In Depth

How Brazilian drug gangs are fighting coronavirus

Traffickers imposing containment measures amid criticism of government inaction

Drug traffickers in one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest favelas have imposed a curfew to protect residents from infection during the coronavirus pandemic.

Gang members this week began ordering the 40,000 residents of the impoverished Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela to remain indoors after 8pm, after “the low-income community – made famous by Fernando Meirelles’ 2002 blockbuster of the same name – became the first such area to record a case of coronavirus”, reports The Guardian.

A video shared on social media shows a loudspeaker broadcasting the message: “Anyone found messing or walking around outside will be punished.”

How bad is the outbreak in Brazil?

The virus is spreading fast in the South American country, with more than 2,500 cases and 50 deaths reported since the first case was confirmed on 26 February.

President Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed the threat and has accused the media of “fear-mongering”. But there is speculation that he may have had Covid-19, after 22 colleagues from his multiparty government who accompanied him on a recent trip to the US tested positive, reports the BBC.

Bolsonaro insists his test came back negative but he has refused to provide proof.

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What are the gangs doing?

Rio newspaper Extra reports that gang members with loudspeakers are telling Cidade de Deus residents: “We are imposing a curfew because nobody is taking [the new coronavirus] seriously. It’s best to stay at home and chillThe message has been given.”

Other favelas in Rio – which together are home to around two million of the city’s seven million citizens – have also seen gang members introducing safety measures, with traffickers distributing soap and encouraging hand-washing, and discouraging gatherings of more than two people.

And some shops and churches have been warned to cut their opening hours to stem the spread of the virus.

“The traffickers are doing this because the government is absent. The authorities are blind to us,” one favela resident told The Guardian.

Maintaining good hygiene practices during the outbreak poses a major challenge for many people in Brazil, where “some 40 million people lack access to the public water supply, while 100 million - nearly half the population - live without a connection to sewage treatment”, says Reuters.

A Cidade de Deus resident told the news agency: “Basic sanitation is terrible. Sometimes, we don’t even have water to wash our hands properly. We are very concerned with the coronavirus issue.”

What is the Brazilian government doing?

Bolsonaro has resisted calls to close the country’s borders and impose mass preventive measures. In a televised address last weekend, the president said that while those aged over 60 were at risk from the virus, most people - including himself - had nothing to fear.

“With my history as an athlete, if I were infected with the virus I would have no reason to worry. I would feel nothing, or it would be at most just a little flu,” he added.  

Criticising his state governors for ordering residents to stay at home, Bolsonaro said: “The people will soon see that they were tricked by these governors and by the large part of the media when it comes to coronavirus.” 

But Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta last week warned that Brazil’s healthcare system is heading towards a total collapse by the end of April, with coronavirus cases hitting a plateau in July, reports Al Jazeera.

As the virus continues to spread, the Los Angeles Times reports that Brazilians are turning against Bolsonaro over his handling of crisis, with leading officials meeting to plan measures to combat the crisis without the president and his closest political allies.

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