Contributions from Brazil – Rio

A pandemic in a city of contradictions: care and surveillance in Rio

Author: Marina Frid, a postdoctoral researcher in Communication and Culture at UFRJ, Brazil. You can contact her at

Fieldsite: I am staying in touch with a group of 17 informants who live and work in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and are quarantining in different parts of the city and the surrounding metropolitan area. From my home in Rio, I am interviewing them over the phone, Skype and WhatsApp video calls.

— Locked in or out

Since the coronavirus pandemic reached Rio de Janeiro in March 2020, measures for the protection and surveillance of the city’s population stumbled on jurisdiction disputes and political tensions that made it hard to understand what people are allowed to do or not during social isolation. The federal government sent mixed messages about the disease and how to manage it from the start. President Jair Bolsonaro chose to make public gestures downplaying the risk of COVID-19 and hesitated to take steps in support of social isolation, despite recommendations of the Ministry of Health. Hence, governors and mayors rushed to make their own decisions on how to handle the crisis locally. The president tried to publish a norm that submitted state and city measures against COVID-19 to federal approval. The Federal Supreme Court (STF), however, ruled against that norm, declaring that states and cities have the constitutional right to take measures in defence of health without the need of federal authorisation.

The governor of Rio de Janeiro, Wilson Witzel, an aspiring contender of the 2022 presidential election, positioned himself at odds with Bolsonaro as soon as the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the state. His decree on the 19th of March not only suspended classes, public gatherings and commercial activities regarded as “non-essential” but also imposed restrictions on intercity public transportation.[1] He tried but was unable to close down airports and limit interstate transport because these decisions were of federal competence.

Thus, control has been harshest on the circulation of people between the state’s capital and the surrounding cities of the metropolitan area. In normal circumstances, Rio receives up to two million people from neighbouring towns during the day between the hours of 6 and 18[2]. Now, rules of the partial lockdown stipulate that only “essential” workers and patients are allowed to board trains or ferries to Rio. Bus and van services were interrupted. Though there are no impediments to private cars, app drivers are not supposed to circulate from the metropolitan area to the capital, and vice versa.

One of my informants, Lisa, lives in Nova Iguaçu and works as an autonomous manicurist in the south zone of Rio, assisting clients at their homes or at the small shop she rents. When clients cancelled their appointments on the 18th of March due to the coronavirus, Lisa saved herself the long journey to Rio. Then came the restrictions to public transportation between her city and the capital. She has not been able to visit her shop since. All of her work equipment is in Rio, including disposable masks that would have been useful during social isolation. She did not complain to me about the situation but pointed out that she could not even do her own nails over the last two months for lack of tools.

Silvia lives and works in Duque de Caxias, another city in the metropolitan area. Her mother has been temporarily released from her work as a housekeeper in the south zone of Rio. At least in the first couple of months of social isolation, her mother’s employer continued to pay her regularly during her coronavirus leave. Though visits to the capital are not a part of Silvia’s own routine, she mentioned feeling trapped in Caxias: “Actually, we can’t even leave the municipality. If you don’t have a car and want to go to Rio by bus, it’s a big problem. We’re really locked in, not just at home but in our neighbourhoods. There’s nowhere to go.”.

Instead of staying locked out of Rio, one can find a way to shelter in the city. For example, Elis told me about Carla, her mother’s part-time housekeeper who lives in the city of São Gonçalo, on the other side of the Guanabara Bay. After more than a month of social isolation, Carla got tired of staying home and asked Helena, Elis’s mother, if she could go back to work. Helena agreed but only if Carla moved in for the remainder of quarantine (or at least for a prolonged period). Carla caught a ride with a relative to Rio and has been staying at Helena’s since early May.

Inconsistencies and chin masks

The state government’s decree also suspends the habit of going to beaches, lagoons, rivers, public swimming pools, parks and nature reserves. Since the decree was not very specific, police officers have been removing people from the sand but not from the wider sidewalks (known as calçadão) and bike lanes that border most beaches, where people exercise and take leisure walks.

A TV news report that aired on the 24th of March talked about divergent information given by Brazilian authorities regarding outdoor workout during the pandemic[3]. While the Health Ministry recommended outdoor exercises as long as there were no crowds, the state government declared people should not leave their homes except for essential activities, like going to work, to the supermarket or to seek healthcare. This conflict of information was never settled, and people have been exercising in bike lanes by the beach, around the Lagoon and the Maracanã stadium, and in other public spaces in the city at their discretion.

Political polarization has turned television journalists, especially those affiliated to Globo, into targets of social media lynching. Marcelo Cosme, a GloboNews anchor, was filmed and cursed at while jogging at the beach in early April. The harasser, who seems to be a supporter of president Bolsonaro, accused the journalist of being a hypocrite that tells people to stay home but continues to go out every day. Cosme replied that he was not a part of the risk group.[4]

In early April as well, a woman that was jogging at Recreio beach was detained by the police for “inappropriate” behaviour. Police officers asked the woman to step out of the sand and move to the sidewalk, but she refused to comply and lowered her bikini bottoms. While the two officers pulled the woman out of the sand against her will, she accused one of them of being contaminated, saying something like, “Get off of me you infected madwoman”.[5]

Although the monitoring of beaches tends to be more rigorous than in other parts of the city, Ana observes it is not constant. When driving to the supermarket, she often sees people in the water and on the sand at the Recreio beach. Marcus always sees surfers in the water early in the morning through a surfing app that shows live images of beaches in Rio.

Elis has a partial view of the beach from one of the rooms in her apartment in Leme. In the first days of social isolation, she went once or twice for a quick swim at the beach with her husband and child, but they have since given up the habit with the intensification of surveillance. From their window, they can see officers taking people off the sand. She, however, points out that inspection is not that rigorous inside her neighbourhood, just one or two blocks away from the beach. When walking her dog or going to the bakery, Elis notices some people continue to meet at bars to have a beer. Restaurants and bars are supposed to operate only through takeout or delivery. But, all over the city, tiny and often dirty-looking bars, dubbed “pé sujo” (“dirty foot”), have been serving customers with their doors half-open. Standing outside these little bars to chat and enjoy a drink is customary in Rio, and some owners have been defying social isolation rules to indulge their loyal customers and keep their business going. The half door open does not disguise much.

Most of my informants have the perception that the enforcement of social isolation measures has been ineffective. All of them have seen or know people and commercial establishments that are bypassing the rules. Joana told me about her friend’s boss that refused to shut down his perfume shop in the neighbourhood of Madureira, where police inspection is said to be looser. Diana also mentioned that, on her way back from the supermarket, she always sees people having a beer on the sidewalk outside bars, wearing masks on their chins.

The mayor of Rio, Marcelo Crivella, published a decree making the use of masks in public spaces mandatory starting on the 23rd of April. Statues throughout the city were dressed with masks to communicate the new instruction. Though the presence of medical-type of masks increased in the city since the decree, the incorrect use of the accessory has become the subject of memes and jokes. My informants and I have noticed people on the streets wearing masks below the nose, on the chin or just hanging from one of the ears.

Figure 1 – The statue in honour of football player Bellini in front of the Maracanã Stadium was dressed with a mask. Photo by Marco Antonio Rezende/ Prefeitura do Rio.

Mario is wearing a mask whenever in public spaces except while jogging around the square near his house. He walks to the square with the mask on and takes it off to exercise. The last time we chatted, he remarked that a group of guards at the square saw him without the mask but did nothing. “Maybe if we were in Europe they’d approach me, ‘Excuse me, why aren’t you wearing your mask?’ They had the right to do that. I was wrong.”

In fact, the decree does not determine any kind of penalty for people not wearing masks. According to the mayor, the purpose of the decree was to raise awareness about the importance of using masks to protect yourself and others. The only form of reprehension the mayor’s instruction foresees is that people not wearing masks can be prevented from boarding public transports or entering commercial establishments.[6]

Figure 2 – “There is something wrong in this photo…” The meme shows there are different kinds of masks, not all of them appropriate to protect against COVID-19.

Adaptation to the use of masks has not been smooth. Jacqueline almost suffocated trying to jog with a mask on and decided to avoid outdoor exercise for a while. Some cases of people unwilling to comply with the mayor’s decree popped up on social media and online news. For example, one awkward situation happened at a Guanabara supermarket. Security prohibited a woman without a mask from entering the store, and her reaction was unexpected: she took off her panties and put them on as a face covering.[7]

Mayor Crivella, a bishop of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus – IURD), seeks to secure a second mandate in the upcoming 2020 elections. Hence, he has been trying to balance actions against COVID-19 with his political interests. On the one hand, he promoted social isolation and the use of masks in Rio despite being a political ally of President Bolsonaro. On the other, he installed a new CT scanner for the Rocinha community inside a Universal Church, not in the public health clinic it was meant to be placed in.[8] The number of people contaminated and killed by coronavirus is still on the rise in Rio, but Crivella issued a decree on 25 May that authorizes the reopening of religious cults, which are considered an essential activity by the federal government.[9] Schools, commercial establishments, beaches and parks remain closed, at least until 31 May.

The limits of surveillance

The City Hall of Rio is counting on citizens to improve surveillance and enforce social rules. On the 30th of March, the mayor launched a service called Disk Aglomeração (Dial Crowds) through which anyone can call the City Hall to report cases of transgression, like unauthorized street parties, “nonessential” shops with their doors open, or crammed places. The municipal guard is supposed to act on these anonymous accusations, taking the appropriate punitive measures. In April, the service improved to receive claims over WhatsApp.

In a brief conversation, Felipe, who is a member of the municipal guard, talked about two operations that took place in mid-May spurred by anonymous complaints. One of the operations aimed a noisy house in Realengo. Officers found out that an aunt was throwing a 15-year old birthday party to her niece and had her place filled with teenagers. The other situation was a crowded street-party in Bangu. Three of the attendees ended up being detained for disobeying and threatening the authorities.

Renata knows that people have been partying somewhere near her home in Pavuna almost every night. She cannot see the gathering from her window but hears noises and loud music coming from a street behind her building. In response to her neighbours’ transgression, she is using Disk Aglomeração: “Everyone complaints, but I don’t know if they’re doing something [about it].”. Though Renata has submitted complaints through the service a bunch of times, she cannot tell if they resulted in any sort of penalty on the wrongdoers.

Joana thinks the enforcement of social isolation should be a bit more rigorous, with more patrols supervising the streets and public transports, but disagrees with the idea of jailing transgressors. “Some countries are imprisoning [disobedient people], but I don’t think that’s a good idea.”.  Though she considers that fines would be fitting in cases of non-compliance to social isolation, she suggests that some kind of community sentence could be a more effective way of punishing and educating people.

Diana became ever more conscious and worried about the risk of COVID-19 during social isolation. When we spoke in April, she felt that there should be more police inspecting the streets. Yet, she remarked that relying on police forces in Rio is complicated given they are notorious for their use of violence. By mid-May, she had grown more concerned with people’s behaviour and was certain of the need for police surveillance: “Unfortunately, educational and awareness [measures] are not working. You really have to startle [people]. (…) I’m going barbaric (giggles). I wish I could grab people by their arms and shake them, ‘Go home, damn it!’”.

On the one hand, Diana noticed the City Hall suspended a street market and closed down a photocopy shop near her house in Lapa. On the other hand, she has seen groups of police officers chatting with their masks on their chin, seemingly paying no attention to what was going on around them.

One of the peculiarities of the pandemic in Rio is that criminal groups, namely, drug trafficking gangs and militias, can have a decisive influence on the adoption or not of social isolation practices in certain parts of the city. Since early April, news reports show commercial establishments in various neighbourhoods of the west zone of Rio and in the metropolitan area are receiving orders from the militias to keep their doors open. The paramilitaries want to guarantee their tariff collection, threatening business owners that try to comply with the government’s decree.[10]

Differently, drug trafficking organizations in some of Rio’s favelas have been taking their own measures to enforce social isolation in communities under their control. Elis’s husband received a video from an acquaintance at Vila Aliança showing the communication strategy of the Terceiro Comando Puro (TCP) gang to combat coronavirus. In the video, a sound truck spreads a message about the mandatory use of masks and curfew for all commercial establishments and residents of the favela. The message opens with the siren sound of the film The Purge (James DeMonocaco, 2013):

“Attention, Vila Aliança. Attention, residents. Starting today, you’ll no longer be allowed to stay in public without wearing protective masks against the coronavirus. Going out with your masks on is mandatory. Shops, bars and any other kind of establishment must close by 8 o’clock at night. Residents [can be] out on the streets only until 8 at night. Curfew starts today. Respect it. This is a warning to everyone. Let’s take care of ourselves. Community, don’t kid around. If you don’t take it seriously, you know what happens…”

The message closes with a remix of the electronic music Astronomy by Tony Igy. Currently, the music is widely popular because of memes with the “coffin dancers” from Ghana that became omnipresent in Brazilian social media in the first weeks of the pandemic.


Figure 3 – One of the many memes featuring the “coffin dancers” from Ghana.

In another message spread via WhatsApp, the Comando Vermelho (CV) gang made an “important announcement” to residents of favelas in downtown Rio. CV forbade, beginning on 7 May, chit-chats, get-togethers, pagode music parties, and gatherings in public spaces like squares and sports courts. Its announcement had a threatening tone: “Since you don’t respect the Governors’ orders, starting today, 7/05, you’ll respect ours. We want the best for our region. If Governors are not able to fix [the situation], we will fix it! Anyone caught disobeying orders will learn to respect others!”. The announcement also emphasized the mandatory use of masks and determined that people could only buy things in bars for consumption at home.

Mila’s brother told her the drug trafficking leaders at Rocinha were threatening to lock down the entire favela, but she was not sure if that was true or just a rumour. She noted that the gang had stopped throwing its weekend parties since the pandemic began: “They have more awareness than those people in bars. (…) What a crazy world.”. Mila thinks that people disrespecting social isolation rules to go to bars or have parties in Rocinha are not doing so for lack of information. She hears sirens and government announcements made through loudspeakers and knows social workers are making rounds in the community.

Finally, my informants are unaware of the use of digital technology for surveillance of the Rio de Janeiro population during the pandemic. The minister of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communications (MCTIC), Marcos Pontes, announced on Twitter that the major telephone companies in Brazil would cooperate with the government by providing geolocation data on their clients. Data transferred from the phone companies to the government would be anonymous. The purpose would not be to identify and track specific individuals but to monitor population mobility, crowds and situations of contamination risk. Though the announcement was made on 27 March, there has not been much news in the mainstream media about the employment of that surveillance strategy by the federal government since. Incidentally, the minister deleted his twit not long after posting it.[11]

The state government of São Paulo is using mobile phone data to monitor the level of social isolation in its cities. In the state of Rio de Janeiro, the capital is using the surveillance cameras of the Operations Centre of the City Hall of Rio, but other municipalities are adopting different technologies. For example, the City Hall of Campos dos Goytacazes, in the northern part of the state, adopted a digital platform based on mobile phone data to supervise social isolation in the city.

Given Silvia is a computer technology teacher, I asked her what she thought about the monitoring of citizens through their cell phone data. She dislikes the idea because there is too much risk of a privacy breach. In her view, the government could obtain statistics from information made available by citizens, for instance, when they use public Wi-Fi networks, but not data generated by their personal apps, like step counter and training apps. “I’m not going to say that’s like the authoritarianism of a dictatorship, because that’s super extreme, but that’s also a way of manipulating and controlling the population”.

[1] Decree 46979, Diário Oficial do Estado do Rio de Janeiro – Poder Executivo, 46 (51 A), 19 March, 2020.

[2] Observatório Sebrae/RJ, Mobilidade urbana e mercado de trabalho na região metropolitana do Rio de Janeiro: estudo estratégico, n. 6, September, 2013.

[3] “Estado e Ministério da Saúde divergem de recomendação para exercícios ao ar livre”, RJ2, aired on 24 March, 2020,

[4] “Marcelo Cosme, da GloboNews, desrespeita quarentena e é hostilizado na praia”, UOL, 7 April, 2020.

[5] “Mulher é detida após apresentar comportamento ‘inadequado’ em praia da Zona Oeste do Rio”, G1, 4 April, 2020.

[6] Prefeitura do Rio de Janeiro, “Estátuas da cidade amanhecem com ‘máscaras’ em ação para fortalecer decreto do prefeito obrigando uso do adereço”, Rio Contra o Corona, 23 April, 2020.

[7] “Mulher usa calcinha no lugar da máscara após ser barrada em supermercado”, IstoÉ, 30 April, 2020.

[8] “Justiça do RJ libera instalação de tomógrafo em Igreja Universal da Rocinha”, G1, 16 May, 2020.

[9] Rio Decree 47461, Diário Oficial do Município do Rio de Janeiro – Poder Executivo, 34 (52), 25 May, 2020.

[10] Prado, Anita; Peixoto, Guilherme. “Milícia obriga reabertura de comércio da Zona Oeste e Região Metropolitana do Rio para manter cobrança de taxas”, G1, 17 April, 2020. “Milícia ameaça de morte comerciantes que fecharem estabelecimentos”, RJ2, aired on 25 March, 2020,

[11] Dieb, Daniel; Simões Gomes, Helton. “Governo vai monitorar celular para controlar aglomeração na pandemia”, UOL, 2 April, 2020.