Brazil – July 14 2020

Q&A: Brazil's poor suffer the most under COVID-19

Brazil currently has the second highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world. Michéle Mansor, programme director for SOS Children's Villages Brazil, says the poor – particularly those living in crowded favelas or slums – are ten times likely to die from the virus. Nevertheless, fear of losing income leads many to continue to work. The organisation helps more than 2,000 families nationwide, including hundreds in the virus epicentres of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Restrictions are being relaxed now in Brazil. Is this a hopeful or worrisome sign?

​It is definitely a worrisome sign. We are facing an increase in infections and deaths but people seem to not believe in what is happening. People are mistaking the relaxation on the restriction measures with the absence of the virus. This is keeping the number of new infections rising. The ease of restrictions suggests that we are living our normal lives again and that's no true at all. Our government denies also the risks and that induces people to ignore the danger.

We have no reason to be hopeful - just the opposite. It is time to be concerned and to help the communities and families to understand the problem, providing them with solutions to stay safe and protected.

Are people living in favelas in Rio, São Paulo and other large cities suffering more from the virus, due to the crowded living conditions?

The pandemic situation has affected people living in favelas the hardest. It's not only due to the crowded living conditions but also because most of the families don’t have proper sanitary conditions. Sometimes they don’t even have access to water or energy. The question is, how to deal with a virus that can only be faced with proper cleaning measures? And when someone is ill in the family, how to keep this person isolated in such small homes, sometimes with only one room for everybody? The health services are always far and they have to expose themselves to reach proper health care. 

The virus has struck Brazil’s poor disproportionately. In São Paulo, people who live in poorer areas and contract the virus are up to 10 times more likely to die than people in wealthy areas, according to data released by the city’s health department. In Rio, the favelas concentrate around 22% of the population of the municipality, but some studies show that they currently correspond to 34.6% of the number of confirmed cases and 9.8% of COVID-19 deaths. People who live in the favelas are more at risk of dying from COVID.  

Despite all that, in some favelas, due to the lack of public services, the people who live there organise their own coronavirus fight, helping each other and finding answers to the common challenges. Community leaders in some of the country’s hardest-hit neighbourhoods are hiring their own ambulances, creating unemployment funds and even building independent databases to track cases and deaths.

What are the biggest challenges for vulnerable families?

I think there are three main challenges for the families right now. First, surviving economically and at the same time, surviving the virus. They struggle on how to work and have access to a salary that allows them to put food on their tables and yet, having to leave home every day to make a living, not being exposed to the virus. Also, how to maintain sanity and to prevent violent situations, abuse of alcohol and drugs, and all the violation of rights that these usually entail. Secondly, how to cope with the gap of education quality, how to have their children access the educational system that is now mainly online. Finally, how to guarantee that their sons and daughters have access to work opportunities and do not have their future compromised.

How are they dealing with the risk of infection and at the same time, making a living?

Most families have decided that the fear of not earning a living is greater than the fear of the virus. That means that, in my opinion, unless the families have a significant way to survive, they will expose themselves no matter what. And that is a big problem in countries where the pandemic meets highly vulnerable social conditions, such as in Brazil. 

How are disadvantages families dealing with home-schooling?

This is a challenge for everyone, but it is even harder for those families that have no access to online services or computers, or who live in the hardest conditions possible. Our main concern is how this is going to affect boys and girls that have their access to education totally compromised. And we know for sure how the lack of education has a huge effect on social vulnerability.

What are some ways that SOS Children's Villages Brazil is supporting children and families?

Families are worried. They are dealing with uncertainties, with the risk of infection, while dealing with isolation and lockdown measures that keeps help away. They are dealing with all these problems, in addition to all the previously existing difficulties.

Besides giving them basic supplies as food and hygiene items, SOS Children's Villages Brazil supports with home care assistance through video calls but also in person if the situation requires it to prevent violence and violation of rights. We are also helping young people to get through this without harming their future. There’s so much we can do, and our presence is needed more than ever.

What should government and society do to help children and families at this time?

​I would like that Brazilian's society to understand the moment we are living and be united to make sure that every Brazilian family, every boy and girl, no matter where he or she lives, could face this moment as equal, with the same conditions and chances.

We are facing a challenging situation now as a whole society. Fighting the virus and also dealing with political fragility and crisis in many aspects. Although worried with the economic situation, children's rights are not the main concern of the government at the moment and we cannot depend on government measures to keep children and families safe. So we must be united as a society and with the communities to find ways out of this situation and all the challenges it brings: to education, access to health care, access to food and dignity.

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