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Coronavirus collides with Latin America’s maid culture — with sometimes deadly results

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/30/2020 Terrence McCoy, Mary Beth Sheridan

a person wearing a costume: A woman who has been working as a housekeeper for more than 20 years cleans a house in Sao Paulo in 2012.

A woman who has been working as a housekeeper for more than 20 years cleans a house in Sao Paulo in 2012.
© AFP/AFP via Getty Images

RIO DE JANEIRO —Every weekday morning for 14 years, housekeeper Bety Santos has left her Rio favela to take a crowded bus to the wealthy seaside district of Barra da Tijuca. But the family she serves there now frightens her. 

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It’s the rich — those who can afford to travel or study abroad — who brought the novel coronavirus to Latin America. But it’s the poor, she believes, who will pay.

Her employer, a 71-year-old physician, returned from Paris recently with a cold. Though she tested negative for the coronavirus, Santos, who cooks and cleans for the family, can’t shake her anxiety — or her mounting annoyance. Governments are urging social isolation. Officials have asked the upper classes to put their maids on paid leave. But she’s still working.

“They cannot survive without me,” said Santos, 48. “They depend on me for everything. ‘I lost my glasses: Do you know where they are?’ ‘Next to the bed.’ ‘Where is the control for the TV?’ ‘Over there.’ I am scared of catching it from [my boss], but it’s not an option for me to be unemployed right now. I am a worker.”

As the coronavirus moves deeper into Latin America, analysts expect the region’s everyday structural inequities to accelerate the spread of covid-19, the disease the virus causes. Imported by the wealthy, the virus is now reaching into impoverished communities, at times through domestic employment, infecting people with fewer resources to combat the disease — with sometimes deadly results. Rio’s first death was a maid who is believed to have caught it from her employer. 

“You have a clear division in terms of class,” said Joaze Bernardino-Costa, a sociologist at the University of Brasilia. “It was not a disease that was spread by the poor, but now it is spreading through the whole population.” 

In Mexico, some of the first clusters involved people returning from ski trips in Vail, Colo., which has grown into what the Jalisco state governor described as “our main front” in combating the disease. In the Dominican Republic, a posh wedding in the resort town of Cap Cana — at which guests poked fun at the disease with fake nursing outfits — became a contamination cluster.

In Brazil, with more than 3,900 confirmed cases, the most in Latin America by far, the virus came from Europe and is now tracking more broadly into society. One wealthy woman who contracted the coronavirus in Italy is believed to have infected her 63-year-old domestic employee, Cleonice Gonçalves. Gonçalves died at a small hospital in her hometown of Miguel Pereira, a remote mountain village a two-hour drive from the tony community where she worked. Her family blames the boss, who they say withheld information of her illness.

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“She died because of her boss’s lack of empathy,” sister-in-law Ana Maria Trotta Gonçalves wrote on Facebook. “Unforgivable, this attitude.” The employer has not been named or spoken publicly.

Analysts say Latin America’s mutually dependent culture of domestic employment could become an impediment to stopping the spread of the virus. The poor rely on the wealthy for income. The wealthy depend on the poor for cleaning and cooking. In a region where 8 percent of women are domestic employees — the highest rate in the developing world — no one knows how long social distancing and isolation can last.

“We don’t know how this movie will play out,” said Luis Alvarez, head of a civic group called “Hola Vecino” — Hello Neighbor — in San Pedro Garza Garcia, perhaps Mexico’s richest town. Many homeowners, he said, “are people who don’t know how to cook, clean the house, sweep — or they aren’t ready for it. In this town — oof!” 


Wealthy Dominicans have begun exchanging tips on how to teach domestic employees proper hygiene in the time of the coronavirus. “Use disposable napkins every time you sneeze or cough,” the housekeeping-oriented Instagram page Casa al Dia counsels “house assistants.” “Don’t come to work if you have symptoms of fever.”

Some Mexican families aren’t taking even that chance. They’re sending their help home in what amounts to a “radical change of life,” according to Mexican newspaper columnist Guadalupe Loaeza. The wealthy, she said, “are not going to wake up to breakfast, to be able to leave their bedrooms bathed and perfumed to find breakfast on the table.”

The day after Gonçalves’s death, the Brazilian Labor Ministry recommended homeowners put their domestic workers on paid leave for all but “absolutely indispensable” services. Many families have followed that guidance. But others are demanding the “provision of services by the domestic worker, even in a period of social isolation,” said Adriane Reis, the ministry’s national coordinator of employment equality.

Jurema Brites, a social scientist at the Federal University of Santa Maria, said domestic housework, rooted in the Latin American history of colonialism and slavery, has become so “naturalized” that doing without it is nearly unimaginable. “For the wealthy, this type of work is intolerable,” she said. “It isn’t dignified. It isn’t something done by them.”

The virus has left many of Brazil’s 6 million domestic workers with an impossible choice: Their job — or their health?

For Josey Ana Paixão de Almeida, 59, it isn’t a choice. She lives in the Rio favela of Muzema far from the wealthy seaside neighborhood where she works. All nine of her siblings are domestic workers, each getting by on a few hundred dollars per month. But her daughter, studying finance at a local university, has a chance to be something different. So Paixão de Almeida keeps working to pay for her education. She’s hoping for the best, while risking the worst.

“I’m 59 and I’m diabetic,” she said on the phone in between chores. “I’m scared, but what can I do? If I were home, I wouldn’t be making any money.”

She now wears a mask and gloves on her commute, but still hasn’t found the courage to ask her boss, a 49-year-old woman, for paid leave. At least not while the woman is still working her job every day, too. So for now, Almeida is trying to focus on her tasks — get breakfast out, then lunch, then dinner — thankful that she hasn’t been sent home without pay.

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That’s a sting Edésia de Almeida Lage is having trouble getting past. She has worked 27 years for a family in Rio. She raised their children, cooked their food, scrubbed their floors — day after day, for decades. It was her life.

But then coronavirus came, and Almeida Lage, 58 and diabetic, started to worry. She said she asked the family to pay for her taxi ride, to avoid the madness of the buses, but they refused. So rather than risk an infection on public transportation, she’s now staying home without pay, supported by her husband, a doorman.

“Twenty-seven years,” she said, still stewing about it late last week. “And they didn’t have a single consideration for me. . . . They simply did not care if I would be okay or not. I’m very depressed about it. I am thinking I won’t work for them anymore.” She declined to identify her employers.

Maids and housekeepers work for so long in other people’s homes that the relationships at times feel far more familial than transactional — the dynamic depicted in the 2018 Oscar-winning Mexican movie “Roma.” Often the wealthy are the first people the poor call when they need help. And now, some maids, even amid the pandemic, feel an obligation to keep on working for the families.

That’s how Jo Alvez feels about her boss, a lively 80-year-old woman now staying home all day in isolation. The woman’s own children are staying away, fearful of getting her sick. Her house is empty — except for Alvez.

“I don’t know why she hasn’t let me go, but she’d be alone without me,” she said. “She might be scared of being lonely.”

Bety Santos, too, keeps serving her boss’s family — fearful, annoyed, yet somehow responsible.

“She is like my family,” she said. “I have an obligation to them.”

She paused.

“I’d rather be at my house.”

terrence.mccoy@washpost.com

mary.sheridan@washpost.com

Heloísa Traiano in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.

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