Living inside Brazil’s largest apartment complex amid a pandemic

As the Brazilian president denies the death toll from COVID-19, the Copan building has taken its own measures to halt the crisis.

By João Pina
photographs by João Pina
Published 17 Apr 2020, 21:02 BST
Downtown São Paulo at dusk, as seen from the edge of the Copan building. The city ...

Downtown São Paulo at dusk, as seen from the edge of the Copan building. The city of 12 million is under lockdown, but three weeks into mandatory quarantine, signs of life are beginning to pop up, says photographer Joao Pina.

Photograph by João Pina

The Copan building in São Paulo, Brazil, looks like a wave. It reminds me of the tilde that sits on the “a” in “São Paulo.” With 1,160 apartments, the massive concrete structure is the largest residential building in Latin America. It even has its own Zip code. Designed as a social experiment in the 1950s, the city-sized building now offers an up-close look at how a metropolis of 21 million is coping with isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.

São Paulo is the epicentre of the outbreak in Brazil. As of April 15, 28,320 Brazilians have been infected with COVID-19 and 1,736 have died. Of those who perished, nearly 800 were from São Paulo state. Like other countries, the lack of testing here means the number of cases is likely much higher. A new study estimates there are likely seven times more cases in Brazil than have been officially reported. The country’s health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, has warned that the public health system could collapse by the end of April.

I spent the last two decades covering Latin America as a photographer. I came to São Paulo late last year and now am under a mandatory quarantine along with the rest of the city’s residents. When I heard about the Copan and its history, I knew it was a world I wanted to understand. So I rented one of the apartments and spent eight days photographing and getting to know the people who call it home. Before I moved in, I isolated myself in my apartment for 20 days and while there I followed strict safety protocols.

A long camera exposure taken from the Copan’s rooftop casts the São Paulo skyline in watercolor tones. Located in the city’s bustling downtown, the building was intended to house people from all walks of Brazilian life.

Photograph by João Pina

The Copan was the dream of architect Oscar Niemeyer, who wanted to build a place for people from all walks of Brazilian society. He succeeded. Artists, moguls, and maids are among the 5,000 residents living in apartments that range from nearly 300 square feet to more than 4,500 square feet. The building has about 102 employees.

Like the man who built it, the Copan’s residents lean left on the political spectrum. Every night from their windows, residents bang pots and pans in protest of the current president’s handling of the pandemic.

President Jair Bolsonaro has said he doesn’t believe that COVID-19 is a health emergency. He called it a “little flu” and has publicly doubted the announced death toll. He’s held political rallies encouraging people to go back to work. And his supporters are taking his dangerous message to the streets: This week, while chanting that coronavirus is a lie, they blocked ambulances from driving through São Paulo.

Ilê Sartuzi transforms his apartment into a makeshift movie theater. Forced to stay inside, residents are finding creative ways to entertain themselves.

Photograph by João Pina

“For weeks, Bolsonaro has been sabotaging the states’ and his own Health Ministry’s efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 and putting the lives and health of Brazilians at grave risk,” José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch, wrote in a recent report.

Bolsonaro could learn a thing or two from the Copan’s Affonso Celso Oliveira. Since 1993, the 80-year-old manager, whom residents call “the mayor,” has been running things at the building where he’s lived for decades. When he first heard about the virus in January, he immediately shut down the building’s roof, typically crowded with hundreds of daily visitors, and ramped up cleaning throughout the building. “I’ve instructed the doormen to watch on the CCTV when people are using the elevators,” Oliveira told me. “If they touch the surfaces or the mirrors, the cleaning personnel is called up to clean the whole elevator right away."

Staff have fuel vouchers, instead of public transportation vouchers, so they can avoid taking crowded buses through the densely populated city. And doormen are also on alert for residents exhibiting symptoms. One woman I met had recently returned from Europe with the flu and said the staff checked in on her every day.

Many thought Oliveira was overreacting, but now they call him a genius. As of press time, there are no confirmed coronavirus cases in the Copan.

In a city as densely populated as downtown São Paulo, it can be easy for a highly contagious virus to get around. To keep his 102 employees safe, Affonso Celso Oliveira has given them fuel vouchers instead of bus fare, so they can avoid public transportation on their way to and from work.

Photograph by João Pina

Still, like the rest of São Paulo, life at the Copan isn’t immune to the effects of the pandemic. While some residents are doing fine financially, others are on forced “vacation.” Still others have lost their jobs and have no prospects. All are feeling anxious.

Many are like Carine Wallauer. Before the pandemic, she was a successful director of photography. In early March, as the virus was surging across the globe, she attended the Berlinale, a prestigious film festival in Berlin. Since then, she’s lost two of her three jobs. Now, she’s worried about what her life will be like next month. When I visited recently, she seemed relieved to have someone to speak to. We sat on the floor—six feet apart—and talked for three hours. Like Carine, other residents were eager to talk, after not seeing anyone for weeks. With each visit, I thoroughly washed my hands and practiced social distancing. Even with the extra precautions, you can never tell when facing an invisible disease.

Residents of the Copan bang pots and pans from their windows every night in protest against President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic. The administration has denied that the coronavirus is dangerous and has cast doubt on the country's death toll.

During my stay, I photographed nearly two dozen Copan residents and a handful of non-resident employees. Among them, the on-duty firefighter, who commutes three hours to the Copan every day; a house painter-turned-artist, who practices his violin on his lunch break; and the mailman, who distributes mail to all 1,160 apartments each day. As I got to know the men, women, and children from all walks of life living together at the Copan, I saw a strong sense of community and solidarity.

After three weeks of quarantine I see movement in the city. With mixed messages from state and federal governments, non-essential businesses are keeping limited hours and people are returning to work. In a country with one of the most dramatic income disparities in the world, the fear of another economic crash like the one in 2015—the worst recession on record—outweighs the risks.

Angelica Cunha, 55, is a caregiver for an elderly woman and depends on her income to get by. After feeling sick, Cunha self-quarantined for two weeks and has now returned to work. Just five years after a historic recession, Brazilians fear the coronavirus pandemic will lead to another economic crash.

Photograph by João Pina

I see the signs of a fragile economy in the faces of the homeless. Though the Copan has helped spark downtown São Paulo’s revitalisation over the past few decades, there are still many people with no place to go. Some have taken up residence on the street just outside the Copan. With no social support system, residents have stepped in with some relief, coordinating via the building’s Facebook page. Two residents have been crowdfunding and recently organised a meal distribution system. One woman handed out water bottles—it was all she could afford.

The Copan building glows in the centre of São Paulo as the city around it battles the coronavirus pandemic.

Photograph by João Pina

For all Brazilians, the pandemic has made an already uncertain future even more so. The government plans to give small entrepreneurs, freelancers, and informal workers a £80 aid check each month for the next three months. But that’s little more than half the monthly minimum wage—and not enough for cesta básica, or “basket of basics,” the amount of food and bare necessities that Brazil estimates citizens need to survive. It’s small comfort in a city where there’s always been hunger in the streets—and now there’s fear of the invisible and the unknown.

João Pina is a contributing photographer for National Geographic, focusing on human rights abuses and historical memory. He has been working mostly in Latin America for the past 20 years. Follow him on Instagram and visit his website.
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