Favelas feel brunt of coronavirus restrictions in Brazil

Up to 40 million workers in informal sector hit particularly hard in Covid-19 crisis

Janice Lorena Leal earned a steady income working as an events photographer in the city of São Paulo over the last decade, which in economic terms was something of a lost one for Brazil.

“Despite recessions people still get married, have new babies and celebrate birthdays. But with coronavirus every event I had booked has been cancelled. Even weddings are being postponed,” she says.

With her income suddenly gone, Leal has been forced to spend the money she had saved up for a new camera to buy food during the three weeks she has spent observing the state government’s call for people to stay at home.

But many workers in the southern hemisphere’s biggest city have no such financial resources to draw on. “More and more people who survived in the informal economy but have no savings are having to seek help with getting food as their incomes have been suddenly cut off by the pandemic,” says André Silva of the Movement in Defence of Favela Residents, an organisation helping co-ordinate emergency relief to residents in 35 shantytowns in the vast eastern zone of São Paulo.


Like in much of the rest of the world, attempts in Brazil to contain the spread of coronavirus have led to a sharp economic contraction, which has hit an estimated 40 million workers in the informal sector particularly hard.

Fearful of the impact on his presidency, far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro has stoked fears about the social fallout from this sudden downturn as part of his campaign against quarantine measures imposed by state governors.

Speaking to supporters in Brasília earlier this month, he warned that in the wake of quarantine "comes mass unemployment, misery, hunger, comes violence".


So far there have only been a few isolated reports of minor looting.

But the social pain caused by the plunge in economic activity is at least partially responsible for a recent weakening in adherence to efforts to contain the spread of the virus. “People want to isolate but they need help to do so or they will go back out to try to earn some money,” says Silva.

In the last week large urban centres across the country registered a marked uptick in activity compared to when quarantine measures were first imposed last month. Health authorities warn this will compromise efforts at containment when the number of infections and deaths from Covid-19 continue to rise in Brazil.

The deterioration prompted João Doria, the governor of São Paulo state where most Covid-19 cases are concentrated, to warn that if over Easter people did not co-operate with pleas to stay at home then his administration would start adopting more rigorous measures including prison for those breaking the quarantine effort that officials hope will allow for a controlled return to work.

In a move that could aid this effort, Bolsonaro’s economics team, which initially appeared paralysed in the face of the crisis, has now moved to try to mitigate the worst of the pandemic’s social impact.

At the heart of the response is a programme to pay 600 reais (€107) a month for three months to informal workers and double that for mothers supporting a family.

Within 24 hours of the programme launching 22 million people signed up with a state bank to receive the payment. Among those who applied was photographer Janice Leal. “My savings are running out already but my application is ‘under review’. So we’ll see. Until it is approved I won’t count on it,” she says.


The first payments were due to be made over the Easter holiday period.

But some observers are concerned about the capacity of the state machine to respond quickly enough given the speed at which the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the economy.

"You have two timescales. The urgent one of hunger. And the timescale of the public sector which is slow and bureaucratic. So far the situation has been under control. But we have little time to keep it this way," says former minister Raul Jungmann.

A former minister of public security, Jungmann warns any delay in distributing the emergency resources means Brazil’s large metropolitan areas, where the country’s gaping social inequalities are most apparent, run the risk of suffering some sort of “commotion” that could undermine the containment efforts that still have the backing of a majority of Brazilians.

“Time is of the essence,” he warns. “The state has to reach these people and put money in their hands. If not people will have to chose between the hypothesis of being contaminated or the certainty of hunger. And the certainty of hunger is much more concrete.”