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No matter the hour, across my window, I see a group of military soldiers outside. It has become a morning routine to stand there, coffee in hand, and read the forever-changing news to which I’ve become addicted to. Today, as I read government instructions forbidding burials and limiting funerals to only close family members, I cannot help but think about when my father passed away. He spent a few days in intensive care, and we were able to mourn him, give him a proper funeral and choose when and how to continue with our lives as best as we could… and it was the hardest and most painful thing I’ve ever done. I cannot imagine the feeling of those being directly affected by COVID-19 and not only its consequences (as this part has already become universal).
In August 2019, more than 4.5 million hectares of the Bolivian Amazon were lost due to the Amazon fires. I remember my friends and family desperately looking for face masks, security supplies, and medications to send to the hundreds of volunteers that were trying to fight the situation, given that the government had failed to declare a national emergency. During October and November of the same year, the entire country stopped for 21 days due to the post-electoral crisis. People came out to the streets to protest against a clear electoral fraud. As a way of protesting, all schools, universities, and restaurants were closed: no services were offered—not even those who are part of the informal sector worked. Violence peaked, the borders closed for international commerce and some cities got fenced by government supporters in order to prevent food and supplies from coming in. This was the first taste I had of how a society could work (or not) under complete shock and panic. People found their way. Everyone would come to the streets with everything they still had and share a communal meal, play cards, and extend a hand to their neighbors. Well, the reality now is quite different as people seem petrified at the idea of having mere contact with each other. Some signs of trouble could have been spotted nationally when China’s importations—which account for 22% of all imported products—came down by 18%. Plus, as a country whose 65% of exportations are natural gas and minerals, the drastic fall in oil prices by 30% indicated the approximation of serious consequences.
On March 10th, Bolivia had its first case of COVID-19 in the city of Oruro. For the second case, found in Santa Cruz, the community panicked and residents protested outside the health center to stop the woman from getting hospitalized. Two days later, it was the start of the first local quarantine with 3 cases nationwide. 3 cases? Quarantine? Isn’t that extreme?
Only a tiny portion of the population worldwide gets tested and not all of them need the same type of care. The growing rate of positive cases could be partially attributed to increasing testing rates mixed with the spread of the virus. As an intermediate point, the growth and intensity of the disease could be measured by hospitalization. The U.S. has around 96,596 ICU beds. Pretending there is no age range on who could occupy any of those, with a population of 331,002,651, the country could manage to have 0.029% of its population under intensive care. Bolivia has 145 ICU beds in its public sector and has said that between public and private sector, the country counts with 35 ICU beds for COVID-19 cases, with around 11,633,197 habitants, meaning that our system should collapse if 0.0003% of the population infected by the virus needs intensive care at the same time. As of today, April 3rd, 8 people are under IC due to COVID-19.
The first day, the transitional government imposed a curfew, reduced working hours, closed schools and universities, and mandated the close of all non-essential businesses. Moreover, on March 20th, borders closed and all international flights were shut down. I arrived home to Cochabamba, Bolivia that same morning to wake up the next day hearing the President declaring total quarantine until April 3rd, which on March 25th got extended to April 15th. The call for sanitary emergency allowed the government to bring the police and military to the street, impose jail and fines of up to 2,000 Bolivianos (equivalent to the minimum monthly wage, or approx $288 USD) to those who leave their houses, criminal proceedings to those attempting against public health (including protesting outside of hospitals), stimulus checks to low-income families, along various economic measures to help people survive—not exactly live. Only some banks, hospitals, and markets remain open. Everyone between ages 18-65 can leave their houses to go to any of those between 7AM-12PM one day per week according to the last number of their ID Cards. Many Universities have shut-down their semesters because not everyone has access to Wi-Fi or computers at home. As for social and mental attitudes, panic and desperation could be cut with a knife. By nature, emerging markets due to their limitations in health care, fiscal buffers, and economic structures are more vulnerable. Bolivia has the biggest informal economy in the world, accounting for 62,3% of GDP and 70% of all employment. People work to survive the day, and at this time the neighborhood solidarity won’t save and feed the thousands of hungry mouths. Plus, the imminent collapse of the formal sector that was already expected since last year’s crisis will accerbate the hit. Apparently, the secret for a fast reaction to the crisis is to be used to always being in one. Bolivia, fully unprepared, has been reacting fearlessly because even before the start, it was too late. With all the shocks the country has been suffering, it is not about getting out of this on both feets, but just getting out of this.
As positive actions, due to the prohibition of cars and public transportation, my government has been sending markets-on-wheels around the city to help people get supplies. I’ve seen my mom going back to her post-electoral crisis activity of taking turns with those in my neighborhood to make lunch for the security forces that are exhaustively watching out the streets. The police cars have been patrolling around the city with speakers playing a corona-modified version of “I Will Survive”. A few national beverage companies have stopped their normal productions and switched to sanitizer and local social groups are organizing themselves to help the senior population with grocery shopping and rents. Moreover, today, the University Gabriel Rene Moreno, using traditional medicine, has presented a Quinine extract to lessen the effects of COVID-19.
As of April 3rd, my daily routine consists of going from my room to my living room, and I am grateful for that. With 139 confirmed cases and 10 deaths, we have the highest COVID-19 mortality rate in the region and we are doing what we can to #QuedateEnCasa (#StayHome). My life is fully affected by COVID-19’s consequences, but not by it. The lessons from the crisis in my life go around gratefulness, harmonic family coexistence, and hygiene. My friends are sharing Netflix recommendations and complaining about how much they miss their lives—in which I sometimes fall too—not realizing that at least we have them.
I don’t live in Santa Cruz which, as a big hub, usually represents economic prosperity and today holds 74/139 cases, mostly imported. I don’t live in Oruro’s tight community, so small that you know everyone or that its only 8 cases are all family members. I would not even say I live in Cochabamba’s struggles. I live on the bright side of the moon: the one that talks to you about resilience, community, taking online classes (luckily residing 4278 miles away from South Bend but having the same time zone), for the first time in two years, spending more than 2 consecutive weeks with my family, still holding my summer internship and campus job, looking at my city’s pollution going down by 68% and the Rocha River crystal clear for the first time in forever. I am not an underpaid ‘necessary worker’ at a supermarket or cleaning staff who was yesterday undervalued and today at risk on the name of everyone. I don’t work at a bank imploring to keep my job while I walk every morning to my office. I’m not a doctor or a nurse (many of whom are now resigning) trying to work with scarce resources with an uneducated and inefficient system that now expects me to suddenly do miracles. I’m not living with the weight society is putting on something that could happen to any of us. I’m not forbidden to properly mourn my father. Still, my life is upside down.
As Europe suffers more than Africa, money cannot save you, your tomorrow is unpredictable, plans for the future are uncertain, and time is a double-edged sword, the habit of taking things for granted and waiting for the ‘right-time’ dies first. The crisis has been and will continue to be a disruptive force repositioning our lives and values. The hit has been hard and will be harder. No one will get back what they lost this 2020. But it will be a choice if the bad outweighs the good. An imminent restructuring of the global economic order is happening whether we want it or not, but a revalorization of our priorities for changes towards innovation, collectivism, information, and empathy that prioritizes human life and social and scientific collaboration will be a choice to make in the near future.
BBC (9/2019), “Incendios en el Amazonas: ¿qué pasó con las llamas que arrasaban las selvas en Brasil, Bolivia y Paraguay?” In: https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-49811380
El Deber (2020), “Centros médicos del país tienen capacidad para atender a 252 pacientes con coronavirus”, https://eldeber.com.bo/169919_centros-medicos-del-pais-tienen-capacidad-para-atender-a-252-pacientes-con-coronavirus
El Deber (2020), “En Bolivia, seis sectores de la economía ya sienten los síntomas del coronavirus”, https://eldeber.com.bo/168048_en-bolivia-seis-sectores-de-la-economia-ya-sienten-los-sintomas-del-coronavirus
Pagina Siete (07/2018) “Estudio de FMI: Bolivia tiene la economía informal más grande” https://www.paginasiete.bo/economia/2018/7/25/estudio-de-fmi-bolivia-tiene-la-economia-informal-mas-grande-188348.html#!
Los Tiempos (03/20/2020), “La contaminación atmosférica baja un 68% en Cochabamba por restricciones ante el Covid-19”, https://www.lostiempos.com/actualidad/cochabamba/20200320/contaminacion-atmosferica-baja-68-cochabamba-restricciones-covid-19
Los Tiempos (04/03/2020) ,“Universidad Gabriel René Moreno presenta un extracto de Quinina para aminorar efectos del Covid-19”, https://www.lostiempos.com/tendencias/salud/20200403/universidad-gabriel-rene-moreno-presenta-extracto-quinina-aminorar-efectos
Pagina Siete, (03/10/2020), “BCB: El coronavirus afectará la economía boliviana”, https://www.paginasiete.bo/economia/2020/3/10/bcb-el-coronavirus-afectara-la-economia-boliviana-249177.html
Pagina Siete (05/02/2020), “Hay 145 camas de terapia intensiva en el sector público para 5,6 MM de personas”, https://www.paginasiete.bo/sociedad/2019/6/2/hay-145-camas-de-terapia-intensiva-en-el-sector-publico-para-56-mm-de-personas-219883.html
Pagina Siete (03/10/20), “Caída del petróleo reducirá ingresos por el gas, pero aliviará el subsidio”, https://www.paginasiete.bo/economia/2020/3/10/caida-del-petroleo-reducira-ingresos-por-el-gas-pero-aliviara-el-subsidio-249128.html
Society of Critical Care Medicine (3/19/2020), “United States Resource Availability for COVID-19: In: https://sccm.org/Blog/March-2020/United-States-Resource-Availability-for-COVID-19