Around 1.4 million of Rio’s roughly 6.3 million people live in favelas. This number even exceeds the total in Sao Paulo, where 1.28 million people are dispersed across 1,020 shantytowns in Brazil’s largest metropolis, according to the most recent census.
“How am I going to isolate a family member who gets the illness if four of us share the same room in my house?” Maria, a resident of a Brazilian metropolis’ jam-packed Tavares Bastos favela, asks rhetorically about the potential spread thereof the novel coronavirus.
The inhabitants of Rio’s densely populated favelas (shantytowns), where four or five people share small individual residences on average, have no means of practicing social distancing even though that is the primary recommendation for slowing the spread of COVID-19.
“How can we avoid crowds when thousands of us in the community are sharing these narrow streets?” Maria said in an interview with EFE in Tavares Bastos, a favela on Rio’s south side, where around 6,000 people live in cramped conditions.
Maria’s neighborhood is privileged in terms of its water and sewage services. Still, she said that because people live in such proximity, it will be impossible to prevent the disease from spreading if one person contracts it.
Whereas the population density of Rio as a whole is 5,556 inhabitants per square kilometer, it can be ten times higher in the favelas than other districts.
For example, Rocinha, which is home to 69,161 residents and is Rio’s and Brazil’s largest favela, has a population density of nearly 49,000 inhabitants per km2.
But besides the fears about crowded conditions in the favelas, an additional concern pertains to a healthcare system racked by severe financial problems stemming from a 2015-2016 recession and a moderate recovery in recent years.
The capacity of Rio de Janeiro state’s healthcare network has been in decline since that state declared a state of financial calamity in 2016, shortly before the start of the 2016 Rio Olympics.
While there were 7,652 beds at regional and municipal hospitals in 2014, that number fell to just 6,486 last year.
“In Rio, we have an enormous number of people living in areas of social exclusion and a very fragile health network. Although it also will suffer, Sao Paulo can put up stronger resistance,” Brazilian Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta said last week.
Yet another concern in the favelas is that children affected by school closures will hang out in the streets rather than stay at home.
“The school-closure measure was adopted in other countries in tandem with the Internet- and television-based classrooms. That hasn’t been done in Brazil,” said the president of the Tavares Bastos Residents’ Association, Dr. Marca Costa.
“Our concern is that those children will be in the streets more and be more vulnerable. It’s important that they’re offered activities, so they stay at home, so their time is occupied and they stay off the street,” she added.