RIO DE JANEIRO – The streets are bustling with activity once again in Mare, a sprawling complex of favelas (shantytowns) in the Brazilian metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. Poverty and violence are still a daily reality, but a greater sense of solidarity is now apparent amid that district’s pandemic-triggered “new normal.”
Despite evident government neglect in a community where the precariousness of health, sanitation, security and other basic services are a mere fact of life and drug-trafficking outfits and militias wield power and influence, the residents of Complexo da Mare are refusing to let the daunting challenges of COVID-19 break their spirit.
A complex of 16 favelas that is one of Brazil’s most densely populated communities, that neighborhood of 140,000 inhabitants (more than 32,000 residents per square kilometer) may appear at first glance to have been virtually unaltered by the pandemic.
Cars compete for space on narrow streets, while motorcycles swerve to avoid makeshift bollards that ordinary citizens or criminal gangs have erected to lower traffic speeds.
Vendors hawk their wares on sidewalks, eager to make up for months of lost business. Other, much narrower, nearby alleys lead to dozens of homes whose facades are marred by tangles of electrical wiring.
Since the economy was reactivated two months ago, life in Rio de Janeiro has gradually returned to near normal.
But unlike the city’s wealthiest districts like Ipanema and Copacabana, the change has been less dramatic in Mare’s 16 favelas.
This is because from the outset of the health crisis economic necessity and inadequate ventilation in people’s homes made it virtually impossible for Mare’s inhabitants to heed the state government’s lockdown orders.
That reality has had evident health consequences in Mare, which, according to reports from its different communities, thus far has registered 1,000 COVID-19 cases and the highest number of deaths (123) among Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.
Amid the health emergency, the priority has been to help the most needy, a task led by Redes da Mare, a non-governmental organization that for the past two decades has worked to ensure a better quality of life for the complex’s inhabitants.
In recent months, that NGO has shifted its programs’ human and logistical infrastructure to focus on projects pertaining to food and health security and has thus far provided food baskets, hygiene products and face coverings to 55,000 people in Mare.
While that organization has hired around 150 inhabitants to carry out its campaigns, others have offered to work as volunteers.
“A lot of people were willing to help us and I think that shows a story of resistance, struggle and cooperation,” Luna Escorel Arouca, one of the NGO’s coordinators, told EFE.
Local employers also have displayed solidarity with their workers and gone the extra mile to avoid layoffs.
“We ended up not letting anyone go. What we did was rotations. One group did a shift for a week and then in the next (week) another group would come in,” 39-year-old Ana Paula Acevedo, who manages a restaurant and a bar that employ 40 people, told EFE.
She is just one of many female residents of Mare whose leadership has been crucial during the pandemic.
While women who have not lost their jobs continue to earn a living on a daily basis, many of those who were laid off have been contributing to Redes da Mare’s programs.
One of these individuals is 36-year-old Julia Gonçalves, coordinator a program that provides socio-legal assistance and also teaches hairdressing, gastronomy, embroidery and literacy classes.
During the pandemic, that program has been adapted to prepare daily meals for the complex’s most vulnerable residents.
Gonçalves said women are the main focus of the program she leads and the key to a brighter future for the community as a whole.
“More than half of the women in Mare are their family’s main breadwinner. So we understand that improving women’s quality of life means improving (living conditions) generally in Mare,” Gonçalves said.