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How a Brazil samba school shimmied from Carnival to COVID-19


RIO DE JANEIRO — The sultry heat of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer will soon be rolling into Rio de Janeiro. In a normal year, the air would whisper into Dr. Wille Baracho's ear:

Carnival is coming.

In a normal year, Baracho's organization — the Unidos de Padre Miguel samba school — would already be a hive of preparation for the coming Carnival. Busy-fingered seamstresses churning out costumes for more than 1,500 paraders. Hundreds of welders, carpenters, electricians, foam sculptors and painters fashioning floats. And each Friday night, the school’s members dancing through the Vila Vintem favela, belting out the year’s anthem.

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

In the country with the second-highest COVID-19 death toll, there was fear that one of the world’s biggest parties — with its thronging masses of flesh pressed against sweaty flesh — would become the superspreader event to top them all.

Still, Unidos de Padre Miguel didn't shut down.

Instead, led by a doctor who watched COVID-19 wreak havoc in a hospital ward, the school marshalled its considerable energy to fight the pandemic in one of Rio’s most populous slums — sewing medical gowns and masks for public hospitals, distributing food kits to the needy, doing coronavirus screenings.

The virus was coursing through Rio, threatening its 6.7 million residents, almost one quarter of whom live in favelas like Vila Vintem. Experts worried that the dense neighbourhoods would become hotbeds for contagion, pushing the public health system’s capacity past its breaking point.

Once again, one of Rio’s underserved communities pulled together rather than waiting for help from authorities that arrives late, if at all.

“Carnival is a different kind of happiness, it’s playful and pleasurable. This is a mission,” said Baracho, Unidos’ vice-president, on April 8 as a team of seamstresses turned out medical gowns. “We’re talking about saving lives, and our own lives.”


Vila Vintem is home to more than 15,000 people. Its name reflects its undesirable location: When first settled, the swampy area was said to be worth not even a vintem – the cheapest coin at the time, akin to a penny. Decades passed before basic services arrived, sometimes only after residents agreed to do the work themselves. Government neglect allowed a drug gang to take root.

Baracho, 49, grew up just outside the favela, playing pick-up soccer on its dirt fields. After medical school, he got a job at a nearby hospital, then moved away after a shootout erupted as he picked up his toddler from daycare, right next to Vila Vintem.

Still, he relished Sundays at Unidos’ court, a hangar-like space with capacity for 4,000 people that hosts cookouts, dance rehearsals and drum classes.

Nearly all samba schools are linked to working-class neighbourhoods around the Rio's metropolitan region and compete against each other in the glitzy Carnival parade.

“It’s part of Rio’s people, especially in our region and community, to look forward to that day we can meet, sing our samba, remember other sambas, remember friends and parades, and catch up,” Baracho said. “It’s a passion, samba and Carnival.”

After months of quarantine, those heady pre-pandemic days seem distant. Was it really just February that the samba schools sashayed through the parade grounds with feather headdresses, dazzling tens of thousands of spectators?

All of Rio was decked out in zany costumes, with cold beer soothing strained vocal cords and dance-weary ankles. But watching the news, Brazilians glimpsed scenes of European despair.

Rio’s first confirmed coronavirus case came March 6: a 62-year-old woman returning from Italy. Then one of her travelling companions fell ill. Soon there were many others. The ecstasy of Carnival tends to linger in the tropical heat for weeks, but in 2020 it quickly evaporated, replaced by airborne plague.

The coronavirus infirmary where Baracho worked accepted people from Rio, as well as those flocking in from 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 little in the way of social services or health facilities. Baracho revived Unidos’ expansive court, with giant banners reading “HERE YOU LEARN TO LOVE SAMBA,” and transformed it into a coronavirus health station. He took residents’ temperatures and listened to their lungs with a stethoscope. Those with critical diagnoses were directed to a waiting ambulance.

Luzilene Viana, a 44-year-old bakery employee, was coughing and weak when Baracho dispatched her to the hospital on May 24. An X-ray showed COVID-19 had claimed a quarter of her lung, she said in an interview 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.”

The government response to the pandemic was in disarray. Rio state’s former health secretary had been arrested amid accusations of fraud in the emergency purchase of ventilators.

And federal police raided the governor’s mansion on May 26 in connection with alleged irregularities in the construction of COVID-19 field hospitals. Months after the governor promised eight such facilities, only two had been delivered. City Hall had set up another field hospital that was still ramping up to full capacity.

While Rio’s governor and mayor had imposed restrictions in line with health experts’ recommendations, President Jair Bolsonaro scoffed at COVID-19. He called it “a little flu” and encouraged people to refuse to stay cooped up. The poor, he said, would suffer immense hardship.

His words resonated in Rio’s west zone, where he has his private home, won almost three-quarters of the 2018 vote and remains popular, according to Henrique Santos, who is a professor of social services at the Castello Branco University adjacent to Vila Vintem. The favela’s streets became crowded with residents who – watching their pantries empty, eager to resume their lives – heeded the president’s call.

Baracho sympathized. But during Unidos’ competition to choose its 2021 Carnival anthem, Baracho pleaded with participants to minimize avoidable risks.

“This is far from over,” Baracho, standing in the near-empty court, warned the thousands watching the contest on social media.

“We’re going to follow the guidance, use hand sanitizer, avoid social contact – that’s important. We’re seeing relaxation out there, we see on TV that bars are super full, and that will have a price. Everyone wants to go out, yes – that’s part of being from Rio, part of our people, our country – but we’re going to hold on a little longer.”

Baracho also used the ambulance to check on Vila Vintem’s residents, hoping to keep them from leaving home. One day he deployed it to fetch 80 donated sacks of oranges. He brought bread from the bakery next to his house. Food kits from UNICEF were deposited at the school’s court, and people helped distribute them to homebound residents.

In the same way Unidos solicits contributions for its Carnival parade from local businesses, Baracho asked for help paying for food kits. Shops without cash to spare offered staples like cooking oil and rice.

As a frontline worker, he knew he was a potential vector, even after contracting and recovering from COVID-19. Whenever he visited his mom, who is 81 and has high blood pressure, he remained at her gate as she stood by the house’s front door. They were separated by 10 feet and the shadow of a cashew tree.

On her birthday he stayed away, afraid that one or both wouldn’t keep their distance. When he called, he found that she had lost her nerve.

“She cried, begging me to come. ‘Come, come, I need you.’ I told her that I couldn’t,” he recalled, choking up.

Lives aren't the only things lost in the pandemic: “Life and time don’t come back. That gives you anguish, fear, malaise. You can’t recover time.”


Even as the Unidos did battle with the virus, it continued to prepare for next year’s Carnival. The samba school’s seamstresses, who had sewn medical gowns, finished the costume prototypes for each of the parade’s 27 sections.

But in early September, with no decision on Carnival 2021, they switched off their machines.

With the extra money scraped together sewing costumes, Vania Pereira da Silva had hoped to put in proper floors on her house’s second story, which is held up by exposed rebar. She also wanted a thick concrete wall for her home; the brick one is pocked with bullet holes from a shootout a few years back.

Still, she agreed with the decision to put Carnival preparations on hold.

“We need to stay home, safeguarding,” said da Silva, 62.

A few days later, the long-awaited verdict: Rio’s Carnival parade would not be held in February. The league said it would be impossible to host the event safely.

Baracho was ambivalent; the loss of Carnival leaves a cultural void. But coronavirus cases were rebounding as the weather warmed up, authorities eased restrictions and people overwhelmed Rio’s bars and restaurants. The number of patients in his ward was rising, too, and he had lost a few of them. Infections have since dipped again.

“Carnival is important for the economy, for happiness, for our regional culture,” he said, “but more important than that is health and life.” --- AP video producer Diarlei Rodrigues contributed to this report.

David Biller, The Associated Press