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This is an updated reflection from Camila on COVID in Bolivia as of September 2020. Read her reflection from April.
I grew up running every morning to my parents room to ask if I had classes that day. Not having school a couple of times every other month due to protests or strikes seemed so normal—even somehow desirable as I could sleep for a few more hours. Today, kids don’t have the need of asking that question anymore as they know the answer: No.
Four months after schools moved to remote learning, on July 9th, the Minister of Education finally presented rules for online instruction, as the government continued with ongoing programs to train teachers and improve access to and quality of the internet. However, on the morning of Sunday August 2nd, the Minister of the Presidency announced the closure of the school year as of July 31st—four months earlier than usual. All students from all levels automatically passed. The government would continue to pay public schools teachers, and private schools could decide whether or not parents wanted to continue online instruction. No one saw this coming, especially not me.
As I read the news, my heart broke a little bit more. The overwhelming realization of the new amount of unemployment and uncertainty this policy would create dawned on me. The amount of educational curricula students will miss out could affect them for the rest of their lives. 4 out of 10 students do not finish high school under normal circumstances. After the announcement, some private schools decided to keep having online classes, regardless of these measures, and even offered differentiated tuition rates for students of other private and public institutions that would like to join. On top of this act, this well-intentioned solution, I had another problem in mind: schools were now a market regulated institution. Could and which ones would survive the hit?
A few months ago, I wrote about how I was worried but hopeful. Now on the edge of Latin America’s deepest recession in the last century, in the middle of a terrible social and political situation, I truly do not know how to convince myself that having faith and hope is rational and not naive.
After spending 4 months in Bolivia and finally returning to the U.S., every time someone asks me how everything is back home, I am at a loss about how to respond. Should I talk about the ongoing fires that consumed over 500 hectares of wildlife and forests? Maybe not since I ranted about the Amazon fires so much a year ago. Should I instead maybe talk about the corruption during the pandemic, famously known as the “Respirators Case” (‘Caso Respiradores’) where the government bought 170 respirators not even fit for COVID patients with an overprice of about $17,000 each? Or maybe I can bring up how the mayor, Jose Maria Leyes, of my city, Cochabamba, is facing yet another corruption lawsuit. He was forced to resign, and then 11 days later “resigned his resignation”... and is still the mayor. I could then follow up mentioning how people in my city who do not want to follow COVID safety measures are protesting and blocking the dumpster sites, which have led to over 4,000 tons of garbage to be left on the streets—all in the middle of a sanitary crisis. Or, probably, I could just go back to a recurring theme: political dilemmas. Or is that also too much after the electoral crisis that occurred less than a year ago? I am sorry, I wish I had happier news, but I don’t.
All the emotions I suffered through last year regarding Bolivia came together to hunt me in a real-life episode of the darkest telenovela version of Black Mirror. Imagine worse and here we are.
In the last couple of months, the prosecutor’s office has opened three new cases against former President Evo Morales: for a voice note recorded last November in which he asks to fence the cities to stop food from coming in, for having a relationship with a 14-year-old during his presidency, and for—along with current presidential candidate, Luis Arce, his vice-presidential candidate, David Choquehuanca, and others—being the intellectual actor of road blockages that struck the country a few weeks ago. The blockage prevented the entry of oxygen and patients into the cities, plus causing food and gasoline shortages. Around 6 million people (in a country of 11 million) have been marooned by the roadblocks. The protestors were asking for elections to take place on September 6th, right in the middle of the peak in COVID cases, plus the resignation of the interim-president, Jeanine Añez.
The news of people dying in ambulances or due to lack of oxygen hunt me down as I see the images of oil spilled on the roads to avoid cars passing and of groups armed with rifles blocking the cities. The stories of protestors threatening to burn down the ambulances and of the resistance that defended the country in October reunited again to try to avoid this. They hunt me as I am no longer one of the lucky ones that have not been directly affected by COVID-19. I have many friends whose family members had to go to the hospital, some who even struggled to find a bed, while all of us looked for plasma donors. I have friends that were affected by the virus. I have lost friends. I have lost family members. Still, the virus is not the worst thing in the country; it is not what hurts me the most.
The last thing I would rant about when asked about home, and if whoever is listening to me is still not entirely depressed and frustrated, would be COVID-19. The dead bodies found on the streets, the forensic office inundated with calls to pick them up, the lack of medicine, infrastructure, limited testing, but more than that how everything I mentioned before has made it worse. Protest and strikes are not exactly synonyms of social distancing.
During these months, the government developed 3 levels to categorize and re-evaluate cities from high to low risk with many, if not all, going back from not being able to go outside more than a selected day for a few hours to stock up on what you find on food and medicines to being able to go to work for a few hours and even walk around your house on the weekends. That last thing is called freedom in Bolivia in 2020. You will get my cultural shock when I see someone asks in the U.S. to “please wear a mask” instead of fining and arresting those that don’t—which where I come from might be the only way.
“The awkward becomes acceptable, and the unacceptable becomes merely inconvenient. Live with it long enough, and the unthinkable becomes normal.” —Isabelle Wilkerson
127,619 cases. 7,394 deaths. Bolivia has a death per 100,000 population ratio of 64.69, worldwide only following Peru. Cochabamba, my home, holds a death rate of 7.7%. In a New York Times article published on August 22nd, the authors claimed that “the real death toll during the outbreak is nearly five times the official tally, indicating Bolivia has suffered one of the world’s worst epidemics.” Comparing the rise in death, adjusted for population, as being twice as high as that of the United States, and far higher than Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom. It doesn’t matter if you are old or young and probably not anymore if you are poor or wealthy. There are no beds in the hospital. Period. The interim-President, the President of the Senate, and most Ministers all had the virus and I know for a fact it was also hard for them. Just like that. Desperation could be tangible when looking at the lines of people waiting to buy chlorine dioxide as a magic cure.
I wish I would have a more optimistic way to conclude this as I did last time, but as I would tell the poor human being that didn't know what was getting into when asking me about home: I don’t know what is coming. I don’t have flights to go back as the country barely started opening the borders two weeks ago. My flight coming back was a mess. Elections will (*fingers crossed*) be in October bringing more uncertainty regarding if I can go back or if I would be able to come back if I do. The truth is COVID-19 is just a small part of the sickness surrounding my beloved home.