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Pandemic disrupting Rio's famed Carnival for first time in century

Virus disrupts Rio's Carnival

A cloud of uncertainty that has hung over Rio de Janeiro throughout the coronavirus pandemic has been lifted, but gloom remains — the annual Carnival parade of flamboyant samba schools won’t be held in February.

And while the decision is being characterized as a postponement of the event, no new date has been set.

Rio’s League of Samba Schools, LIESA, announced Thursday night that the spread of the coronavirus has made it impossible to safely hold the traditional parades that are a cultural mainstay and, for many, a source of livelihood.

“Carnival is a party upon which many humble workers depend. The samba schools are community institutions, and the parades are just one detail of all that,” Luiz Antonio Simas, a historian who specializes in Rio’s Carnival, said in an interview. “An entire cultural and productive chain was disrupted by COVID.”

Rio’s City Hall has yet to announce a decision about the Carnival street parties that also take place across the city. But its tourism promotion agency said in a statement to The Associated Press on Sept. 17 that without a coronavirus vaccine, it is uncertain when large public events can resume.

Brazil’s first confirmed coronavirus case was Feb. 26, one day after this year’s Carnival ended. As the number of infections grew, the samba schools that participate in the glitzy annual parade halted preparations for the 2021 event.

Nearly all of Rio’s samba schools are closely linked to working class communities. Their processions include elaborate floats accompanied by tireless drummers and costumed dancers who sing at the top of their lungs to impress a panel of judges. Tens of thousands of spectators pack the bleachers of the arena, known as the Sambadrome, while tens of millions watch on television.

Before the schools began competing in the 1930s, Carnival was celebrated in dance halls and haphazardly on the streets, Simas said. The parades entered the Sambadrome in the 1980s, and have become Rio’s quintessential Carnival display.

The immense labour required for each show was already stymied by restrictions on gatherings that Rio’s governor imposed in March. Even with those measures, Rio’s metropolitan region, home to 13 million people, so far has recorded more than 15,000 deaths from COVID-19.

Beneath the Sambadrome’s bleachers, the city created a homeless shelter for the vulnerable population during the pandemic.

Samba schools suspended float construction, costume sewing, dance rehearsals, and also social projects. The Mangueira school’s program in the favela near downtown Rio that teaches music to children — keeping them away from crime, and cultivating the school’s future drummers — hasn’t held classes since March.

The pulse of entire suburban Rio cities like Nilopolis, whose population of 160,000 cheers the Beija-Flor samba school, has faded, Simas said.

Some performers resorted to odd jobs and gigs. Diogo Jesús, the lead dancer referred to as “master of ceremonies” in the Mocidade school, couldn’t make rent without his income from private events. He started driving for Uber and sewing facemasks to sell at a fair.

“It was a blow. We live Carnival all year round, and many people when they realized everything would stop wound up getting sick or depressed,” Jesus said in an interview inside his house in Madureira, a neighbourhood in northern Rio. “Carnival is our life.”

The last year Rio’s Carnival was suspended was 1912, following the death of the foreign relations minister. The mayor of Rio, at the time Brazil’s capital, postponed by two months all licenses for the popular dance associations’ Carnival parties, according to Luís Cláudio Villafañe, a diplomat and author of the book “The Day They Delayed Carnival.” The mayor also voiced opposition to unregulated celebrations, but many Rio residents partied in the streets anyway.

Revelers were undeterred during World War II. And they poured into the street every year during more than two decades of military dictatorship, until 1985, with government censors reviewing costumes, floats and song lyrics.

Then came coronavirus.

“We must await the coming months for definition about if there will be a vaccine or not, and when there will be immunization,” LIESA’s president, Jorge Castanheira, told reporters in Rio on Thursday. “We don’t have the safety conditions to set a date.”



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