Taking Action and Pivoting to Respond to the Growing Epicenter of COVID-19 in Rio de Janeiro’s Favelas

Posted · Add Comment

By Theresa Williamson, CSU Advisory Board Member and Chauncie Bigler, Guest Contributor

Since COVID-19 reached Rio de Janeiro in March 2020, the city has seen a growth curve with no sign of letting up. The impact is particularly felt by favela residents where a long list of factors all dramatically increase the chance of community transmission of the virus and death: public sector neglect, insufficient water supplies, limited resources, dense living conditions, poor access to information, the inability to forego work, insufficient access to medical care, growing anxiety and high comorbidity.

On top of that, Brazil’s leadership has downplayed the pandemic. Testing is grossly insufficient with two week wait times and a month’s lag for results. Insufficient and tardy economic support has made it hard even for those who want to self-isolate. The government is severely undercounting and not reporting favela deaths, and we have witnessed a spike, not decline, in violent police operations in favelas.

The result is a crisis, making it impossible to know how grave the situation is, where the hotspots are, and thus how possibly to flatten the curve. Even with severe undercounting, Brazil is now the second country with the most confirmed cases and also confirmed deaths. Rio de Janeiro is second only to São Paulo as Brazil’s hotspot of COVID-19 deaths, however the death rate in Rio is significantly higher among confirmed cases.

In this context, as throughout Rio de Janeiro’s history, the responsibility for prevention and mitigation has been left to civil society. And, building on that history, favela-based organizations have risen to the task. Since March, hundreds of community groups have implemented widespread communications campaigns using everything from loudspeakers and graffiti, to WhatsApp and podcasts, to inform residents about the virus. They have launched crowdfunding campaigns and drawn on their networks to provide thousands upon thousands of basic food baskets to those hit hardest by the economic shutdown. They have installed public sinks where water access is insufficient and implemented their own local case reporting. And they have been publishing daily on community news portals and social media feeds about the unfolding pandemic in their territories.

Shifting Online: Virtual Community Reporting, Teach-ins, and Organizing

Lending strategic support to these efforts, our organization, Catalytic Communities, has shifted our activities to focus exclusively on strengthening favela organizers and their efforts at the frontlines of prevention and mitigation. In March, as did the world, we rapidly moved the organization’s workflows online. We also pivoted away from our planned events, including the Sustainable Favela Forum planned for July (postponed to 2021), to respond solely to the needs of favela organizers during the pandemic.

The team of community and solidarity reporters on our reporting platform RioOnWatch.org have ramped up efforts to provide daily coverage on coronavirus in favelas, having published over fifty articles spanning the increased police operations in favelas and violence against residents, to impacts of COVID-19 on education, sanitation, and basic needs, to promoting relief campaigns. At Catalytic Communities, we have provided food stuffs to those on the frontlines and distributed a hygienization alternative to gel alcohol in partnership with Engineers Without Borders. We are part of a group advocating to the federal government for civil society monitoring of water utilities. We are connecting favela organizers with global media outlets who are covering their stories, and speaking virtually on international panels, sharing real-time updates from Rio.

Additional support to community groups has taken the form of a very successful series of near-weekly structured live online teach-ins, which have provided a space for community leaders to exchange effective strategie, building the capacity of hundreds of participants to respond to community needs during the pandemic. The regular meetings for the Sustainable Favela Network have also shifted online, with each of its seven working groups developing actions on COVID-related themes. The Solid Waste Working Group, for example, is running a campaign called #ApoieUmCatador, or #SupportAWastepicker, to guarantee basic supports and grow widespread understanding about the importance of wastepickers, who are among the most vulnerable groups to the pandemic, yet responsible for 90% of Brazil’s recycling.

Collaboratively Building a Unified COVID-19 In Favelas Dashboard

Rio de Janeiro is becoming one of the global epicenters of the virus as described above. This is known to be the case even with faulty reporting, meaning the situation is much graver. The municipality is only counting test-based confirmations, despite very low testing rates. There is no public information on suspected cases as it is recommended by the World Health Organization. Thus, a majority of cases are going unreported, and a great many deaths as well.

In addition, nowhere is the city collecting information by favela, even though 24% of the city’s population lives in some 1000 favela neighborhoods and their diverse characteristics put them at a much greater risk of contagion than other areas of the city.

Responding to these challenges, a handful of data-savvy favela-based groups have set up their own dashboards with community data on the ravages of the virus. Community news outlet Voz das Comunidades updates a dashboard daily with information from a dozen favelas. Community NGO Redes da Maré tallies all of the residents that come through their community centers each day requesting help due to growing suspected cases.

Inspired by these initiatives, Catalytic Communities partnered with ESRI and a diverse range of favela groups to produce a Unified COVID-19 in Favelas Dashboard. This project has just been launched at www.bit.ly/FavelaCovidDashboard. The dashboard combines data from the above-stated sources, dozens of favela-based rapporteurs across the city, government-published dashboards, and news clippings. It also allows for individuals to report their symptoms using a symptom-checking algorithm. The dashboard’s primary goal is to support favela-based prevention efforts in informing their own residents and pressuring for needed public policies, while also providing a more accurate view of the impact of the pandemic on favelas. In the process of developing the dashboard, CatComm is also improving on the public favela map made available by the City of Rio, by addressing inaccuracies observed by favela rapporteurs as they report their COVID data.

About the authors: Theresa Williamson is a Rio de Janeiro-based urban planner and founding director of Catalytic Communities, publisher of RioOnWatch, coordinator of the Sustainable Favela Network and of the Favela Community Land Trusts project.

Chauncie Bigler is a graduating Master’s student at the Bartlett Development Planning Unit at UCL, focusing on reframing approaches to heritage production. She is also providing technical support to Catalytic Communities’ Favela COVID-19 Dashboard.