Even before coronavirus, life was a struggle on Regeneration Street, a rubbish-strewn skid row on the north side of Rio de Janeiro.
Cadaverous crack addicts probe dumpsters for scraps of food; crestfallen down-and-outs sprawl on soiled mattresses and rugs.
“I wouldn’t wish this on anyone,” said Marcus Vinícius de Mello, a jobless 49-year-old waiter who is one of the street’s roofless dwellers and, like many here, struggling with drugs. “No human being deserves to go through this.”
The Covid pandemic has piled further misery on what was already one of Brazil’s most depressed and vulnerable addresses, leaving its residents, like millions of fellow citizens, hungry and afraid.
“It’s bleak, pal, real bleak,” said Valdemir dos Santos, another homeless local, shaking his head despairingly when asked whether he had eaten that day. “For those of us on the streets it’s been awful – a thousand times tougher than before.”
Dos Santos said he remembered an outpouring of humanitarian aid after Covid first struck last year, as NGOs and church groups descended on the area offering hot meals and clothes.
“Today it’s as if the pandemic’s over … they don’t come any more,” lamented the 53-year-old former metalworker, who was recently evicted from a government shelter and scrapes by “mining” the streets for rubbish that can be resold for tiny sums of cash. “Now there’s nothing, nothing, nothing – not even a piece of stale bread with water.”
Regeneration Street’s plight is extreme but similar scenes are playing out across Latin America’s most populous nation, where researchers say 19 million people have gone hungry since the start of a Covid outbreak that has killed more than 540,000. An additional 117 million people – more than half of Brazil’s population – experienced food insecurity.
“Hunger has returned to Brazil,” said the former president Dilma Rousseff, blaming the social emergency on President Jair Bolsonaro’s dual failure to tame Covid and provide adequate support for those in need. “It is a truly desperate situation.”
Bolsonaro has defended his refusal to order a lockdown that would reduce infections claiming he is fighting to protect the economy and jobs. “We cannot leave people at home any more. It’s not about patience, it’s about survival,” the rightwing populist declared recently, painting himself as a working-class champion.
But critics say Bolsonaro’s inability to control the epidemic or vaccinate – so far only about 16% of citizens have been fully vaccinated – a significant chunk of the population has exposed Brazilians to a needlessly protracted slump and a historic social crisis, with millions plunged into poverty since the epidemic began early last year.
The economist Monica de Bolle said the government’s distribution of emergency payments last year had been wise and partly effective, keeping millions of families and many businesses afloat. But the failure to combine that policy, which has now been dramatically scaled back, with an effective public health response had been disastrous. “It’s really a terrible, terrible tragedy because we’ve wasted … the opportunity to bring this thing under control – and if we’d done that we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in now.”
For Brazilians such as Daniel Monteiro Lopes, a 33-year-old recycler who trawls the Regeneration Street area for litter, the situation is now dramatic. “Coronavirus has been the worst thing in my life,” he said on a recent afternoon as he scoured dustbins and heaps of litter for discarded bottles and cans.
Lopes said soaring unemployment – nearly 8m jobs have been lost during the pandemic – meant he faced increasing competition from laid-off workers who had joined him combing the streets for rubbish. That meant longer hours and, often, less food.
“Financially speaking, things are dire,” Lopes said, explaining how on a good day he might find some unconsumed morsel to eat. Famished scavengers called such discoveries the “McLixo Feliz”, the McDonald’s Trashy Meal, Lopes joked grimly before breaking down in tears.
Nearby, a transgender sex worker called Sarah Taylor was also feeling the pinch, as clients evaporated, and with them, her income. “Things have gotten much, much, much worse. People hardly come and when they do come there’s all this business about masks and hand sanitizer,” she said outside the plastic hovel she inhabits in the shade of a tropical almond tree.
“Last week I got lucky and did an oral for 100 reais [£13],” Taylor said. “Most people just want to pay 10 (£1.30) and I send them packing … I can’t eat with 10 reais.”
Residents of Rio’s 1,000-plus favelas, home to perhaps 20% of its population, are also facing tough times as rising food prices compound their woes. Willians Nascimento, a 37-year-old father, said Covid had cost him his job at a cake factory just west of Regeneration Street. After a stint sleeping rough, he cobbled together a fusty wooden shack in Karatê, one of the most deprived corners of the City of God community.
“It’s been cruel,” Nascimento said of the pandemic, opening a fridge containing two mouldy carrots and three small fish to feed his family of six.
Leandro Silva, a 34-year-old neighbour, said his pantry was even emptier. “It’s been the worst year of my life … Everyone’s out of work,” said the jobless builder, before admitting: “I have no idea what I’m going to eat for lunch.”
Cinthia Conceição, an unemployed 23-year-old, sat on a nearby corner with her three-month-old daughter Haylla. “This coronavirus business has really done us in,” she said, describing how the pair spent their days outside a supermarket begging for food. Many shoppers ignored them, believing she wanted money to buy crack, Conceição said. In fact, they just wanted to eat. “This is how we survive,” said her 16-year-old niece Luana Dias, who has an eight-month-old daughter called Pearl.
Back on Regeneration Street, night had fallen and there was talk that evangelical aid workers might be arriving with dinner. As Dos Santos loitered on the sidewalk hoping those rumours would prove true, he reflected on how Covid had made life on Brazil’s bottom rung even more of a battle.
“All we’ve got right now is death and suffering,” Dos Santos grumbled, pointing the finger of blame at politicians and President Bolsonaro in particular.
“If Biden hadn’t come along the US would be screwed too with that [Trump] guy, because he was just like Bolsonaro,” the homeless man mused. “People are dying and he couldn’t care less.”
Additional reporting by Alan Lima