Imported by the rich, Coronavirus now devastating Brazil's poor

Imported by the Brazilian elite vacationing in Europe, the new coronavirus is now ravaging the country’s poor, ripping through tightly-packed neighborhoods where the disease is harder to control.

Public health data analyzed by Reuters for the cities of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Fortaleza show a shift in recent weeks from the wealthy boroughs that seeded the outbreak to the gritty urban outskirts.

The change has coincided with a spike in confirmed coronavirus deaths, which are now just shy of 6,000 in Brazil. Many scientists point to Latin America’s largest country as the next deadly hotspot for COVID-19.

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Researchers at Imperial College London estimate Brazil’s transmission rate this week will have been the highest in the world.

The trend revealed by the data complicates Brazil’s battle against the virus. Many favelas, as the labyrinths of cinder block homes that constitute the poorest neighborhoods are known, suffer from a lack of running water, septic systems, and healthcare facilities.

Perhaps more challenging still, the state is weak in the favelas, with drug gangs often the de facto authority. That would make lockdown measures difficult to enforce – even if they had the support of the country’s skeptical leader, President Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly shrugged off fears about the coronavirus and described state and city measures to slow its spread as extreme.

Residents in Brasilandia, a poor district at the north end of Sao Paulo with the highest coronavirus death toll in the city, told Reuters that bars were still crowded and open-air dance parties attracted thousands of revelers on the weekends.

Brasilandia only had one confirmed case at the end of March, according to city data, at a time when the vast majority of cases were clustered in the wealthier center-west districts. The most recent report from this week showed 67 deaths from COVID-19.

“For those that haven’t been through it, it’s like the disease doesn’t exist,” said Paulo dos Santos, 43, who lost his father to the virus in Brasilandia.

In Rio, the tony neighborhoods of Leblon, Copacabana, and Barra da Tijuca were the first to suffer at the start of the outbreak in Brazil, reporting 190 confirmed cases by March 27.

In contrast, the low-income areas of Campo Grande, Bangu, and Iraja had only reported eight cases at the time.

That has changed in the past week, with those poorer neighborhoods reporting 66 new cases, while the wealthier trio saw 55. Reuters observed the same trend in Fortaleza, a northeastern state capital with over 25,000 cases.

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Despite the rising death toll, calls are growing for lockdown measures to be relaxed. Bolsonaro has pushed to restart the economy, describing shelter-in-place policies as a “poison” that could kill more via unemployment and hunger than the virus.

In poor neighborhoods, where hunger is an acute threat, few are adhering to quarantine measures.

William de Oliveira, a community leader in Rio’s poor hillside neighborhood of Rocinha, can rattle off the names of several friends killed by the virus. Yet it was clear on Wednesday that life continued more or less as usual, with shops and bars bustling, which he lamented.

“We can reverse economic problems,” Oliveira said, “but we can’t reverse deaths.”


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