The messages first arrived via WhatsApp. Stay home or else.
It was a stark warning to the residents of Brazil’s densely populated slums — but not one delivered by federal government, health officials or even state police.
With president Jair Bolsonaro dismissing the pandemic as “sniffles” and criticising regional lockdown measures, the country’s drug gangs and paramilitary groups have stepped in to enforce social distancing to combat the spread of coronavirus.
“Whoever is caught on the street will learn how to respect the measure. We want the best for the population. If the government is unable to manage, organised crime resolves,” read one message sent to residents of a Rio de Janeiro slum.
Another message, delivered to residents of a different slum, read: “We are on the streets taking risks so that you can sleep in peace, we leave our families to protect yours, so, then respect the order we have given.” It warned that for anyone caught on the street after 10pm, “it will be bad!”
The involvement of criminal organisations more commonly associated with bloodshed and violence than disease mitigation strategies underscores the severity of the situation facing Brazil’s slums, home to more than 11m people, who typically live in cramped makeshift dwellings, often with limited access to clean water.
The number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Brazil rose to 2,915 and 77 deaths on Thursday — a greater than tenfold increase from the previous week. Experts fear an explosion in coronavirus infections that could contribute to social unrest in communities long-neglected by the state.
“Owing to the failure of Brazil’s national leaders to prevent and contain the spread of COVID-19, we can expect a dramatic surge of infections, hospitalisations and deaths in the coming weeks,” said Robert Muggah, research director at the Igarapé Institute, a think-tank in Rio de Janeiro. “As infection rates rise, lockdown measures are imposed and panic spreads, Brazil’s favelas are a ticking time-bomb.”
This presents an opportunity for criminal gangs, he added. “They are describing themselves as the last line of defence from chaos and the ‘true’ providers of law and order. The pandemic is exposing the systemic weakness of the Brazilian state.”
Many of today’s slums were first constructed in the 1970s when rural workers moved to Brazil’s cities and built basic homes with cinder blocks and tin roofs.
Such was their construction that, even with the intervention of gangs and militias, social distancing would be difficult to achieve. They “have a high demographic density, the houses are very close to each other, and people live crammed into one space”, said Mario Dal Poz at the Institute of Social Medicine at the State University of Rio de Janeiro and a former official at the World Health Organization.
Many lack access to sanitation and water — conditions that now threaten to exacerbate the coronavirus outbreak.
“How are we going to take care of each other and ourselves if we live crammed in one little house? How are we going to wash our hands if we don’t have running water all the time?” said Marcos Vinícius dos Santos, a 22-year-old in Paraisópolis, a shantytown in São Paulo.
With a fever, dry cough and short on breath, Mr dos Santos is one of 300 suspected cases in the favela, which houses some 100,000 residents in a 10km squared zone and has five confirmed cases.
“Here there are only small houses with a cluster of people inside. If someone catches it and comes inside the house, there is no way to quarantine. Automatically the family gets infected,” he said. His cousin, who sleeps in the same room, is already showing symptoms.
At a football pitch in the centre of Paraisópolis, community leader Gilson Rodrigues is distributing donated goods, including soap, sanitiser and food. “There is no government here. Only us. If communities don’t organise themselves, they will die,” he said.
“Bolsonaro doesn’t even speak the word ‘favela’. There is only disregard from the federal government, which has no idea that there are slums in Brazil, that there are millions of slum dwellers in Brazil that need public policy and that need to be saved,” he added.
Such is the anger with the president’s response that on consecutive nights this week, many slum dwellers in major cities took part in a panelaço — a protest that involves banging pots together outside a window and screaming insults such as “Bolsonaro, out!” and “Bolsonaro Assassin!”
Many are concerned about the impact of the coronavirus on what little income they have.
“We don’t know if we are going to get the virus, we don’t know when we are going to eat next because we have no money,” said Sueli Dias dos Santos, a mother of five who works as a cleaner. Neither her nor her husband, a street recycler, have been able to work recently.
Even with gangs and militia imposing lockdowns, many people will still try to leave to go to work.
“Our greatest difficulty is to make people stay at home,” said Renata Trajano, a community leader in the vast Complexo do Alemão, a cluster of favelas in Rio de Janeiro.
“Most people are self-employed and are becoming concerned about what tomorrow will look like without money or food.”
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