Latin American Solidarity and the Covid-19 Pandemic
One of the aspects that intrigue me the most about studying Latin America is the perception that our problems are often similar. I say this because I used to think that the origin of our common denomination was nothing more than a past with the Latin language, but I realize more every day that I was wrong. On June 4th, at one of our Garotas Pelo Mundo (GPM) meetings, we had the opportunity to hear from three Colombian activists: Isabela Enciso, César Salazar and Gabriela García. Before talking about the current — and little publicized — crisis in Colombia, each of them told us about an experience that connected them to fond memories of their country.
In that meeting, I learned from César that, in Colombia and in other Latin American countries, the words “convite”, “minga”, “feria” and “ayni” refer to the same situation: when several members of a community come together in favor of a collective benefit: building schools, helping neighbors in emergencies, etc. Caesar said that this made him think of the true spirit of his people, because although the government did not reach certain communities, through unity and collaboration they were able to mitigate the adversities.
Although there is no exact word that can translate the Colombian “invitation” to our Portuguese, I think that many actions of the Brazilian people translate by themselves the strength that emanates from what these terms mean. An example of this is what will be the theme of this post: the Street Presidents of Paraisópolis.
For context purposes, Paraisópolis is the second largest community (commonly known as 'favela') in the city of São Paulo, and one of the largest in the country. It is located in Vila Andrade, a district marked by socioeconomic inequality, where irregular houses are located a few meters from luxurious condominiums, as seen in Geography books. Paraisópolis has more than 70,000 inhabitants, who were abandoned by public authorities and lack good health and education services.
Vila Andrade: Paraisópolis community located next to Morumbi in São Paulo. https://www.fecesc.org.br/o-novo-mapa-da-desigualdade-brasileira/
Still, solidarity and a community spirit contributed to the place being able to control the new coronavirus pandemic. As soon as quarantine was put in motion in Brazil, in March 2020, the Association of Residents of Paraisópolis did not stop working: “[...] we realized that if the community could not count on us, they would have no one to count on”, said community leader Rejane dos Santos. So, one of the Association's main projects was to elect 655 representatives, the so-called Street Presidents. Each one would be responsible for at least 50 families, and would make sure they were applying the correct measures to prevent covid-19, providing them with food supplies and hygiene kits, in addition to combating the dissemination of false information in the community. Data from Instituto Pólis show that the mortality rate from the disease was 21.7 for every 100,000 inhabitants of Paraisópolis, in May 2020 — a lower rate than that of Vila Andrade (30.6) and of the municipality of São Paulo (56.2). This shows that the collective effort of the community was of paramount importance in combating the pandemic.
Specifically, the efforts of the women of Paraisópolis are highlighted: they represented 90% of the 655 representatives mentioned, which makes us think that the initiative could perhaps be known as 'Presidentas de Rua', instead of the male collective, 'presidentes'. Laryssa, one of the elected presidents, emphasized: "We play the role of the government. Covid-19 is already getting very close to us, with people in the community infected, deaths occurring. But, better than fear, is the feeling of helping others."
So I'm writing this post not to romanticize the government's disregard for Paraisópolis and other Brazilian communities. I believe that, in an ideal society, the Colombian “convite” mentioned by César Salazar, should not exist, but what should is the access to basic rights by the entire population. Even so, I write this as an invitation: let us not forget the Presidents of Paraisópolis, nor so many other women who help to build the history of our country. May the spirit of Laryssa and other presidents serve as fuel to organize our own battles on behalf of our communities.