Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Raimundo Magno Nascimento lost two cousins to the coronavirus and another is sick, but he cannot stop to mourn because he is the only one to keep count of those dying in his community.

Nascimento lives at a "quilombo", a settlement once set up by runaway slaves that is now inhabited by Brazilians of African heritage who maintain traditions stemming from their roots.

Quilombolas 1

Women from a quilombo settlement, in Brazil, as 2007. PICTURE: Antônio Cruz/ABr.

While there is an official tally on the number of fatalities among Indigenous people in Brazil, the government has not set up a system to register the deaths of "quilombolas", the estimated 16 million people living in 5,000 quilombos nationwide.

A bill passed last week by Brazil's Congress would require the government to record these deaths, while also granting special support to quilombolas, but it is waiting the signature of President Jair Bolsonaro to become law. 

While there is an official tally on the number of fatalities among indigenous people in Brazil, the government has not set up a system to register the deaths of "quilombolas", the estimated 16 million people living in 5,000 quilombos nationwide.

Facing government inaction, local leaders have stepped up, while opposition lawmakers have underlined the symbolic importance of this bill amid global protests over racism.

"It's a work to ease the pain of those who lost a relative," Nascimento told Thomson Reuters Foundation over the phone from Quilombo Africa, in the northern state of Para, where he lives.

Brazil has the world's second-highest COVID-19 death toll, with more than 52,000 fatalities, 1.15 million confirmed cases, and one of the highest daily rates of new infections. 

Quilombolas chosen by CONAQ, the National Coordination of Articulation of Black Rural Quilombola Communities which is an association of quilombola communities, are tallying victims.

So far they have logged about 84 deaths and more than 700 confirmed cases, but fear the numbers could be much higher due to low levels of testing on quilombolas, many of whom live in remote and rural areas far from the nearest hospital.

This has made gathering data in these communities a slow and painstaking process, said Nascimento, a trained nurse.

Nascimento is counting deaths in the northern region of Brazil where the virus first spread among quilombolas. In his home state of Para there has been 29 deaths.

"It is a very big challenge to deal with this information. Local leaders call me on my personal phone, so when a call comes, I already answer in desperation," he said.

Quilombola Amapa

 A quilombo settlement in Amapo, Brazil, as seen in 2008. PICTURE: Wilson Dias/ABr.

When Brazil abolished slavery in 1888 - the last place in the Americas to end slavery - at least four million slaves had been brought into the country from Africa to work on sugar plantations and in other sectors of the flourishing economy.

Most of their descendants in quilombos are still living below the poverty line.

Estimates vary but government data suggests only around 250 of quilombo settlements have title deeds to their land, and without land titles, the quilombolas do not have access to social benefits, such as subsidised housing.

Many quilombos have no electricity or running water, and live on subsistence farming, handicrafts, or from tourism. 

But as a vulnerable group, quilombolas are frequently overlooked as Brazil's Indigenous populations tend to draw more attention from rights groups, experts said.

"It's a universe that we have not yet managed to give due visibility to, that has a gigantic cultural wealth," said Milene Maia, an advisor for Instituto Socioambiental, a non-profit that partnered with CONAQ to report the deaths.

Experts are unsure if the bill now before Bolsonaro would be effective if signed into law as states already struggle to record even basic data like a patient's race.

A joint report by Brazil's biggest media companies - O Globo, Extra, Estado de Sao Paulo, Folha de Sao Paulo, Uol and G1 - found that less than half of the country's 26 states record the race of those infected by coronavirus, making the impact of the disease on minority groups difficult to ascertain. 

"The invisibility of Black people is great, but [the invisibility] of the quilombolas is even greater," said Maia.

The bill would also provide special assistance to Indigenous and quilombola groups who are more vulnerable than others to the virus, said congressman Bira do Pindare of the opposition Social Party of Brazil, who supports the bill.

"Civil society organisations have been monitoring this and we are realising that the lethality rate [or quilombolas] is four times higher than the rate for the general population," said Pindare, who presides over a parliamentary group set up to protect quilombola communities.

"In the face of worldwide mobilisation against racism, this bill has an important symbolic meaning," said Pindare.

Nascimento said the elders were being the hardest hit by the disease and their loss taking away part of the local culture.

"When an elderly leaves...they carry with them a legacy of knowledge and experience," said Nascimento. "We are losing much of our culture."

Rejane Oliveira misses the confident smile of Tia Uia, her aunt who died from COVID-19 this month in Rio de Janeiro state.

Tia Uia, 78, was the granddaughter of a slave and one of the country's most respected quilombola leaders. 

"I lost my aunt, other lost their parents and friends," said Oliveira. "She wouldn't want us to stop. We move on, carrying the memory of this great woman."