When “staying home” might not be an option for everyone: Reflections on the effects of Covid-19 in Brazil

By Laura Belik

The São Remo favela in São Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Ben Tavener.)

The São Remo favela in São Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Ben Tavener.)

In Brazil, according to the 2010 Census, 11,425,644 people (6% of the population) live in what is classified as Aglomerados Subnormais (Subnormal clusters), including favelas, comunidades, squatted land, invaded land, and the like. In a country where 81% of the people reside in urban areas, informal settlements are often overcrowded areas with low-income populations where access to basic infrastructure is not a given. Most of these people also make up a large part of the 41% of the population in the informal labor market, with jobs that are not regulated or protected by the state. While these unstable conditions already represent a struggle in their lives, a crisis such as Covid-19 make some of these issues ever more evident.

Common scenarios like families of nine or more sharing a one-room shack exemplify why social-distancing might simply not be an option. Intermittent access to water and open-air sewage systems right beside one’s home make it difficult to meet the World Health Organization’s sanitation regulations. On top of that, hand sanitizer has become an unaffordable item, or more commonly simply out of stock. When thinking about the effects of a fast-spreading virus in cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, wealth disparity and its consequences on the urban setting, how the urban form echoes social and economic inequality, become even more recognizable. No one can escape the effects of the coronavirus, but prevention methods to “flatten the curve” are a luxury that only the privileged can enjoy.

In Rio de Janeiro parties and the baile funk have been called off, and there is a curfew established by gangs and militias for people to return to their homes. At 8 pm, sirens normally used to announce risky situations such as storms and landslides are now an official Covid-19 curfew warning. Public health measures, as well as everyday practices, are once again determined and held informally by the ones that truly dominate these spaces. Neighborhood associations in peripheral areas have also been actively responding to the crisis in whatever ways they can, and collectively demanding official guidelines and support from the state.

Cleaning of public spaces in Brasilia, March 30, 2020. (Photo by Lúcio Bernardo Jr / Agência Brasília.)

Cleaning public spaces in Brasilia, March 30, 2020.
(Photo by Lúcio Bernardo Jr / Agência Brasília.)

Federal, state and local governments have been brainstorming specific measures to relieve at-risk populations during the spread of the epidemic. The use of hotels and even naval ships to house and isolate the elderly and other high-risk populations from informal settlements has been considered as an option.

“Stay at home” becomes a loaded term with multiple layers when cities heavily rely on informal relations. Many people cannot afford not to work, and will not be able to get help from the government precisely because of their lack of documentation. “If I don’t die of the virus, I will die of hunger,” says José Maria, 65, a street vendor who sells ice cream and is concerned with his income over the next few months. Home might also be an unstable place that has never symbolized safety in any sphere, not just considerations of health. In times of seclusion, Covid-19 makes clear how urban spaces in Brazil are disparate and unequal, and reemphasizing that thinking about our cities is a complex and interdisciplinary issue with no single solution at hand.


Laura Belik is a Ph.D. Candidate in Architecture – History, Theory and Society at UC Berkeley. She holds an M.A. in Design Studies from Parsons – The New School (New York) and a B.Arch. in Architecture and Urban Planning from Escola da Cidade (São Paulo- Brazil). Her main research interests are urbanism, history of architecture, politics of space, design theory, and curatorial studies.  Her dissertation research focuses on the histories and dimensions of socio-spatial inequalities in the Brazilian Northeast region, and how to interpret the multiple memories related to the built environment.

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1 Response to When “staying home” might not be an option for everyone: Reflections on the effects of Covid-19 in Brazil

  1. Clara Irazabal says:

    I greatly appreciate your sensible and timely article. ell done! Thanks, Laura.

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