Like so many of his neighbours in Madureira – a working-class neighbourhood considered Rio’s “cradle of samba” – Álvaro Silva was a diehard supporter of the local samba school, Portela.
Just a few weeks ago the 76-year-old percussionist watched in delight as the group to which he had dedicated more than half of his life took to the streets for its annual carnival procession.
“He was so crazy about Portela that even when their parades went badly it made him happy,” said his wife, the garment-maker and dancer Veridiana da Conceição.
But this year’s carnival was Álvaro’s last. After 10 days in a hospital in west Rio, he died on 19 April, after catching the coronavirus from a neighbour.
“We were two peas in a pod,” remembered Conceição, 56, a fellow carnival fanatic. “All I have now is Portela.”
The world of samba – a sequin-sprinkled pillar of Brazilian culture – has been plunged into mourning by Covid’s assault on Brazil which, with more than 9,000 deaths, is now one of the world’s worst-hit countries.
In Rio, more than 1,400 people have died, many of them cherished figures from samba schools such as Portela and Mocidade Independente de Padre Miguel, which has been robbed of six members.
Mocidade’s most recent loss was Edinho Cohab, a baker-cum-composer from Padre Miguel, a blue-collar area in west Rio, who leaves a wife and two daughters.
“He was a good composer, a great friend, someone respected. Everyone loved him,” said Domenil Santos, the 78-year-old president of the school’s composers section.
Santos said his friend had spent 17 days in hospital “fighting bravely against this damn virus – and now, as we cry for his loss, we’re praying for another companheiro too”.
Tânio Mendonca, a 52-year-old composer, is in critical condition after also falling ill. “I’m afraid even to look at the messages on my phone because of all these deaths,” said Santos, part of a group of more than 80 composers who hold daily prayer sessions, each in their own home. “We’re a family. Each of those who dies is a brother,” he said.
The suffering of Rio’s sambistas speaks to how Covid-19 – which initially affected Brazil’s rich – is now ravaging working-class districts and favelas, where many samba schools are based and where death rates are far higher.
In some of Rio’s glamorous beachside neighbourhoods, where many have access to private hospitals, the percentage of those who die after being infected is around 6.5%, while in poorer western districts it is over 20%. In Rio’s largest favela, Rocinha, 30 of the 84 people contaminated have lost their lives while in Gávea, the wealthy neighbourhood next door, two out of 48 patients have died, according to the NGO Voz das Comunidades.
Statistics also suggest a racial bias: in Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo, one study found black Brazilians were 60% more likely to die from Covid-19 than white people.
As they mourn their dead, members of Rio’s carnival community are also fretting over the future, wondering whether next year’s carnival will need cancelling – and what the economic impact of that would be on their low-income communities.
Each of the 12 samba schools in Rio’s top division employs about 300 people – thousands of jobs in total – without considering the other 69 samba schools that do not compete in the elite group.
“We’re talking about electricians, engineers, carpenters, seamstresses, joiners, painters, security technicians, firefighters, accountants, lawyers, receptionists, porters,” said Marco Antônio Marino, Mocidade’s 44-year-old carnival director – a member of the school since he was seven. “Without carnival, Rio de Janeiro will stop.”
Marino expressed anger at Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, for deliberately undermining social distancing measures that the sambista believed could save lives.
“His followers go along with what he says as if they were members of a sect. If he says it’s no problem to go out, people believe him,” Marino said. “Right now we need a leader. But what we have is the worst example imaginable.”
Jorge Castanheira, president of the Independent League of Rio de Janeiro’s Samba Schools, said it was too early to say whether next year’s carnival would have to be cancelled. “At the moment all we are able to worry about is saving lives.”
Carnival costume-makers at each of the league’s schools have turned their hands to producing thousands of face masks that are being distributed with food parcels to some of Rio’s most deprived residents.
Other sambistas are holed up at home. “I’m 87 years old and I haven’t shown my face outside in two months. I’d rather live in this prison without bars,” said Noca da Portela, a celebrated composer. “Samba is our joy – and the reason I’ve lived so long,” he added. “I can’t lose my life to this virus.”
Meanwhile, the losses mount. Estácio de Sá, which was founded in 1928 and is one of Rio’s oldest schools, was recently robbed of two veteran female members in just 24 hours. One, Lenita Nascimento, 77, was taken to hospital complaining of shortness of breath but had expected to be discharged within a day – and back in action for next year’s festivities. On 25 April she was intubated, and died two days later.
Hours later her friend, 64-year-old Virginia Quintas – an Estácio member since she was eight – also died.
Of Quintas’s three children, two had already met violent deaths: one killed in a motorbike accident, the other in a robbery. “Unfortunately, to our great sadness, she’s gone to be with her sons,” said Maria Luísa Mattos, 65, one of Estácio’s leaders.
Grande Rio, another top school, is mourning one of its directors, 42-year-old Marcos Diniz.
“His wife was pregnant with their second child. My God, what a tragedy,” said Jeferson Guimarães, a friend and fellow musician.
One of Brazil’s best loved sambas – “Na cadência do samba” – ponders the aspiration of every Rio musician: dying in the midst of a foot-stomping jam session. Covid-19 has wrecked those dreams.
Like so many of its victims, Álvaro Silva passed away in a cold hospital bed, connected to a ventilator, and without a single relative by his side.
Before his burial family members placed a wreath of chrysanthemums on to the sambista’s wooden coffin and draped it with Portela’s blue and white flag.