Corona Governance in Urban Margins


A game of light and shadow: manufacturing death and defending life in the Baixada Fluminense, Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Fabio S. da Silva

José Claudio de Souza Alves (UFRRJ), Carly Machado (UFRRJ), Adriano de Araujo (Fórum Grita Baixada), Giulia Escuri (UFRRJ).


It was Ash Wednesday in 2020, when the news of the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in Brazil was broadcast on television. The date could not have been more symbolic: the announcement was made on the day that marked the end of the carnival. The arrival of the virus focused on the city of Rio de Janeiro and its upper-middle class neighborhoods. But it didn’t take long for us to observe the proliferation of the virus: between the 12th and the 17th of March, eight deaths were reported in the country.


The Baixada Fluminense has been one of the areas most affected by Covid-19 in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Formed by 13 municipalities, it is part of the Metropolitan Region of the city of Rio and gathers a population of approximately 4 million inhabitants. In April 2020, the vulnerability of Baixada Fluminense to Covid-19 was addressed by a report by the Perseu Abramo Foundation, which specified the precariousness of health services and infrastructure, alongside the region’s high demographic density, as the main risk factors. Three cities in the Baixada Fluminense were ranked as the Brazilian city most at risk for coronavirus spreading: São João de Meriti in first place, Nilópolis came in fourth, and Belford Roxo in ninth place.


Some municipalities in the Baixada Fluminense have been concentrating the highest lethality rates in the state of Rio de Janeiro for a long time. The deaths by Covid-19 were then added to those deaths, which were already both numerous and invisible, and have remained as such during the pandemic.


Over several decades, from the business-military dictatorship of 1964, a power structure was established in the Baixada that was based on clientelism. In other words, it was grounded on the exchange of favors and benefits between the holders of political positions and their voters, and on the use of violence by death squads as a way to retain control over populations. Composed of public security agents, and financed by businessowners and salespeople, these groups – which control territories – became political personalities once they started to be elected as mayors and into the municipal and state-level legislative systems, already in the 1990s. Halfway into that decade, through urban land occupations, death squads started to evolve into militias, with whom they shared their main characteristics. What changed was that they started to control the monopoly of goods and services in peripheral areas, in a wide and expanding scope, through the sale of land, real estate, landfills, gas, water, internet, adulterated fuel, clandestine transportation, security fee collection, and so on, which amplified their economic and political powers.


The integration between criminal management, territorial control and formal public management is the type of governance that characterizes the Baixada Fluminense, so one of the main facets of violence in the region is the one that is mobilized, or demobilized, by municipal governments themselves. One of the characteristics of the militia in Brazil, and particularly in Rio de Janeiro, is the visibility of its agency, associated with the invisibility of its actors. Because they hold, or have held, positions in the official realm of public policy (especially in public security), the “militiamen” in Rio de Janeiro are well-known figures, but not always recognized in their actions. For this reason, both hidden and explicit, their presence is often identified in the shadows of state practices, in their actions and in their omissions.


Duque de Caxias is with more than 900,000 inhabitants the municipality with the largest population in the Baixada Fluminense. In May 2020, when the city had the second highest number of deaths in the state, the mayor officially decreed the reopening of the local trade. It is worth noting that trade in the city was never effectively closed, as in most of the state of Rio de Janeiro. The coercion of the militia, combined with their influence and even participation in local governments of the Baixada, is the main reason for the inefficiency of any attempted lockdown in the region. The militia in the Baixada Fluminense imposes the collection of fees for the provision of informal security services for commercial establishments and urban areas. The closing of commerce would therefore have a direct impact on the inflow of funds to the militia.


The mayor’s justification for reopening commerce was as follows: “Today, we have 50% of our beds available. We have breathing apparatus and ICU beds [to serve the population]. We understand that the time has come to give commerce an opportunity to survive. Many people are being fired”. Thus, the manufacturing of death was instituted in Duque de Caxias under formal policy regulation to guarantee the life of commerce, and the prosperity of the militia, at the expense of the death of the workers. In her analysis of the management of the pandemic in Rio de Janeiro, Márcia Leite (2020) formulated the idea of ​​a biopolitics of precarity as a way of analyzing governmental actions that operate in a pendulum between the need for quarantine to protect life, and the return to work to protect the economy, which calls on precarious, expendable lives to go back to work and to circulate in the city.


If, on the one hand, the premature reopening of commerce in Duque de Caxias was an active policy of increasing the risk of death by Covid-19, in the public health arena this policy took shape as the production of scarcity of hospital unit resources and in the ruination of funeral services. In April 2020, images of the corpses that accumulated in the corridor of the largest hospital in the city proliferated through various media. At the time, the insufficient number of beds for the treatment of Covid-19 and other diseases was morbidly associated with the inefficiency of the company responsible for administering the city’s cemeteries in the removal of bodies.


Field hospitals dismantled before their inaugurations were also a hallmark of the Covid-19 pandemic in the Baixada Fluminense. In August 2020, without ever starting their activities, the Duque de Caxias and Nova Iguaçu field hospitals were formally deactivated. There were no resources available even for the dismantling of hospitals that in practice were never functional, and they became ruins and memories of care never offered to the population. Substantial emergency resources mobilized due to the pandemic were massively diverted through a consolidated network of actors from the public-criminal world of Rio de Janeiro that also led to the arrest of three state governors in the last two decades, including governor Wilson Witzel, in 2020.


All authors of this text have a direct relationship with the Baixada Fluminense. The university where we work is located in the region. In addition, three of us are currently residents of the Baixada Fluminense. Giulia, one of the authors of this text, a master’s student and resident of the municipality of Nova Iguaçu, lost her grandfather to Covid-19 in 2020. Seu Jorge was 83 years old. Despite some recent health and vision problems, he lived well. On alternate Sundays he would go to Giulia’s house where he would meet the family and have lunch. He always asked for a little shot of cachaça – um dedinho de pinga – to accompany the meal. When the pandemic arrived, Sunday visits ceased, just in case. With his age and fragile health, he was part of a risk group.


Giulia’s brother, a worker who circulated on public transport in the Baixada continuously during the pandemic, contracted the Covid-19 virus, as did his aunt, a nursing assistant who worked in a public hospital in the region that, in the middle of the pandemic, functioned without adequate protection equipment for its employees. Since Giulia’s grandmother lived with her aunt, she was also affected by the disease. In early May, it was her grandfather’s turn to experience shortness of breath.


Seu Jorge was then taken to the Nova Iguaçu General Hospital. Since the unit was at capacity, the family resorted to a field hospital set up in another municipality in the Baixada, Queimados, more than 15 kilometers away. There, despite the high occupation, they managed to get Seu Jorge taken in. His condition, however, was getting worse. Seu Jorge was very short of breath and needed a respirator that didn’t arrive in time. In the early hours of May 5, 2020, Giulia’s grandfather passed away from Covid-19. The medical team, in the midst of the workload, did not call to notify his relatives of his death. The family was not informed until they arrived for their visit.


To make the funeral arrangements, a family member needed to recognize the body. They waited for hours for the funeral director to arrive and carry out the body recognition alongside the family. Upon arriving, at the end of the day, the funeral director justified the delay by saying that the company was not coping with the high demand for its services. He said that even though it was late, burial would be possible on the same day due to the operation of cemeteries at extended hours, because of the pandemic. Although Jorge lived a long life, made several friends, married twice and gave his surname to many children and grandchildren, his farewell was quick, with the presence of only five family members.


A survey produced by the Human Rights Center of Nova Iguaçu (Centro de Direitos Humanos de Nova Iguaçu) in order to understand how Covid-19 impacted families of the Baixada concluded that the main fears of the almost 1,800 people interviewed during the pandemic were, first, unemployment (81,1%), which was followed by hunger (48.8%), and then by health, which came in third place on the list (14%). Where there has never been an offer of decent health care services, their absence cannot be felt, even in the midst of a pandemic. The precariousness of these services in the Baixada has been accompanied for some decades by the struggle of popular movements for the right to health.


The harsh history of the Baixada Fluminense is also marked by its networks of local resistance, and these stand out as key players in the care for life in this territory. As analyzed by Pires-Alves, Paiva and Lima (2018), in the 1970s, in the midst of the country’s military dictatorship, organized movements in the health sphere were already active in the region, together with neighborhood movements, neighborhood associations and political actors from the catholic church. Every achievement in attaining health equipment and services in the Baixada Fluminense took place – and continues to take place – in spite of the mechanisms that reproduce historical forms of neglect, and as a result of the struggle of militant men and women working for healthcare in the region.


So, let’s go back to the data from the Human Rights Center. Given the hopelessness regarding health services even in the midst of a pandemic, there was more fear of hunger than of Covid-19 in the Baixada Fluminense. In this way, the fight against hunger was fought by key organized social actors in the region. The most diverse organizations and collectives formed support networks for the most vulnerable families. One of these networks was formed by the Grita Baixada Forum (Fórum Grita Baixada), which received an invitation to partner with the social organization Viva Rio. In 2020, 51 centers were created in 11 cities of the region, which served around 2500 families, who started to receive basic food products, as well as cleaning and personal hygiene supplies, for four months. The Network of Mothers and Family Members of Victims of Violence of the State in the Baixada Fluminense, a collective formed by women who are mothers or relatives of victims of state violence, was an important link in this organization set up by the Grita Baixada Forum. In addition to some having received these donations, they actively participated in the distribution of these resources. The support network set up by these women within their communities during the pandemic reflects what philosopher Judith Butler theorizes: the ungrievable bodies, those who are not deemed worthy of grieving by the State, have the power to challenge the valuation schemes ​​attributed to their lives. Therefore, women who live, daily, the pain of mourning for the deaths of their children, siblings or other family members, gather in a mobilization for the defense of life.


In March 2021, while we finish this text, the average death rate in the country is almost of 3000 people each day. The number of cases is currently on the rise, surpassing the period in the first half of 2020. Unfortunately, in conclusion, it’s not possible to say that these experiences registered here are memories of a tough period in the past, it’s still a description of our current times.