabbers and illegal loggers and miners to push further into Indigenous territories, extracting resources and spreading the disease.
According to reports, there are as many as 20,000 illegal miners alone in Yanomami territory, one of Brazil’s largest Indigenous reserves.
The first case of the coronavirus in an Indigenous tribe in Brazil was confirmed last week in the Kokama village of São José, near the Colombian border. Many are concerned.
Courtesy of Fabiana da Silva
“The problem is that historically, Indigenous communities, because of their historic isolation, have less resistance to a good number of the nonindigenous illnesses,” said Anderson Borges, a professor of rural development at the Federal University of Pará in Altamira. “So, these communities have greater vulnerability to a new disease like coronavirus.”
It takes several hours to drive from the Amazonian city of Altamira to the Paquiçamba Indigenous Territory, home to the Juruna tribe. Here, 27 families live in a densely forested area along the banks of the Xingu river. Chief Cleyson Juruna, 23, is worried about what will happen if there’s an outbreak of the coronavirus in the area.
“Before, we had the program More Doctors, which used to work with the Indigenous peoples. Bolsonaro cut it. Now, we don’t have it. It would be good if we did, right now with this reality … with coronavirus,” he said.
More Doctors was a program that deployed thousands of Cuban doctors to work in some of the poorest and most remote communities in Brazil. Last year, Bolsonaro cut the program. But in March, the government announced that it would be starting it up again. The plan is to hire back 5,000 doctors.
But this takes time — something that these Brazilian communities may not have. According to recent reports, there is still no estimate for when new doctors will be sent into the field.
The nation’s agency for Indigenous people, FUNAI, has ordered all visits to Indigenous territories suspended to protect tribal communities from infection. Meanwhile, most Brazilians are just holding on, hoping they can wade through the coming crisis as safely as possible.