“Stay at home, respect the 1.5-meter distance, wash your hands, keep a balanced diet to enhance your immune system.” Over the last months, this has become the common sense on how to prevent COVID-19 infections. But, how should you follow these recommendations when you must go out on the streets every day to guarantee a daily meal for you and your family, like millions of people in Brazil?
How to stay apart when a family of five shares a slum shack without piped water? This is the reality of almost 14 million Brazilians that live in extreme poverty. Responsible Leaders Andrea Gomides and Luiza Serpa started a coalition to guarantee a fairer fight against COVID-19 in Rio de Janeiro’s poor neighborhoods.
Most people want to change their career path, but not everyone has the opportunity. Both Andrea and Luiza have a story of their professional transition from the private to the third sector. After years of working at big companies, both, in different moments of their lives, decided that they needed to do more. They say that they were called to their “missions”.
For nearly fifteen years, Andrea Gomides was responsible for developing marketing strategies for new solutions at HP and Microsoft. Strong skilled in sales and responsible for closing major businesses in the companies she worked for, Andrea gave up on the corporate world to start her own non-profit: Ekloos Institute – a social accelerator that, over its thirteen years of operation, has already qualified over 5,000 entrepreneurs and accelerated more than 400 NGOs and social impact businesses. Since 2017, Andrea has been a member of the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Network. In 2020, Andrea and Ekloos Institute were nominated and took part of the BMW Group´s Ready Go Program.
Andrea, a Microsoft executive for several years, was inspired by another former leader from the same company, John Wood, who founded Room to Read, an NGO that builds schools and gives scholarships to women. She left her prestigious position in 2007 to start the Ekloos Institute with the aim of supporting other NGOs in the areas of project development, management, marketing, and technology. She is driven by her sensitiveness and awareness: “People are so concerned with their time, their money, their power, their wellbeing that they end up not seeing, and not having the sense of belonging to, an unequal, suffering, and helpless society. The answer is always: the responsibility lies with the government, I pay tax. I partly agree, but they don’t know that happiness can also come when we dedicate ourselves to a cause, when we give and not necessarily only when we receive.”
It was this desire to make a difference in the world that also moved the publicist Luiza Serpa, the economist Fernanda Tizatto, and the journalist Marcos Pinheiro to found the Phi Institute in 2014. They created Phi to advise individuals and corporations about donating to social projects, ensuring well-applied investments and measurable results. They too are driven by the vision of contributing to a less unequal world, based on solidarity and humanity. Some years ago, Luiza found Andrea as a partner in this journey. Sharing and aligning purposes and visions, they have been able to offer more to the projects they support and increase their impact.
“We had the feeling that this big magnifying glass was being placed on the country’s social inequality problem – the effects of the pandemic in Brazil will be profound, with their impact going beyond the lives lost.”
A Call to (Re-)Action
By the beginning of June, Brazil, with a population of 210 million, had reached more than 500,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and almost 40,000 deaths, second only to the United States as the world’s most affected country. Officially, the new coronavirus arrived in Brazil in late February, brought by high-class travelers that were infected in winter destinations in Europe, who then infected their housemaids and spread the disease throughout all social strata.
The first response was fast and a #stayathome campaign was widely promoted by social media influencers, and even telenovelas – a national treasure – stopped their productions to convince people of the seriousness of the situation. Countless community organizations and collectives, all in a state of alert, launched donation campaigns dedicated to strengthening prevention measures and supporting favela residents. In contrast, the government, without a clear plan, communicated mixed and confusing messages to the people.
An advertising graduate and an MBA in Sustainable Business Management, Luiza migrated to the third sector in 2005, after consolidating her career in the corporate communications area. She is founding director of the Phi Institute, advising investors on defining the causes they want to support, choosing the ideal organizations and projects for investors, and monitoring the social impact that is generated. More than a bridge between donors and projects, she sees Phi as an agent for strengthening philanthropy, establishing partnerships with individuals, companies, foundations, and voluntary groups. Luiza joined the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Network in 2016 and until 2019 served as Network Driver for LATAM/Brazil.
To Andrea and Luiza, the arrival of the pandemic in the country was a call for an effective and urgent collaborative response: “We had the feeling that this big magnifying glass was being placed on the country’s social inequality problem – the effects of the pandemic in Brazil will be profound, with their impact going beyond the lives lost.” In mid-March, aware of the difficulty of providing equal conditions on fighting COVID-19 in Rio de Janeiro state, and worried about how fast the virus spread in favelas and other communities, Luiza and Andrea, alongside their teams from Instituto Phi and Instituto Ekloos plus Banco da Providencia, started the Rio Contra Corona (Rio Against Corona) initiative.
The campaign was created with clearly defined responsibilities: The Phi Institute would receive money donations via the Internet (bank deposits, PayPal, and company donations) and be in charge of financial management; Providência Bank would purchase food, cleaning, and hygiene materials and organize transport, while Ekloos was tasked with coordinating the receipt and distribution through local partners and organizations based on a network built over the last thirteen years. All three organizations work voluntarily and 100% of donations are directed to the communities.
A Hundred Million Hungry Faces
Rio Contra Corona
168,575 families benefited: approximately 600,000 residents in 237 communities
2,168 tons of food distributed in food baskets
686,490 liters of cleaning and hygiene materials
Donations from 24 March-6 June 2020. For updated numbers, click here.
Half of the Brazilian population, almost 104 million people, lives on a maximum of R$413 (US$80) per month. Lots of them live in places like Gogó da Ema, a favela in the neighborhood of Guadalupe or an area, that is so mistreated, that has been nicknamed as “end of the world”, in Costa Barros neighborhood. These and many other places in Brazil have been ignored by the government for decades, most of them are in the hands of drug gangs and militias.
In these poor neighborhoods, COVID-19 is just another issue in a long list of problems and is deepening the chasm of inequalities, making the lives of people like Chintia and “Dona” Arlete even harder.
Chintia Rodrigues lives in Gogó da Ema. “It’s a lot of mouths to feed, we were already in a bad situation,” she said, ready to prepare the pasta that came in the basket for dinner. She is one of the beneficiaries of the basic food, cleaning and hygiene kit distributed by the Rio Contra Corona campaign.
The 35-year-old housekeeper lives in a wooden shack with her husband Junior and five children, ranging in age from 1 to 15. The oldest, 16, left home because she is pregnant with Chintia’s first grandson. The family’s monthly income used to come from Chintia’s cleaning job in a building. The husband, unemployed before the COVID-19 pandemic, used to make some money scavenging trash. Now, this stopped.
Arlete Paula de Oliveira, 59, lives in a house with cement floors and plastered walls in an alley of Morro da Quitanda, in Costa Barros, with seven family members: two of her four children, a daughter-in-law, four grandchildren. “And God,” she says. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, misery was already dogging the family. The only fixed income it has is a monthly disability benefit payment (around US$250) from the government paid to one of “Dona” Arlete’s sons – he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease some years ago. Her other son had some temporary work. Not anymore.
“We usually eat only rice and beans. When we don’t even have that, we eat cornmeal porridge,” said Dona Arlete, adding that her biggest concern was where to get milk for her two-year-old granddaughter. She received the basic basket and hygiene and cleaning products from the Rio Contra Corona campaign through the NGO Recriando Raízes, which operates in the region.
In just two months, the campaign donations were converted into more than 2,000 tons of food and more than 600,000 liters of hygiene and cleaning products. These “kits” reached more than 150,000 families, or approximately 600,000 residents of 237 vulnerable communities in the state of Rio.
Stronger Together – But Now They Also Need Strength in Numbers
How did they organize it in such a short time? By cooperating, sharing experiences, distributing the work among the teams, they have brought food to the hungry and helped save lives by sharing knowledge on health protection measures.
At the same time, the União Rio movement, with which Rio Contra Corona has partnered since April, has already raised R$15 million (almost US$3 million) for health supplies and invested in buying mechanical ventilators, monitors, and other devices for public hospitals. Luiza has been impressed by the reach and impact of the initiative and movement: “Observing this wave of generosity, with the collaboration of so many individuals creating such an impact has been inspiring.” In fact, according to the Brazilian Association of Fundraisers (Associação Brasileira de Captadores de Recursos – ABCR), the national health, social and economic emergency caused by the pandemic has created a wave of solidarity in Brazil that has already resulted in more than R$5 billion (almost US$1 billion) in donations. Most of them come from large companies, but individuals, even with small amounts, contribute to change the philanthropy scenario in Brazil. Even areas that did not have a tradition of raising funds, such as science, received these resources.
Nevertheless, the country’s infection numbers are still rising and donations have dropped over the last weeks. Luiza shares her concern: “Donations, which were initially made in the thousands, have stopped coming. Without supplies, people will return to the streets for food. We’ve already lost thousands of Brazilians to COVID-19. We cannot lose lives to hunger.”
“We need many revolutions – health, science, education, security, the environment, and culture, for example. But the first revolution we need is solidarity. Amid this delicate scenario, let us be the individual who does not abandon the other. The coronavirus cannot be greater than empathy and mutual support.”