How One Rio Samba School Reacted to COVID-19

15 November 2020

As summer nears, the heat of the sun will soon roll into Rio de Janeiro.

In a normal year, the warm air would send a message to Dr. Wille Baracho: Carnival is coming. Baracho is a medical doctor who also runs the Unidos de Padre Miguel samba school.

In any other year, his school would already be filled with the energy of preparation for the big events that come each February or early March.

Every year, busy clothing makers create the shiny, colorful wear for more than 1,500 paraders. Hundreds of electricians, builders, artists and painters make the large floats. And on Friday nights, the school's members dance through the neighborhood, singing songs.

But this is not a normal year. For the first time in more than a century, the coming season's Carnival has been canceled.

In front of banners reading
In front of banners reading "Here you learn to love samba," residents suspected of suffering COVID-19 wait to be attended by Dr. Wille Baracho inside the Unidos de Padre Miguel samba school in the Vila Vintem slum of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 24, 2020.

Brazil has the second-highest number of COVID-19 deaths after the United States. There was fear that one of the world's largest celebrations would become a super-spreader event.

Still, Unidos de Padre Miguel did not close down.

Instead, a doctor who watched COVID-19 fill hospital beds helped turn the usual hard work and excitement of his samba school to fighting the virus. Vila Vintem is one of Rio's most populous favelas. Inside the school, people are making medical clothing and face coverings for public hospitals. They are also doing coronavirus testing and giving out food to the needy.

The virus was moving through Rio, threatening its 6.7 million people. Nearly one-fourth of the city's people live in favelas like Vila Vintem. Experts worried the crowding would push the public health system's coronavirus cases past its breaking point.

Yet, once again, one of Rio's communities unified instead of waiting for help from officials that might have arrived too late or not at all.

"Carnival is a different kind of happiness, it's playful and pleasurable. This is a mission," Baracho said in April. At that time, the team of seamstresses were making medical clothing. "We're talking about saving lives, and our own lives," Baracho said.

Vila Vintem favela

Baracho, who is 49, grew up just outside the favela. When he was young, he played soccer on its dirt fields. After medical school, he got a job at a nearby hospital. Then, he moved away after a shooting happened as he picked up his baby from a daycare program. It was right next to Vila Vintem.

Still, he enjoyed Sundays in Unidos' open space with room for 4,000 people for cookouts, dance tryouts and drum classes.

Nearly all the samba schools are linked to working-class neighborhoods in and around Rio. They compete against each other in the famous Carnival parade.

But today, the times before the coronavirus feel very far away.

Rio's first confirmed coronavirus case came on March 6. It was a 62-year-old woman returning from Italy. Then one of her traveling friends got sick. Soon there were many others. The happiness of Carnival usually stays for weeks after the holiday. But in 2020, it quickly disappeared.

The coronavirus health center where Baracho worked accepted people from Rio and many other cities in the state.

"When an opening became available, there were 10 people in line to enter," he said.

As in other favelas, Vila Vintem has few social services or health centers. But Baracho turned the Unidos space into a coronavirus health station. He took people's temperatures and listened to their lungs. Those with serious signs of the illness were directed to a waiting emergency vehicle.

Luzilene Viana is a 44-year-old food worker. She was coughing and weak when Baracho sent her to the hospital on May 24. An exam showed COVID-19 had damaged one-fourth of her lung, she told The Associated Press months later. Still, the hospital sent her home to isolate.

"One day there was so much lack of air, I thought I'd be gone," she said. "Luckily, I recovered."

Government vs. community

The government reaction to the pandemic was disorganized. Local leaders in Rio have had issues with the law on charges related to COVID-19. In addition, President Jair Bolsonaro called the coronavirus "a little flu" and told people to refuse shelter-in-place orders. The poor, he said, would suffer more by being forced to stay at home.

Many people in Rio believed him. Vila Vintem's streets became crowded with people who listened to the president's call.

Baracho sympathized. But he also urged community members to avoid risks.

"This is far from over," Baracho said, standing in the school's near-empty space. He was warning the thousands watching their Carnival song competition on social media.

Baracho also used the emergency vehicle to check on Vila Vintem's people. He hoped it would prevent them from leaving home. One day, he used the vehicle to bring 80 donated bags of fruit. He brought bread from the store next to his house. Food bags from UNICEF were brought to the samba school's space. And community members helped give it out to the people in the neighborhood.

Baracho asked local businesses to help buy food. Stores without much money offered things like cooking oil and rice.

A decision on carnival

Even as Unidos battled the virus, it continued to prepare for next year's Carnival, watching their Carnival song competition on social media. But in early September, with no decision on Carnival 2021, the seamstresses turned off their machines.

With the extra money she got from making clothing, Vania Pereira da Silva had hoped to put in better floors on the second level of her house. She also wanted a thick wall for her home; the current one was damaged by a shooting a few years back.

Still, she agreed with the decision to stop Carnival preparations.

"We need to stay home," said da Silva.

A few days later came the long-awaited decision: Rio's 2021 Carnival parade would be canceled. Organizers said it would be impossible to hold the event safely.

"Carnival is important for the economy, for happiness, for our regional culture," Baracho said, "but more important than that is health and life."

I'm Caty Weaver.

And I'm Alice Bryant.

The Associated Press reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

samba – n. a rhythmic Brazilian dance and drum of African origin

parader – n. a person who

float – n. a vehicle bearing a display, usually of an elaborate scene, in a parade

super-spreader event – n. an event in which an infectious disease is spread much more than usual,

favela – n. a Brazilian shack or shanty town

seamstress – n. a woman who sews clothes, curtains, or something else

cookout – n. a meal or party at which food is cooked and served outdoors

cough – v. to force air through your throat with a short, loud noise often because you are sick

isolate – v. to put or keep (someone or something) in a place or situation that is separate from others

sympathize – v. to feel sorry for someone because you understand that person's problems