Brazil holds first carnival since Covid-19

Samba dancers perform at the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on April 22, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) - After two long years without its frenetic festival of sparkling sequins, sultry samba and towering floats, Rio de Janeiro held its famed carnival parades from Friday (April 22) night for the first time since Covid-19 hit Brazil.

Thousands of dancers and drummers descended on the iconic beach city's "Sambadrome", reclaiming the carnival parade venue that was turned into a drive-through vaccination centre at the height of the health crisis.

The all-night parades by the city's top samba schools on Friday and Saturday nights are the first since February 2020, marking a turning point for hard-hit Brazil, where Covid-19 has claimed more than 660,000 lives, second only to the United States.

But the festivities took a tragic turn before they began, when an 11-year-old girl died after being injured in a horrific float accident during a lower-level samba school parade contest on Wednesday night, a preview of the main event.

The girl, Raquel Antunes da Silva, was with her mother at a restaurant near the Sambadrome when she wandered off and climbed up on the float, unaware it was about to start moving, according to local media reports.

Trapped in the wheel, she was badly injured and rushed to a hospital, but died on Friday, city officials said.

Tragedy also struck Rio's carnival in 2017, when two freak float accidents killed one person and injured dozens.

'Pent-up emotion'

It was not the start Rio officials had hoped for after cancelling carnival last year, then postponing it by two months this year from the traditional dates - just before the Catholic season of Lent - over fears the Omicron variant would unleash a new wave of Covid-19 cases.

But with more than 75 per cent of the South American country's 213 million people now fully vaccinated, the average weekly Covid-19 death toll has plunged from more than 3,000 a year ago to around 100 now - allowing the show to go on.

All participants and the 75,000 attendees expected each night at the weekend's parades are required to present proof of vaccination.

The pandemic has left Brazilians full of "saudades" - Portuguese for longing - for their beloved carnival, a free-for-all dancing, singing and partying at close quarters that is essentially the opposite of social distancing.

And anticipation for the blowout has been building.

"I can't even describe what I'm feeling. There's just so much pent-up emotion from these two long years at home waiting for this moment to arrive," dancer Talita Batista of legendary samba school Portela told AFP at a rehearsal.

Each samba school will have 60 to 70 minutes to tell a story in music and dance, to be evaluated on nine criteria by a team of judges.

The reigning champions, Viradouro, chose as their theme Rio's epic 1919 carnival - the first celebrated after the devastation of another pandemic, the Spanish flu.

Other schools picked themes charged with social messages, with Brazil facing divisive elections in October expected to pit far-right President Jair Bolsonaro against leftist former leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Of the 12 schools, eight chose themes dealing with racism or Afro-Brazilian history, loaded issues in a country where the current president has faced frequent accusations of racism.

Their samba songs include treatments of the protests that erupted in the United States after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020; tributes to two "orixas", or deities, of Afro-Brazilian religion; and celebrations of the black samba singers Cartola and Martinho da Vila.

Carnival should also provide some needed relief for an economy battered by the pandemic.

Beyond the swirl of floats, feathers and barely covered flesh, carnival is big business, moving some four billion reais (S$1.1 billion) for Rio's economy and creating at least 45,000 jobs, according to official figures.

Rio hotels are expecting an occupancy rate of 85 per cent.

City officials have not authorised the massive carnival street parties known as "blocos", but several smaller ones are still being held.

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