Maré shows its force – a Rio community fights against coronavirus

An Interview with Dr. Eliana Sousa Silva, Director of Redes da Maré.

By Brian Mier

One of tourists’ first impressions of Rio de Janeiro is the sprawling cluster of favelas sandwiched between Avenida Brasil and the Red Line highway that stretches from the foot of the bridge from Cidade Universitãrio to the neighborhood of Manguinhos along the route from Galeao International Airport towards downtown. Originally built as a community of wooden stilt shacks by refugees fleeing the droughts in the northeast, today Maré, as the neighborhood is known, is home to 140,000 residents. It is a city within a city with 16 favelas, each having its own personality with unique geographical, social and economic peculiarities, and a class system that reflects Brazilian society at large. Nowadays it is also famous as the neighborhood where beloved socialist city council woman Marielle Franco grew up.

Redes da Maré, one of the largest and most respected community development organizations in Brazil, was founded in 1997 by a group of community residents who had all gone to college and were interested in improving the quality of life in the neighborhood they loved. Over the years, the organization grew and evolved and today it has over 100 employees and runs dozens of programs for thousands of local residents based on 4 themes: security and justice; territorial development; art, culture, memory and identities; and education. Redes’ university entrance examination preparatory course, based on the methodology of Paulo Freire, has put over 1200 youth from the community into free public universities over the past two decades and it is a matter of pride that most have chosen to stay in the neighborhood after graduating.

The media has recently begun to raise the alarm about the danger of coronavirus spreading into Brazil’s favelas, where high population density and poverty make it nearly impossible for many residents to respect social distancing guidelines. In a recent interview, Dr. Margareth Dalcomo, from the Brazilian public health system’s research institute network, Fiocruz, recommended that people living in situations where it is impossible to maintain social distancing should maintain rigid hygiene standards, drink lots of liquids and eat as much as possible,  because hunger and dehydration weaken immune systems.

Dr. Eliana Sousa Silva is a social worker who grew up in Maré and is one of the founding members of Redes. Her most recent book is A ocupação da Maré pelo Exército brasileiro: percepção de moradores sobre a ocupação das Forças Armadas na Maré (The occupation of Maré by the Brazilian army: residents’ perceptions of the armed forces occupation of Maré/2017). I spoke with her on April 3, 2020 over a social media platform from self-isolation  – a luxury which a lot of people in Brazil do not have.

What are some of the problems for residents of Maré in terms of respecting the guidelines from the State Government and National Health Ministry on preventing coronavirus transmission?

There is a very basic problem here which is that these guidelines require procedures that are often very hard for people to follow. This starts with very basic things like housing conditions. If we look at Maré, it is an agglomeration of 16 favelas with 140,000 residents living in an area of 4.5 km2. It is a city in itself because, with 140,000 residents, Maré has a higher population than 96.4% of the towns and cities in Brazil. So this is the first problem that residents have to deal in terms of social distancing, which has to be maintained for people to not get contaminated. There is a large quantity of housing – there are 47,000 housing units which are often very small. People often share one room without ventilation or windows. So this is a problem: how do you deal with this need for isolation when you have a small house with a lot of people living in it from different generations – adults, children, and elderly- and how can you keep each person isolated? This is the first problem. There is another problem which is related to this which has to do with the poor environmental and sanitary conditions found in many favelas. The right to have basic sanitation services is not respected like it is in other parts of the city. So I would say that the first problem has to do with the very existence of the people and the place where they live, because a lot of public policies are missing in these areas.

During a recent interview, Fiocruz President Dr. Nísia Trindade Lima said they are having problems communicating public health information about coronavirus and its risks to young people from low income families in favelas and neighborhoods on the urban periphery in Brazil. She mentioned a program called Se liga na Corona which is being implemented in partnership with local community organizations in favelas in Maré and Manghinhos. Is Redes da Maré involved in this program? What are the challenges and what is the new knowledge that you are helping Fiocruz develop through this program?

Yes, we have a partnership with Fiocruz which started immediately when this coronavirus took hold, when we approached them and met with Nisia and her Chief of Staff. The idea is to help them understand our community’s point of view from a technical standpoint. They are responsible for creating certain protocols and plans of action based on the problems that we have in the favelas. So the idea was to think of how Fiocruz could help us disseminate safe, dependable information about the virus to the residents of Maré. This idea of of a communications campaign, Se liga na Corona, came out of this perspective of thinking how to develop communications that manage to resonate with different types of public inside of the favelas. It comes from the idea of thinking of how we can diversify language and succeed in communicating these messages about the importance of isolating as best as one can and taking necessary care so that they don’t get contaminated. The greater goal is for Fiocruz to join with organizations that work directly in the favelas so that they can bring them information about what the demands are, what the reality is, and how we can adapt the recommendations from the National Health Ministry and create ways of communicating and mobilizing together with the people in the favelas. And Fiocruz is working together with us on this process. We have worked to deliver various types of content in different formats, including the use of sound cars [cars with loudspeakers mounted on the roofs that drive slowly through the neighborhoods]. We participated in a collective event at Fiocruz with communications specialists from favelas around the city and we talked about all of this. So, from our perspective, the idea of working in partnership with Fiocruz is an attempt bring together people who are influencing and producing information about what really needs to be done at this moment in response to coronavirus. It is a very important partnership. Fiocruz is a very respected organization and it is working as a protagonist in the fight against the pandemic. Therefore, I think that and working closely with civil society organizations is a kind of mutual collaboration. We can understand the technical issues and how they can be incorporated to best meet the demands of the favelas, and the people at Fiocruz can understand what is really happening in the favelas and what hardships the residents are facing in terms of following the health protocols. Communications is an important tool for mobilizing people on these issues.

Eliana Sousa – photo by Elisângela Leite

What else are you doing to fight the spread of coronavirus and the socioeconomic problems it is causing in Maré?

Redes da Maré is trying to contribute to the fight against the crisis, which is becoming deeply embedded in our community. We are working according to three lines of action. The first is communications, with the goal of mobilizing the residents so that they really understand what this virus is doing. On this, we have our partnership with Fiocruz. This is really important because we have created some communications pieces that are increasing people’s understanding of coronavirus and what they can do to prevent it. One example is this project we created called “inside Maré” which is run by three local residents who work in Rede’s communications department. They are producing videos based on specific themes, such as religion, the church, commerce and how each one of these facets of our community is dealing with coronavirus. Communications, for us, means concrete action. Our second line of action focuses on guaranteeing food security for the poorest families in Maré, who we have identified through analyzing our community census data as the 6000 most vulnerable families, many of whom are already supported social programs of ours and by other organizations working in Maré. To do this, so we are mobilizing resources to provide concrete support. We are also looking at street dwellers and people with drug and alcohol problems. Maré has a big crack scene and we are trying to get close to this scene as we can building on the relationship we already have with some of them through a housing program of ours called “normal house”. So we have started producing and delivering daily daily meals. We have started with, 200 meals a day that are distributed during lunch time at a place called Cena in Parque Maré, which is one of the favelas in our neighborhood, and also on Avenida Brasil, the main road that borders on the community, which has a large chemical dependent population living under a viaduct. Another related activity in this project takes places in Casa Da Mulher, which is a residence we have in the community for women victims of domestic violence. They created a successful catering cooperative that was working at a lot different events both inside and outside of Maré, and it became totally paralyzed after the lock down began. Since this was their only source of income, we saw this crisis as an opportunity to raise money and could hire them to make these meals in the cooperative’s industrial kitchen, which is located inside the Casa da Mulheres da Maré. There are various other segments of the population that we are trying to reach through this campaign, so we are trying to buy as many cleaning kits, hygiene kits and food staple packages as we can, prioritizing suppliers located inside our neighborhood so that we can keep stimulating the local economy as much as possible at this time.

We are also worried about the elderly and want this to be the focus of our third line of action. There are 10,300 senior citizens in Maré and we are still thinking how, in the context of this campaign, we can start activities for the elderly.

How are the workers at Redes protecting themselves against the Virus? Is Redes operating normally? 

When the pandemic was announced we began a partial shut down. We have several different centers in Maré and we worked to keep at least one open at all times. By the second week the isolation became much greater and the risks to our workers increased. So we shut all of our buildings and most of our projects down and we decided that everyone would try to work as much as they could from home. We have the problem of our public university entrance exam preparatory courses and other project that really depend on the presence of students to operate, and our project with crack users requires people to physically be there to interact, but we took this measure for everyone to stay at home. Then we started worrying about what would happen to the population if we remained shut down. It took a while for the residents here to understand that they could not keep hanging out on the street. Things didn’t really fully shut down at first. A lot of stores stayed open, a lot of people were still out on the street. Schools shut down but the kids were all out playing on the street. So we were really worried and this is why we decided to seek out Fiocruz and ask them for help designing a communications strategy with qualified information and we decided we had to start a campaign and that this would mean that many of us would have to continue circulating through the community. For example, since we started delivering grocery packages and hygiene and cleaning materials last week, we have been taking all of the precautionary measures possible. We are using masks and gloves and hand sanitizer and keeping the proper distance between people, but we understand that we have to do the campaign and we need to be present for it to observe how people are dealing with this crisis. For example the Maré arts center, which is our building that is closest to Avenida Brasil, is now operating as a base to receive donations and distribute goods. Some of our workers supporting this operation from home by working with our databases and generating the beneficiary lists and delivery schedules – we are taking all the precautionary measures we can. Our elderly workers are not working at all right now. But we understand that there is no way that we can totally shut down. So we have not totally shut down but we are taking as much care as we can just like health care professionals who have to keep working have to take all of the precautionary measures that they can. We understand that we have to keep working and so far it has been incredible because we see that there is a great level of poverty – there are people who were already unemployed for 5 years when the lock down started who are living in very precarious conditions right now. There are people who don’t have a thing to eat at home, so there is no way that we could just shut down and not try to work so that these people can have some kind of support at this moment. In short, we are taking all the precautions we can, but we are organizing to support our neighbors through this crisis.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I think that this crisis is showing Brazil’s force. Civil society is working together in an incredible manner, despite the greater political problems. Brazil is a country that produces a lot of knowledge, it’s people have a lot of potential and are very resilient, creative and inventive. I can see this really strongly right now by the number of networks cropping up and support from some rich people who trying to help out . What I notice is that through this this process, Brazil’s inequality becomes more visible than ever and the reality is that suddenly the favelas have come out from this scenario where they have only been seen by the rest of society through the violent conflicts that have been happening. The physical, warlike violence has been visible but the violence of hunger, loss of income, unemployment has been hidden from sight. It’s as if people in the favela never worked or could get unemployed, as if it were only criminals living there. So it is very important that people have now discovered that there are poor people suffering from hunger in the favelas and that it is not just criminals, which is what some people want everyone to believe. I think there is a seriousness in this process of fighting the pandemic so that even the media has begun to suddenly speak differently about people who live in favelas. I hope that this will cause some kind of reflection in society that can cause people to change their opinions about the poor. And I think that civil society in Maré is responding well to the crisis, thanks to our historic partnerships and work to guarantee basic rights in the region. Thanks for interviewing me. Sorry it took so long to get back to you, but I am working around the clock on the front lines and I was too tired to answer your questions when I got home last night.

Readers who would like to learn about how they can help Redes da Maré  in the fight against coronavirus can access more information in English on their website.


By Brian Mier

Writer, geographer and former development professional who has lived in Brazil for 26 years. Former directorate member of the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum). Has lived in São Luis, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Author of “Os Megaeventos Esportivos na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro e o Direito á Cidade” (CEPR: Porto Alegre. 2016). Editor of "Voices of the Brazilian Left" (Sumare: São Paulo. 2018). Editor of "Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil" ((Sumare: São Paulo. 2019) Irregular correspondent for the Chicago radio show This is Hell.