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Thousands of deaths overlooked as Rio de Janeiro’s streets and beaches reopen

The city’s infection rates are among the worst in Brazil. But in June its mayor, Marcelo Crivella, said that it should return to normal – and many are embracing the new freedoms. 

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Rio de Janeiro’s businesses, public spaces and 70km of beaches are still under formal restrictions. The city’s infection rates, after all, are among the worst in Brazil. But in June its mayor, Marcelo Crivella, said that it should return to normal.

People in Rio have come to refer to it as “liberou geral” – “general [uncontrolled] opening”. Although this liberou geral scares some people, many in Rio, a city of economic extremes, have no alternative but to go along with it. “We are afraid, but we have to reopen, or we die of hunger,” a bar owner in the bohemian district of Santa Teresa tells me. “If there is, as they say, a second wave of coronavirus and we are forced to close again, there will be no way out. We will go bankrupt.”

Others embrace the new freedoms, indifferent to their fellow citizens’ safety. Rules on masks, sanitisation of surfaces and temperature checks are widely flouted as the city’s streets, bars and Copacabana fill up again. This angers those concerned about the virus. “I stay at home and leave only in situations of absolute need, but I recognise that this is not the practice of most people,” says Carlos Mauro, an industrial chemist. “The street markets are running at full steam, the malls open at restricted hours but are as full as usual, and I often see parties and other free gatherings.”

Presiding over the national liberou geral is Jair Bolsonaro. Brazil’s hard-right president dismisses the virus as a “gripezinha” or “little flu”, has promoted the quack cure of hydroxychloriquine, and conspicuously ignores social distancing norms. Unsurprisingly, the president and one of his children have had the virus. Both recovered. Many Brazilians have not been so lucky.

Officially 130,000 people here have died from the “little flu”, some 10,000 of them in Rio. The real figures for both deaths and infections may be much higher. The laxity of the official response has not even served to spare Brazil the worst of the economic fallout. Unemployment has risen to 13 per cent. An economic aid programme to the needy, which Congress forced Bolsonaro to implement, has been extended, but its future is uncertain.

And all the while the president’s lifting of conservation restrictions and green light to commercial miners on indigenous land mean this summer is likely to be a record “burning season” in the Amazon. The people suffer and die, and the forests burn. It is a sad time to be a Brazilian.

Read the rest of the “Postcards from Planet Covid” series here

This article appears in the 18 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid