'So much joy': Brazil holds first carnival since Covid
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After two long years of face masks, social-distancing and death, a sparkling sea of dancers, drummers and multi-storey floats reclaimed the "Sambadrome," the iconic beach city's carnival parade venue, which had been turned into a drive-through vaccination center at the height of the health crisis.
The all-night parades by the city's top samba schools Friday and Saturday 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.
"I'm just so happy. I think a lot of people are going to cry... including me," said Ana Vieira, a 48-year-old geography teacher, who was wearing a giant, glistening white costume to parade for the Imperatriz samba school.
"Carnival is life. You can see the happiness on people's faces after two long years staying home and missing it," Vieira, who has been parading for 20 years, told AFP.
The festivities were hit by tragedy, however, when an 11-year-old girl died after being injured in a float accident during a lower-level samba school parade contest Wednesday.
The pandemic had left Brazilians full of "saudades" -- Portuguese for "longing" -- for carnival, a free-for-all of dancing, singing and partying at close quarters that is essentially the opposite of social distancing.
"I couldn't sleep last night, I was so excited," said Rita Marcelino, a 62-year-old domestic worker who was dancing up a storm as she waited to parade -- a moment of catharsis after losing her job and "many" friends and family members to the pandemic.
There were concerns carnival would be axed again this year, after Rio authorities canceled it last year and then postponed this edition by two months from the traditional dates -- just before the Catholic season of Lent -- over fears of the Omicron variant spreading.
But with more than 75 percent of Brazil'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 -- allowing the show to go on.
All participants and the 75,000 attendees expected each night are required to present proof of vaccination.
Two years of darkness
Each samba school in the competition has 60 to 70 minutes to tell a story in music and dance, which is evaluated on nine criteria by the jury.
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.
"No sadness can withstand so much joy," says their samba theme song.
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 ex-leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Of the 12 schools, eight chose themes dealing with racism or Afro-Brazilian culture and history, loaded issues in a country where the current president has faced frequent accusations of racism.
"Brazil still suffers from racism. Nothing has changed. Slums, hunger, poverty... they have a color here: black," said Aristoteles Silva, 52, parading as a warrior for samba school Salgueiro, whose theme song was an anti-racist anthem entitled "Resistance."
"I'm hoping the election will bring a total change."
Carnival should also provide some needed relief for the pandemic-battered economy.
Beyond the swirl of floats, feathers and barely covered flesh, carnival is big business, moving some four billion reais ($800 million) and creating at least 45,000 jobs, according to official figures.
But street vendor Maria Vitoria Souza, 18, who was selling drinks outside the parades, said sales "could have been better."
"Carnival's still not back 100 percent, because there are no 'blocos'" -- massive carnival street parties, which city authorities nixed this year.
"But at least it's a start."
Participants were just happy the party was on.
"We've had two years of so much darkness in the world," said Latino Suarez, 45, who traveled from Sao Paulo to parade.