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Mistrustful of state, Brazil slum hires own doctors to fight virus

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Read The Latest Coronavirus News Updates Globally Here: "Coronavirus Live News Updates" | Or Visit Our Full Global Statistics Page for Detailed Informations On Coronavirus Here

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Emerson Barata draws a circular map of Sao Paulo’s largest slum, Paraisopolis and begins to mark confirmed coronavirus cases in blue ink. At the center of the favela of around 120,000 people, which crowds between luxury apartment blocks and high-walled mansions, he draws four dots.

She said public healthcare in Paraisopolis was no different to the rest of the city, saying ambulances do reach the favela and talk of an absence of the state “was a major exaggeration.”

But she complimented the work of the residents’ association. “I recognize it and tip my cap,” she said.

City Hall, in an emailed statement, said it handed out free food and essentials to residents of Paraisopolis, as well as driving cars with loud speakers pronouncing the importance of washing hands and staying indoors.

Sao Paulo’s water and sanitation firm said it was distributing 2,400 water tanks to poor neighborhoods, including Paraisopolis, to help during the health crisis.

Close quarters

An aerial view shows the city's biggest slum, Paraisopolis.
An aerial view shows the city’s biggest slum, Paraisopolis.Reuters

The population density in Paraisopolis is about the same as Manhattan, although most buildings are just two or three stories tall. Residents complain the water runs dry after 8 p.m. and rubbish piles up along the tight, damp alleyways that weave through the community.

De facto authority here lies with the First Capital Command, Brazil’s largest and most powerful gang, known by its Portuguese acronym PCC.

A member of the medical team said their work had the gang’s blessing. Reuters was not immediately able to contact any of the gang’s local leaders.

“I think it’s going to get ugly… This is a ‘little flu’ that kills,” said Luiz Carlos, a short, gray-haired doctor who is part of the hired medical team.

Roberto de Souza, 41, believes he caught the virus through his job in a pharmacy – despite wearing disposable gloves and a facemask when serving customers. He developed terrible pain in his legs and a constant cough soon followed.

After testing positive he isolated himself in a cramped second-floor flat in Paraisopolis.

“What hurts the most is being locked away, alone,” he said through a facemask, in between coughing fits. “I have to worry, not just about myself but about not giving it to the next person.”

De Souza lives by himself. In Paraisopolis that puts him in the minority.

Reuters visited one cramped home where a woman was self-isolating, sick with coronavirus symptoms. But her three children, mother and brother had nowhere else to go, so continued to live with her.

To address that challenge, the residents’ association is looking to use two local schools – closed due to the outbreak – to house up to 500 suspected and confirmed cases without life-threatening symptoms, removing them from tight living quarters.

Despite all the preparations, Barata is worried residents are not taking the threat seriously enough. Unlike in the rest of Sao Paulo, where a lockdown is in place, most bars and shops remain open in Paraisopolis. The streets bustle. Parties pound.

Barata fears many will change their attitude only once a parent or a friend dies. By then it might be too late.

“We’re trying to get the message out: This is no joke,” he said.

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