Health Self-Defense in a São Paulo Favela
There is no new normal, only just a way to cover up the genocide of people who live in favelas1
In Brazil, there is a public discourse that associates the spread of epidemic diseases with favelas and urban peripheries. It is based on epidemiological bulletins and maps, produced by the federal government’s official organs, which employ a global perspective that often hides the realities specific to Brazil’s metropolitan areas. In times of crisis, these kinds of communications fuel the stigmatization of marginal territories by treating them as places perilous to public health and safety.
Pólis, a São Paulo association that campaigns for “the right to the city,” however, presented on June 23, 2020 an important study that counters this discourse. Entitled The Pandemic of Inequalities,2 it highlighted the case of the Paraisópolis favela, which by May 18th presented a death rate of 21.7 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, a rate significantly lower than the city’s average of 56.6 deaths per 100,000. Since then, public health experts have recognized the health self-defense measures put into practice by this favela’s inhabitants and community organizations as an advanced example of how to fight against the virus. The national3 and international press, like The Washington Post,4 soon reported on the positive results obtained by the Paraisópolis community in the fight against the coronavirus.
The virus is democratic but we live in a country that isn’t
When talking about a country the size of a continent like Brazil, it is important to take into account its complex and heterogeneous reality, which translates into a multiplicity of cultural differences and extraordinary socio-economic inequalities. Moreover, it is a country on the periphery of the capitalist system. For this reason, we should not lose sight of the fact that Paraisópolis is only one favela in a vast network of favelas and poor suburbs that exist in the country. In the state capital of São Paulo alone, around two million people live in several favelas. Economically, as well as geographically, these favelas are situated on the peripheries of the periphery of the capitalist system.
Located in the southern zone of the capital and nestled around Morumbi, one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, Paraisópolis is São Paulo’s second largest favela. With a hundred thousand inhabitants and a population density greater than most Brazilian cities, it consists of a “city center” surrounded by areas where living conditions and urbanization are even more precarious. Poor workers from the northeastern region of the country, largely employed in the building and public works sector, notably in the construction of the São Paulo soccer stadium, have gradually occupied much of Paraisópolis, in the area where it has been anchored since the 1950s.
In recent decades, Paraisópolis has become an active center for dozens of community organizations, notably: neighborhood or popular education collectives, cooperatives of cooks and seamstresses, and women’s rights groups, which work with public organizations, associations, and local businesses. The pandemic has only intensified and given more visibility to this community work that has gone on for years and has now been channeled towards community self-defense against the coronavirus.
“Ourselves for ourselves”
Among the initiatives that have emerged during this health crisis is the creation of street presidents, volunteers who are mostly unemployed women between the ages of 18 and 40. They act as mediators between favela families and the Favelas G10, a nationwide organization of favela leaders and entrepreneurs,5 which is responsible for the strategic coordination of various health actions. Each street president in Paraisópolis takes care of about fifty families, reaching a combined total of nearly 21,000 households or around 2,500 families.
Between the street presidents and the Favelas G10 is an administrative team of volunteers between the ages of 20 and 36, who map out, through interviews and data collected from families, the neighborhoods requiring the most urgent intervention. From there, the street presidents promote COVID-19 awareness by talking daily with residents, using car-mounted loudspeakers to broadcast the importance of wearing masks and observing social distancing and lockdowns, and using social media and WhatsApp to counteract the proliferation of fake news about the virus.
The street presidents have also trained 240 people to act as brigadistas, who, together with firefighters, have constructed 60 emergency health assistance units. This self-defense network has rented an ambulance that operates exclusively in Paraisópolis 24 hours a day, and has constructed a medical care station to which symptomatic people are directed. In order to guarantee access to tests and effective masks for COVID-19, some of these collectives and community associations try to maintain regular contact with such State sectors as the Unidades Básicas de Saúde (Basic Health Units of the Public Health Service) and the University of São Paulo.
Cooperatives of Paraisopolis seamstresses, which used to make “ecological handbags and shopping bags” from used fabrics, have turned to making masks; some are distributed free in the community, others are sold to local businesses to generate income. Since the beginning of the pandemic, cooperatives of cooks have made thousands of meals to combat hunger as a result of the sudden rise of unemployment. Already high even before lockdown measures were decreed, unemployment rose exponentially after the firings of many female heads of households who worked as cleaners of private condominiums, commercial spaces, and apartments in wealthy neighborhoods such as Morumbi. Faced with this situation, the national association CUFA (Favelas Central) went so far as to set up an entire humanitarian program to provide a minimum income called Mothers of the Favelas,6 which gives stipends of R$120 ($11) to single mothers in Paraisópolis.
In addition to these actions, favela residents have pressured the state to shoulder its responsibility to promote social policies to help people living in slums and metropolitan peripheries. On May 18th, the Favelas G-10 organized a demonstration in front of São Paulo state headquarters; 500 Paraisópolis residents carried signs reading “Governo lento mata o povo” (Slow government kills people).
Terms like self-management for the periphery and health self-management have been used to designate these practices of community solidarity. However, while “health self-defense” suggests an extension of self-management practices, it is not yet the same thing. The production and distribution of masks and meals, though essential for securing a minimum of self-defense against the virus, do not address the community’s long-term needs for clean water and sewage treatment, which would fulfill an important role in controlling the pandemic. In Paraisópolis, running water stops after 8pm and some six thousand people live off a stream running through the zone. For these reasons and others, the slogan often voiced by the favela’s young residents “Ourselves for ourselves” is for now less a cry for freedom than a cry for help.
“The rulers live on the moon”
The helplessness caused by the systematic failure of the state to guarantee basic healthcare to precarious populations has created an opening for drug traffickers and Penecostal churches to exploit by offering their assistance, all the while serving their own interests. Artists collectives within the community have worked to raise awareness to thwart these groups. To some degree, these cultural associations are responsible for the high level of political awareness shown by young people, the most involved in health self-defense practices, not only in Paraisópolis but in other Brazilian favelas as well.
The role played by so many community organizations in the favelas and suburbs of Brazil today is somewhat analogous to that developed by certain fringes of the extreme left that survived the military dictatorship’s repression during the 1970s. In the 1980s, distancing themselves from armed struggles and working alongside progressive factions of the Catholic church, they developed important grassroots activism in the peripheries of São Paulo, which would play a decisive role both in the re-democratization of the Brazilian state and in the formation of the Workers Party (PT). Later, the link between the PT and the lower classes would become a determining factor in the PT’s electoral victories in the years 2002–10, after the political dominance of the neoliberals throughout the 1990s.
However, since PT leader Lula’s first government (2003–2006)7 there has been a growing bureaucratization of the PT, accompanied by the co-optation of its original popular base, thanks to the new techniques of “citizen participation” that the party created within the state apparatus. The party’s establishment of “management councils'' to represent civil society in planning and controlling the public budget on the municipal level and its national policies aimed at Afro-Brazilians, women, youth, the elderly, and LGBT+, have functioned to defuse social conflicts.
These “councils” were never tools created from below, by the self-organization of the people, but always instituted from above, by municipal and state authorities politically aligned with the federal government. We are not talking about a simple abandonment of the PT’s popular bases, but about a process of sophisticated cooptation,8 in which the most combative community activists were diverted from grassroots struggles and drawn into the PT’s management of public policy. Added to this is the fact that the major organizations representing workers, peasants, and students—such as the CUT (Workers’ Central, the main national trade union), the Movement of the Landless, and the UNE (National Student Union, Brazil’s largest student union)—all remained under the hegemony of the PT and its allied parties under Lula and the Dilma government that followed him, and offered no opposition to the government’s labor, agrarian, or educational policies.
This long process of recuperation led rapper Mano Brown, a member of the Racionais Mc’s, one of Brazil’s most popular rap groups, to declare in the presence of PT candidate Farnando Haddad, at a PT organized rally during the last election, “If we are the Workers’ Party, we must understand what the people want. If you don’t know, go back to the field to find out.”
For these reasons, the impeachment of Dilma Roussell in 2016 and Jair Bolsonaro’s electoral victory in 2018 cannot be separated from the PT’s politics of conciliation of the economic forces of capital, on the one hand, and the controlled integration of popular bases into its mechanisms of state management, on the other. As for the political alliance established with the centrist MDB party (Brazilian Democratic Movement), which Lula and Dilma justified as a necessary compromise, it has been replaced by the alliance between the military and pro-Bolsonaro militias. Under the ideological cover of an anti-corruption campaign, the anti-democratic, extreme right has simply surfed the waves of anti-PT sentiment among the former centrist allies of the MDB that were initiated by the social democracy itself.
Thus the social explosion set off in June, 2013 by protests against the city public transportation fare increase, lasting until the anti-World Cup protests of 2014, was not the historical turning point in Brazil’s “great step backwards,” as PT ideologues want us to think. The PT will not and cannot admit that the events of 2013, 2016, and 2018 are not anomalies or regressions in Brazil’s capitalist development, but only the logical results of its own administration.
The ongoing social experiment in Paraisópolis shows that the people of the peripheries speak and act for themselves, all the while keeping a potentially emancipatory skepticism towards the state technocracy and its party representatives—a skepticism far removed from the old resentments of the fascist-leaning middle classes and their illusions of social advancement in a world-system in ruins.
Young community activists’ clear-cut demands, which come out of their daily contact with social reality in its most precarious material forms, radically contrast with the demagoguery and obscurantism of most party and union leaders, who pretend to supervise people’s struggles and represent their interests. The street presidents have shown themselves to be alert to the parties’ opportunist exploitation of their energies to mobilize for elections—elections which have long proved to bring more problems than solutions.
On the other hand, we know that the organizations operating in Paraisópolis, such as the national association of CUFA, are not themselves without commercial or political aims. On the contrary, CUFA’s founders own Favela Holding, a group of about 20 companies focused on the favela’s “internal market,”9 and they are involved in the creation of a new party, the Favela Front of Brazil. Based on a “pro-favela ideology,” this party proposes “a more just and egalitarian society, where Blacks and favela populations will become contenders in elections to gain access to positions of power.”10
Without going into an analysis of such a project, we can ask: is such a society possible if it rests on the replacement of its ruling elites, which thereby legitimizes the “positions of power” that those elites created and merely perpetuates the structures of political domination and economic exploitation that guarantee their reproduction? Likewise, the Favelas G10 aims “to make communities into major commercial centers, attractive to investors, so as to transform the excluded into start-ups and social enterprises.”11 Thus it is clear that conditions are already present in the favelas to enable the economic and state powers to recuperate the self-organizing forces of precarious populations.
For the moment, the solidarity actions of the health self-defense of Paraisópolis reveal the positive aspect of the deep crisis of political representation affecting the old power structures of parliamentary democracy. These solidarity actions are complementary to the rejection of political parties by an ever-larger part of the population, as expressed in the rising levels of voter abstention. They are symptoms of the reality that the political party form—exclusively focused on its own reproduction in the sphere of political power and on its atavistic link with economic forces—has reached its historical limit as a tool of social emancipation. Through its actions, the Paraisópolis community has shown that the emancipation of precarious populations will be the work of those populations themselves.
The subtitles in quotations are the words of the Paraisopolis residents involved in local collectives, associations or cooperatives: http://www.iea.usp.br/midiateca/video/videos-2020/praticas-comunitarias-
The PT won four consecutive presidential elections. It exercised federal executive power during Lula’s terms in office (2003-2006 ; 2007-2010) and Dilma’s (2011-2014 ; 2015-2016).
We are talking about cooptation in the strongest sense of the term, historically, politically and socially. The vertically organized "management councils" that the PT established during its hold in office have nothing to do with the essentially anti-party council forms that were created spontaneously by the working classes in revolutionary movements in the 20th century: Russia in 1905 and 1917; Germany in 1918-1921; Spain in 1936-1937; Hungary and Poland in 1956; France in 1968; Portugal in 1974-1975, Italy in 1977. However, council forms can be re-established: for example, when high school students decide to occupy their schools and form autonomous assemblies, in defiance of the mediating mechanisms of the student unions, as happened in 2015-2016, in the Brazilian states of São Paulo, Paraná and Goiás.