Brazil slums
Inside the Rocinha favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil | Commons
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New Delhi: Criminal gangs in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, that have long held sway over the city’s favelas (slums), are enforcing their own lockdown to curtail the spread of coronavirus, even as President Jair Bolsonaro has dismissed the pandemic as a “little flu”.

According to Brazilian media, threatening messages are being circulated in the slums of Rio de Janeiro by gangsters who have said they will “teach people to respect” an 8 pm shutdown.

One of the messages by a gang read: “Attention all residents of Rio das Pedras, Muzema and Tijuguinhal! Curfew from 8 pm…Whoever is seen on the street after this time will learn to respect the next one.”

Another read, “We want the best for the population. If the government does not have the capacity to fix it, organised crime will solve it.”

As of Tuesday, Brazil’s health ministry reported over 2,201 confirmed cases of coronavirus. Governor Wilson Witzel has warned that the state’s public health system was likely to “collapse” in the next 15 days.

Also read: PM’s wife, ministers, officials — how coronavirus is travelling though corridors of power

‘Better to stay home doing nothing’

Apart from gangs and militias imposing curfews, ‘baile funk’ (a form of modern Brazilian music) dance parties have also been called off. “Open-air drug markets” have similarly been closed.

Rio-based newspaper Extra has reported that in the ‘City of God’ — a sprawling complex of slums made famous in 2002 by a movie of the same name — gangsters were driving around, blaring loud messages to residents.

One of their messages said: “We’re imposing a curfew because nobody is taking this seriously. Whoever is in the street screwing around or going for a walk will receive a corrective and serve as an example. Better to stay home doing nothing. The message has been given.”

‘Disease of the rich’

People in Brazil have dubbed the outbreak as a “disease of the rich“. They believe the viral illness has come from the country’s rich populace who had returned from Europe. It is now feared that the outbreak has reached poorer communities who have limited access to healthcare facilities.

Paulo Buss, director of the Center for International Relations, a public health research center at Fiocruz, said, “The irony is that the disease was brought to Brazil by plane, by the rich, but it is among the poor that it will explode.”

Vania Ribeiro, vice-president of the Local Neighbourhood Association, also said, “Here people are very afraid. The nearest health centre is the same that the elderly people in Copacabana and tourists from all over the world use.”

‘Terrible’ basic sanitation

A 27-year-old resident of the ‘City of God’, Jefferson Maia, has been quoted by Reuters as saying that the country’s basic sanitation is in a “terrible” condition.

“Sometimes, we don’t even have water to wash our hands properly. We are very concerned with the coronavirus issue,” said Maia.

According to Edmilson Migowski, an infectologist at Rio’s Federal University, the favelas are expected to pose a major public health challenge in the coming days.

“The entry of coronavirus into denser, less planned and less culturally assisted areas could be devastating. Where water, soap and detergent are lacking, it will be difficult to stop the spread,” Migowski said.

Also read: Coronavirus shrinks global manufacturing to its worst level since 2009


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