Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – A red pick-up truck slowly rolled down a street in Complexo do Alemao, a voice blasting from its speaker. The sight is a common one in this sprawling cluster of favelas in Rio de Janeiro’s north zone, with the voice on speaker announcing deals at local shops. But the message coming from this truck was different.
“Attention, Complexo do Alemao,” the static-laced voice boomed, according to a video. “We ask residents to avoid crowding! Whoever can stay at home, stay! … Wash your hands with soap!”
In a WhatsApp video, Brazilian footballer Willian Borges da Silva made a similar plea of favela residents. “I’m in the house every day,” the Chelsea player said. “I hope this ends soon and I hope people take care … We have to wash our hands correctly, to use sanitizer – that’s really important.”
In a new single, made in the carioca funk music genre born in the favelas, duo Shevchenko e Elloco urge people to “always wear a mask”. Another funk artist, DJ Guuga, instructs people to stay at home and stop sharing drinks. “This thing is serious,” the lyrics say. “Let’s avoid the flow of people.”
As the novel coronavirus rapidly spreads across Brazil, activists, artists and civil society groups are scrambling to reach residents of informal settlements, known as favelas, with information on how to protect themselves against the virus.
While Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has dismissed the virus as a “little flu”, some state governments have shut non-essential businesses and banned public events in a bid to contain the pandemic. The country’s health minister has warned that the public health system – already overburdened and plagued by deep inequality – is headed for collapse in April.
Fears are especially high in the Rio de Janeiro crowded favelas, where roughly one-fifth of the city’s population live.
Residents worry the favelas, which already lack running water, sanitation and access to healthcare, will not be able to cope with the pandemic.
Brazil had more than 14,500 confirmed cases of the virus and 720 deaths as of Wednesday. Cases have been reported in at least 11 informal settlements, including in three of Rio de Janeiro’s largest favelas, heightening fears that the virus will catch like wildfire in these vulnerable, overcrowded communities. On Wednesday, authorities reported two deaths in Rocinha, one of the largest favelas in Latin America.
“How are we going to isolate a person who tests positive, knowing that there are families of five or six people living in a three-room house?” said Isabela Souza, director of the Observatorio de Favelas, a national nonprofit based in Rio’s Mare favela that is focused on fighting for the rights of peripheral communities.
It has been particularly difficult to reach favela residents with information about the virus, said Melissa Cannabrava, who is part of A Voz das Comunidades, a nonprofit community news organisation in Complexo do Alemao, which is helping run the information campaign there. The initiative has relied on street posters, public announcements and social media to raise awareness.
“The biggest challenge is bringing information to the favela and making residents believe in the recommendations that are being made,” Cannabrava said.
Renata Moreno, who lives in the Tabajaras favela in Rio de Janeiro’s south zone and works as a health outreach agent in the community, noted that there is still a lingering lack of awareness of just how dangerous this virus can be.
“There are still bars open, people are getting together, there is an evangelical church up here that is still open,” she said at the end of last month. “The flow of people in the community has reduced a lot – but it could still be much less.”
The daily realities for favela residents present their own unique challenges, however.
Many are employed in the informal labour market as street vendors, delivery drivers or domestic workers. For them, staying at home is unrealistic, said Vidya Diwaker, a senior research officer in the Overseas Development Institute’s Chronic Poverty Advisory Network.
“People living in favelas … support the social distancing of other groups,” Diwaker told Al Jazeera. “It’s informal workers that are largely sustaining the economy and allowing the sort of privileged measures that are being put forward around social distancing.”
A lack of basic services in favelas also makes it nearly impossible to implement some of the prevention measures being recommended as a way to counter coronavirus, said Souza, whose organisation has been producing and disseminating information materials specifically designed for favelas.
“Just saying ‘wash your hands 10 times a day’ isn’t going to work – we’re talking about a population that oftentimes doesn’t have running water in the house,” she said. “We are trying to simplify this information and transform it into something that is accessible for residents of favelas and peripheries.”
Favelas already have high rates of other illnesses such as tuberculosis, an infectious lung disease that spreads with ease in these communities thanks to crowded housing and poor ventilation. Favelas also often lack adequate access to Brazil’s overburdened public clinics, making preventive healthcare difficult.
The campaign being rolled out by Souza’s organisation has been producing social media memes and videos of Brazilian actors and footballers admired in favela communities, all urging residents to take protective measures. Their strategy also includes using language that is common in the favela and producing audio messages meant for those who cannot read. “This adds a whole new dimension of accessibility.”
A colourful Instagram post tells residents to avoid crowds, noting the “market, the baile funk party and the barbecue” are all places where the virus can proliferate. “A kiss also contaminates!” Another playful message advises residents to get some exercise inside the house by putting on funk music and “dropping to the floor”.
Most of these materials are sent over WhatsApp, “the primary social network in favelas and peripheries,” Souza said. “We are distributing the material in a way that will reach the largest number of people.”
Yet Souza and other community leaders are fighting against mixed messages from the government. After president Bolsonaro urged Brazil to “return to normal” life in a televised address last month, many reassured favela residents went back out on the street.
“We still have time for us to control this, we have time to inform,” she said. “But when this virus reaches the favelas and the peripheries with force…I don’t know how we will confront it.”