Skip to main content

Dancers perform in Rio de Janeiro despite Carnival celebrations being cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic on Feb. 14, 2021.RICARDO MORAES/Reuters

As Brazil exceeds 230,000 COVID-19-related deaths, at least 20 Brazilian states have cancelled their carnival celebrations. In some cities, such as Rio de Janeiro, the party means more than just a celebration. It’s a fundamental part of local identity and an important source of income for communities and countless businesses.

Although it officially lasts a few days – this year it would have been celebrated between Feb. 12 and 17 – the party takes place all month long in several parts of the country. In the case of Rio de Janeiro, samba schools are active throughout the year with rehearsals, special lunches and other activities. The process of creating and manufacturing costumes and floats for the parades also lasts year round.

The first consequence of cancellation is “the paralysis of a productive chain that involves thousands of people who work directly or indirectly with carnival, whether in [samba] schools, in blocos [street parties], making costumes and making floats, concerts, the musicians, the shops that make and sell the costumes, even the hotels, bars and restaurants,” explains Anderson Baltar, a journalist with Radio Arquibancada, an online radio broadcast specializing in carnival.

According to estimates by the National Confederation of Commerce, the Brazilian economy could lose about US$1.5-billion with the cancellations. The most visible and world-famous event of the Brazilian carnival, the parade of the samba schools in Rio de Janeiro, was to occur on Feb. 14 and 15. It had already been postponed by Liesa, the Independent League of Samba Schools, in September because of the pandemic. The plan was to think of a smaller event with a date to be set later.

“Carnival is perhaps a crucial element for us to understand how the city of Rio de Janeiro was and is a constantly disputed territory,” says Luiz Antonio Simas, a writer, historian and one of the greatest authorities on carnival. Rio itself, “is a city formed by several cities, an intense and fruitful relationship, but at the same time it is a tense one” in regards to social classes and races.

Carnival plays the role of meeting point between different sectors of the city. The samba schools, which emerged in the first half of the 20th century, “presuppose the formation of a community identity,” Mr. Simas adds.

Fabio Fabato, a journalist and researcher of carnival, says there is a common misperception that carnival is only a party. In reality, there is an entire industry that depends on this popular cultural event – an industry that has been “abandoned and decimated.”

“So we have workers going hungry, we have unemployed people, and the samba schools themselves historically didn’t know how to exist without the direct support of the public power, they don’t have a form of sustaining themselves,” Mr. Fabato says.

In Rio alone, he adds, last year’s carnival injected the equivalent of $825-millioninto the economy. Now, “everything is paralyzed.”

This is the first time that Rio de Janeiro will not celebrate carnival in more than 100 years. Only in 1912 was the celebration officially postponed, after the death of the diplomat Jose Paranhos, the Baron of Rio Branco, an important figure in Brazilian politics. (The population ended up celebrating the carnival twice, first during the traditional period and again on the date chosen by the government.)

But attempts have been made to cancel the carnival a few times. “In 1842 the attempt was to postpone carnival until the middle of the year, under the allegation of an environment minister at the time that there were many health problems in February,” says Antonio Spirito Santo, a musician and expert in the history of samba. “It did not work.” The last attempt to cancel the samba school parades took place in 1943, when then-president Getulio Vargas declared a state of war. The parades still ended up happening.

Today, “the economic repercussion is devastating,” journalist Aydano Motta says.

Both carnival and New Year’s Eve festivities are fundamental for Rio’s tourism, he adds. “The city is on the outskirts of the world and is unable to take off in a sustainable way in the tourism sector. It has poor services, so it depends on these two large events to sustain the hotel industry and even the informal economy, such as the peddler who sells beer in the blocos and in school rehearsals.”

The city council has been trying to avoid a tragedy through the offer of economic help, but Mr. Fabato considers the initiative too little, too late.

Mr. Motta agrees: “Over the course of 2020, solidarity actions have distributed basic food baskets to these professionals – but that is not enough, given the situation.” People involved in the carnival industry have been experiencing difficulties for some time and many samba schools have completely halted activities. Only the Estacao Primeira de Mangueira, one of the most traditional samba schools, kept an online calendar of events during the carnival period.

“People who depend on the carnival are starting to work on other activities,” Mr. Baltar says. “Will these people come back after everything is normal? It’s not that simple. There is a break in the production chain that shows the fragility of the carnival industry.”

With the cancellation of the parade, “there is no alternative for survival until 2022,” Mr. Motta says.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.