The coronavirus is spreading and the death toll is rising – but what worries leaders of Brazil’s isolated and vulnerable communities most is how to feed people now that the government has withdrawn their main emergency aid.
Ivone Rocha is the co-founder of Semeando Amor (Sowing Love), a nonprofit organization that distributes basic commodities to some of the poorest people in Rio das Pedras, one of Rio de Janeiro’s many favelas.
For most of last year, they had received a decent government allowance to survive the pandemic, but it all ended in 2020, sparking a frenzy of demands for food in the favelas.
“People here don’t have jobs,” Rocha told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. “Now the help is over. My God, what’s gonna happen?
It was in April that Congress first passed a bill establishing the monthly allowance of real $ 600 ($ 112) – just over half the country’s minimum wage – pledging to help people for three months during the pandemic.
In July, nearly half of the 210 million people living in Brazil were living with someone receiving assistance, according to government data.
Even before COVID-19, some 13 million Brazilians lived in extreme poverty and a full quarter of the population was classified below the World Bank poverty line, according to government data.
After initially opposing it, President Jair Bolsonaro adopted the program and renewed it until the rest of 2020, while cutting the total in half due to what he called budget constraints. These cuts came even as infections and deaths continued to rise.
The rapidly mutating virus has already killed around 212,000 people in Brazil, according to data, a national death toll surpassed only by that of the United States.
Isolated and exposed
The end of the aid program will disproportionately hit the poor in the north and northeast of the country, according to a study by Tendencias Consultoria, an economy-focused consultancy.
Residents of indigenous communities’ favelas and “quilombos” – settlements established by runaway slaves where black Brazilians live by old traditions – could suffer even more, activists said.
Many residents of these communities were isolated in 2020, traveling to cities only to collect emergency aid they were using to obtain food and other essentials.
Without this money, some will be forced out of isolation, said Milene Maia, an advisor at Instituto Socioambiental, a non-profit organization that helps indigenous and quilombola communities.
“What they told us is that they are starving or dying of COVID,” she says.
For Andreia Nazareno dos Santos, manager of Quilombo Grossos, in the northeast of the state of Rio Grande do Norte, the next few months will be decisive: if the rain does not fall, the crops will not grow, leaving plenty of food.
When a bad rainy season hits, the people of Quilombo Grossos survived by selling handicrafts or doing odd jobs in town. Both options now carry a risk of infection.
“If it’s not raining, we don’t know what to do,” dos Santos said. “How are these families going to feed themselves without emergency aid?”
In the northeastern state of Bahia, most of the 38 families in the Comexatiba indigenous reserve received the allowance, said Rodrigo Mandi Pataxo, an indigenous teacher, and simply ventured out once a month to recover help them and buy essentials.
Now they may have to travel to town to sell their crops.
“Soon we will not know what the food security of the community will look like,” he said.
The most isolated communities may not even know the allocation is over and will therefore go to town for nothing, said Antonio Eduardo Cerqueira de Oliveira, executive secretary of the Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples.
“They won’t have (money) to come back. This will expose them even more to the coronavirus, ”said de Oliveira.