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The Maladies and Virtues in an Island Colony and its University in Times of COVID-19

September 15, 2020

The Maladies and Virtues in an Island Colony and
its University in Times of COVID-19

By Jorge L. Giovannetti-Torres
Jorge L. Giovannetti-Torres is Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras.

The Maladies and Virtues in an Island Colony

The University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus. Image by Carmen Honker, found here

We had experienced the silence of curfew not so long ago in the city of San Juan. But the silence of a collapsed island after a hurricane in 2017 was different from that of people staying at home as a preventive measure for COVID-19 in 2020. For one, while birds basically disappeared after hurricane María, now at least their chirps and chatter can be heard clearly once the noise of car tires in city streets fades away. But aside from this ephemeral experience, the larger chronology of how Puerto Rico arrived to face the COVID-19 pandemic is important.


The island was devastated by hurricane María three years ago, an event that was followed by a deficient and corrupt response by local and federal authorities. While solidarity and resilience were made evident in the aftermath of disaster, socioeconomic despair led to an increased exodus to the United States. By 2018, many still had no electricity. Roofs across the island were still covered by FEMA’s blue plastic tarps. Worst of all, a tragic controversy surrounded the undercounting of the dead and the disgraceful mismanagement of bodies after the hurricane (this was treated in the documentary film Collapse [Black Chango Films, 2019]). With all that failure exposed, in 2019 it was revealed that a chat administered by the Governor himself was used by him and his closest staff to voice their disregard and prejudice against Puerto Ricans of all walks of life, including people from their own political party. What followed was a mobilization of historic proportions known now as “verano del 2019” (Summer of 2019) which forced Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares out of office.


After some “politricking” maneuvers, and uncertainty regarding the rules of political succession, Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez Garced became governor. Months after taking office, Vázquez Garced faced her own national emergency in January 2020: earthquakes in the southeast of the island further crippled the infrastructure in cities, destroyed schools, and left people without homes. They triggered fear and more emigration, as well as blatant political opportunism with relief supplies and corruption. It is also worth remembering that all this happened in a U.S. territory under a de facto twenty-first century “Crown Colony Government” which materialized in 2016 with the approval of the PROMESA legislation by the U.S. Congress and the appointment of a Fiscal Oversight and Management Board.


That is the background for how Puerto Rico received COVID-19. Now, both the government and the Puerto Rican people deserve credit for the way they managed the early stages of the pandemic. The former for taking a swift and firm preventive measure in March 15 by way of curfew that brought us the silence, and the latter for being law-abiding citizens and following the new rules. The problem was that, as time passed, it became clear that the curfew was the only useful thing the government had on hand to deal with the pandemic. Moreover, by itself, with no adequate action in other areas of response, the curfew only delayed (and hid) the inevitable, which is the rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths over the summer (some 5,000 cases by June). Also, this one measure depended on the goodwill of the people, rather than any governmental capacity of enforcement, which was nonexistent given the limited policing resources of a bankrupt island. It is, actually, rather amazing that most Puerto Ricans have been so compliant, given the government’s miserable track record in safeguarding the general population in recent emergency situations.


With the new challenge of COVID-19 this awful track record remains intact. For all its initial virtues, the knowledge and evidence used to back up some of the specific restrictions of the curfew were never transparent to the population. First everyone had to be at home from 9pm to 5pm (in March 15), then it was tightened to 7pm to 5am (in March 31) and in July the curfew was relaxed to start at 10pm until 5am. This policy also raised concerns about civil rights violations affecting and exposing the most vulnerable. But also, some of the measures neither followed common sense, nor showed trust in the very people that were making the curfew work. For instance, beaches were totally closed (on an island!), instead of simply attempting to regulate physical distancing (which came later, only to be reverted, and now a new “opening” as I write these lines in mid-September).


The government used kid gloves for churches (considered an important political constituency for the party in power) and a blanket heavy hand for all ways of alcohol consumption. For example, why could people not buy a bottle of wine in the supermarket after 7:00pm, which is almost certainly destined for home consumption? Why can customers not have a cocktail after 7:00pm in a restaurant that was serving food until 9:00pm? On the other hand, and to be fair, bars and cafetines were a different story, and needed regulation due to crowds drinking and chatting inside and in front of them. When curfew regulations were made more flexible and bars opened, I was quick to Tweet (June 16) about the local bar in my neighborhood. There was no physical distancing, only one customer wearing mask, and he had it on his neck!

Man in mask in Puerto Rico airport take by Ricardo Arduengo found here


After March 31st, the government established days of vehicular traffic according to license plates (to discourage leaving home), people started to walk and use bicycles. But even that was a problem for state management. An unnecessary police intervention with a local man riding his bike (which is physical distance by default) went viral in social media and created outrage. In the meantime, tourists were left to do whatever they wanted in areas like Condado and Isla Verde without much monitoring. The only moment when tourists became a problem was in July, when African-Americans who reportedly took advantage of the cheap flights available to the island were involved in public fights. This latter situation revealed both that we are an island of perennial double standards and existing racial prejudices.


Questionable actions by the government were plenty, including the dubious contract for COVID-19 fast test for $38 million dollars. Contact tracing by the Health Department was poorly implemented, there were not enough tests, and delays in the use of federal funds. Unemployment payments to those who needed them never reached their destination because employees in the Department of Labor filling the forms wrote “same address” (“La misma”) in the space for postal address that followed the space for physical address. Obviously, when it went into the system, a postal address saying “Jorge Giovannetti-Torres, the same” is not going to reach anywhere by the U.S. Postal Service! Several key government officials -Heath and Labor Departments- had been replaced during the pandemic.


Mask and physical distance regulations was another terrain for double standards. All of us were required to follow the rules, while government officials (including Governor Vázquez Garced) and other political candidates were out doing political campaigns with total disregard for the preventive measures. Campaign events were exempted from the very rules that were established for the citizenry. Masks also became controversial fashion items for political personalities, be it by their colorful embroidery and a religious cross (by the Governor) or start decorations to signal favoring statehood (in the House of Representatives). Many in the government did not seem to understand the basics; that prevention was not about masks or physical distance, but about masks and physical distance. As a result, after the primaries in August, many politicians were tested positive for the virus. That is not precisely setting the best example.


In the wider society, on the other hand, Puerto Rican citizens were both responsible and innovative. People living in some neighborhoods with open spaces organized outdoor social gatherings with physical distance and masks. Young Puerto Ricans organized safe meetings in parking lots speaking to each other sitting in their open car trunks. Businesses reinvented themselves using technology and communication devices. Pastry shops, cocktail bars, and bookshops used Instagram and invested in website designs, and struggling restaurants made “take away” a standard feature. Other businesses and services (car dealers, veterinary offices, pharmacies) followed strict and organized preventive measures, which seems to indicate that people from below know how to do things properly. It is the government and state administration that seems to fail at everything. As positive as this conclusion may be for the Puerto Rican people, the consistent government failure should be a serious concern for the future.


The contrast and dissonance between government administration and the base of society was also evident in the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), where I work. As for the whole island, background is important here, of which I will single out the gradual defunding of the institution, the excessive budget cuts implemented by the government (showing their disregard for the UPR), and attrition of faculty compounded by lack of recruitments, all of which have a detrimental effect in the quality of academic programs. The combination of those factors meant that most faculty and employees (many near retiring age) did not have the necessary technological skills, the equipment, or infrastructure needed when we had a forced transition to distance and online teaching in March.


As with the government and the people in the national context, the UPR administration was unable or unwilling to see the realities of its institutional base and the challenges faced by faculty, employees, and students. Like a true microcosm of the national context I just described, in the UPR opportunism arrived at the table. Medium level administrators and careerist who were advocates of virtual teaching and distance learning trends used the context of COVID-19 as an opportunity (with total disregard to the sociological realities of the pandemic) to push their agenda. Enabled by weak leadership and an empty campus with limited space for discussion from below, these mid-level administrators forced the online university they blindly envisioned (pun intended) as the future in the worse possible ways. Their demands on faculty were based on the logic of a teaching-only university, not a research institution. This is the result of UPR’s mediocracy where faculty members who are not precisely scholarly competitive opt for administrative positions from where they reproduce a pervasive institutional disregard for, or even hostility toward research. Following the neoliberal model of higher education, UPR administrators saw teaching as the main service provided by the institution (paid mostly by Pell Grants), forgetting the other important roles that faculty and students (particularly graduate students) have in the university; namely, research and knowledge production.


In another questionable move, the Central Administration of the UPR decided to change the digital platform of the university from Google to Microsoft, just before the start of the new semester and without proper measures. The result, dubbed #DesastreMicrosoft created chaos in the first weeks of the current semester. Professors and students who had just recently gotten used to one platform abruptly had to move to another one that was not working properly.


But not everything was wrong. At the UPR, like at the island level, the institutional base seemed to be the only terrain where the university thrived despite the management, which continued caressing a technocratic agenda and living in eternal fear of decision-making. Leading journals edited in the UPR such as Caribbean Studies and Sargasso, and the student journal Ingenios continued their itineraries. Professors and students joined forces (in occasions, with the latter helping the former with technology) and finished the spring semester of 2020. Grassroots librarians were active in the library chat, digitizing sources and providing as much services as they could via social networks.


The Center for Resources in Interdisciplinary Research and Learning (CRiiAS) led the way with a total of 12 virtual panels on COVID-19 from March to August 2020, featuring 38 scholarly presentations, reaching more than 1,000 persons. Considering the events in the U.S. and the rising awareness of racism after the murder of George Floyd, CRiiAS also started a new series on racism, public policy, and the history of the African diaspora (see here). All in all, at the micro-level of the university and at the island-level, the people from below are making things work. This experience would suggest the potential for autonomous action or autogestión at the base-level of society and its institutions, something which, as it turns out, is not new for Puerto Ricans dealing with their colonial predicament.


As we enter the seventh month under the pandemic-induced curfew, Puerto Ricans continue to deal with COVID-19 like the rest of the world. However, we do so under the maladies of our colonial status, facing many of the challenges of the metropolis (e.g., health concerns versus the economy, elections), and without much real control over our political and economic future. But as we experienced the poor management of global problems, the collective virtues of the people seem to become more transparent every day.

Teaching in Guatemala

August 3, 2020

Teaching in Guatemala

By Tracy Adrian
Tracy Adrian is a teacher at an international school in Guatemala City, Guatemala.

Teaching in Guatemala

A woman standing in front of a homemade white flag which says “Tenemos Hambre”
Photo from Reuters taken by Jose Cabezas.

My journey with a program called The International Educator, which matches your resume with postings from international schools, led me to an international school in Guatemala City, Guatemala. I love it here for several reasons. First of all, my school is amazing. As an international school that serves the children of the embassies, people who live in Guatemala permanently, and expats, the population is made up of people all over the world. Most of the students speak more languages than me! Plus my students are so curious and concerned about the world. Even now, during summer and extreme restrictions, my students are running a virtual book club with a social justice theme. At the moment, we are reading How to be an Antiracist.

Another reason I am so happy is because of Guatemala itself. The people, culture, coffee, weather, and pace of life here are all so wonderful. Right now, the President (Alejandro Giammattei) is working very hard to make sure the country remains this way, as COVID-19 changes our daily life. He is putting in a lot of strict rules to make sure we flatten the curve and keep the people of Guatemala safe. While the U.S. opens up, we are closing down. At the moment, restaurants are delivery or pick up only, stores that do not sell essential items are closed, there is a toque de queda or curfew from 5 pm-5 am on weekdays, Saturdays the curfew starts at 2 pm, Sundays are total lockdown, we must wear masks when we go outside, people can’t travel between departments (which are about the size of counties in the States), travel by car is restricted by license plate, the borders are closed, and schools are closed.

It feels like COVID-19 has been getting harder and harder. I miss my students especially. We are lucky that at my school the students have enough technology that we can have synchronous classes following a half-day schedule as if we were at school. Getting to see their faces on zoom every day helped. I loved getting to hear from them, see their smiles, or share their struggles. It isn’t the same though. This is particularly difficult for those students who I won’t see again next year because they are graduating or moving to another country. One of the best parts of being a teacher is getting to celebrate with your students at the end of the year to say how much you love them and how proud you are of them for all of them that they’ve learned in person. I don’t get to hug my students goodbye and that is making me cry some days.

There are some great things too though. I’ve gotten to see some amazing learning from my students including some great poetry, graphic novels, rhetorical analyses, and interesting discussions. I’m amazed at how insightful my students are even when they are so young and this time period is so new, difficult, strange, and oftentimes traumatic.

For myself, I’m spending a lot of time alone in my apartment. That can make things hard but it can also be super cool. I’ve been painting, reading, cooking, walking the dogs when I’m allowed outside, gardening, cross-stitching, sewing, cleaning, practicing yoga, and sometimes just being at peace with myself.

My next-door neighbor, who teaches kindergarten at our school, started a program to help feed people laid off during the pandemic. Many of the students at the school are trying to help her. They have been running raffles, a virtual talent show, and making social media campaigns to raise money. The streets have many people waving color-coded flags (white for hungry, red for medical needs, etc) and asking for help. The economic devastation is shocking in the city. I can’t imagine what it is like outside of it. Unfortunately, the medical system here cannot handle many cases. There are too few hospital beds. So we can’t open up. The kids will not be returning to school until at least 2021.

It is hard and scary at times, but it also feels safer here in some ways.

COVID-19 Response and Sustainable Development

June 16, 2020

COVID-19 response as a time for Costa Rica to recommit to sustainable development

By Mary Little
Mary Little is an Associate Professor of Environmental Ethics and Development at the School for Field Studies in Atenas, Costa Rica.

COVID-19 Response and Sustainable Development

Dona Nuria holding a vegetable at El Progresso Farm in Guápiles, Costa Rica.
One of the agrotourism offerings that provide environmental and socioeconomic benefits to families.
Now may be the moment for Costa Rica to focus on small-scale tourism
and sustainable agriculture to preserve biodiversity.
Photo credit: Anna Chah’

Costa Rica is known for its relaxed yet efficient way of life and the nation’s Covid-19 response has been informed by this cultural attitude. People have generally followed the stay-at-home orders and driving restrictions. These regulations were also relatively lax compared to other Latin American countries because cases have remained low and only 10 deaths have occurred to date. Being from the United States, I constantly take in the reports of the mismanagement of testing, personal protective equipment, and reopening there. It has shocked many here that of the approximately 10,000 Costa Ricans living in the US, 23 have died of Covid-19, more than twice as many as within this country of 5 million.

The near-collapse of the tourism sector is a visible reminder of how dependent Costa Rican’s economic health is on the global economy. When the International airport closed except for a trickle of flights, people were required to stay at home, and beaches and national parks were closed. As tourism has been effectively put on pause, the restrictions of people and cargo at the borders has also made people aware of their dependence on the global food supply. At some level, the pandemic has made Costa Ricans stop and reevaluate their relationship with relentless globalization. If this is the pause and wake up call to reassess our relationship with nature and globalization, it may also be the time for Costa Rica to reevaluate its relationship with the United States. Costa Rica has implemented exemplary policies such as national protection of 26% of its land and meets nearly all of its energy needs via renewable means. But as part of interdependent global markets, it has been caught between its green agendas and demands of neo-capitalism as usual.

Costa Rica’s relationship, perhaps reliance, on the US has allowed it to follow its ideals of being one of the few countries without an army and to achieve rapid rates of economic development. Accepting U.S. economic models began when the nation struck an agreement with the United Fruit Company to exchange land and tax-free exportation in exchange for the construction of a railway. That reliance was reinforced during the 1980s debt crisis. Attracted by the newly protected national forests and beaches, “green” tourism was proposed as a solution to generate revenue to repay the World Bank loans. The Costa Rican government was encouraged to provide investment incentives and tax breaks to appeal to investors. The government agreed to these terms and Costa Rica has become highly reliant on tourism, with 600,000 directly employed in the sector. The downside is that tourism is vulnerable to economic downturns and, as nearly no one had considering, pandemics. Where sustainable tourism has had positive environmental and economic impacts, overreliance on global travel has also made many regions of the country completely dependent on outside cash to maintain local economies. When international commercial flights ended, so did up to 90% of businesses in tourism towns like Arenal, Manuel Antonio, and Monteverde.1

Body


Photo Credit: Mary Little

In my research on tourism in Costa Rica over the past five years, I’ve found that the question of how to diversify revenue sources has been on the minds of many in the tourism industry. The more I’ve visited rural areas, the more examples of agrotourism I’ve experienced. They demonstrate that they can provide attractive opportunities on the tourism and food security fronts by creating a combination of the production of coffee or other crops, mixed with tours and lodging that provides an ecological and economic balance. It also allows people in rural areas to slowly enter tourism without large loans that can prove ruinous. Visitors are expressing a growing appetite to reconnect with nature and have authentic, local experiences, including learning about food production. The pandemic may reduce the appeal of large resorts and cruise while making the possibility of connecting with people from another culture and nature more attractive. As cautious reopening begins here, national tourism is being encouraged. Perhaps Costa Ricans will place a greater value on what the rest of the world comes to this country to experience and less desire for a Disney vacation and shopping spree in the US.

As Thomas Friedman wrote in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, “Globalization is inevitable. How we shape it is not.”2 This pandemic appears to be reinforcing Costa Ricans’ sense of uniqueness in their commitment to public services and environmental protection. Hopefully, it is that reinforced respect of the local and distinctive that will continue beyond this immediate pandemic response. When we can once again travel, we chose to immerse ourselves in communities and experience their realities while promoting economic and environmental health. Relying on local resources for food and travel can make us more committed to living within our ecological limits. My greatest hope is that the Costa Rican government and people will take this opportunity to reinforce and protect that makes this country unique by enacting development policies that harness globalization that is beneficial for its citizens and remaining biodiversity.

Footnotes:
1. Murillo, Álvaro. “El turismo pequeño ve el precipicio: “tratamos de ser optimistas, pero puede empeorar”, Semanario Universidad, May 20, 2020.
2. Friedman, Thomas. “How we Broke the World: Greed and globalization set us up for this disaster.” New York Times, May 30, 2020.

Puerto Rico: Reincidentes de lucha

May 28, 2020

Puerto Rico: Reincidentes de lucha

By Yvonne Denis Rosario
Yvonne Denis Rosario, es escritora, docente en la Universidad de Puerto Rico en Río Piedras y es recipiente activa del “College Educators Research Fellowship” otorgado por la Universidad de North Carolina.

Reincidentes de lucha

Foto sugerida y tomada por la autora

Reincidentes ante tanto sin dejar de luchar. Así hemos sido por los pasados años los que vivimos en Puerto Rico con una historia de desastres. Huracán, temblor y pandemia. En un tiempo corto de intensidades y menosprecios.

Bajo un sol candente que nos despierta cada mañana el COVID-19 nos ha encerrado. Acuartelados estamos desde muy temprano del comienzo de esta pandemia. Cuando en toda América Latina y en los países más ricos del mundo, ni se consideraba estar en cuarentena, nosotros con una disciplina irreconocible acatamos la Orden Ejecutiva. Altamente criticada desde diferentes flancos, y con razones justificables, pero aislarnos nos ha merecido estar en una posición holgada y peligrosa. La Isla del Desencanto para algunos, ha demostrado ser un Encanto en seguir estas nuevas reglas. Mientras éramos custodiados por nuestras propias paredes, en algunos casos todavía por toldos existentes por los huracanes y terremotos, pudieron controlarse los contagios.

Nos cerraron todo, una vez más. Porque el virus trajo irregularidades administrativas gubernamentales en el manejo de recursos, precisamente para los vulnerables. Nuevas historias de corrupción acechándonos. Y en medio de tales controversias nosotros tras las puertas, tras las rejas o en la calle bajo un puente convertido en hogar. Mientras tanto, en los foros de alto nivel, se discuten el retiro de los empleados de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, el nuevo código electoral y civil, para cuándo las primarias, el plebiscito y/o el día de las elecciones.

Por otros lados de la realidad, ha resultado evidente en Puerto Rico, que sí hay gentes con hambre. El hecho de encerrarnos, sacarnos abruptamente de nuestros lugares de trabajo nos llevó a muchos al encuentro o reencuentro de un refrigerador vacío. La pobre alimentación en los hogares de altos ingresos, porque no era prioridad una buena alimentación con el tren de vida que llevamos, demostró nuestras deficientes seguridades alimentarias. Ese cheque quincenal, mensual del trabajo realizado no era suficiente. Aunque se aprobó una condonación por tres meses para el pago de servicios públicos y privados esenciales, el gasto diario por alimentos ha sido mayor.

El COVID-19 y su llegada, aumentó la necesidad de alimentarnos con las tres comidas básicas del día. Entonces, aumentó el hambre escondida. Porque los estudiantes de las escuelas públicas y privadas no tenían qué comer, porque ya no asistían a sus aulas, donde alimentaban muchos el hambre del hogar. Y por alguna razón desconocida, el Estado mantenía los comedores escolares cerrados. Los padres que en muchos casos legaron al maestro el cuido de sus hijos, usurparon obligatoriamente al educador. La sustitución incluía alimentar a sus hijos, apoyarles en el proceso de aprendizaje, sostener la economía y la salud emocional de la familia.

Encerrados, muchos boricuas, esperaban también los dineros del desempleo, el apoyo federal al territorio de los Estados Unidos.

Este encierro nos confrontó con agencias gubernamentales que no estaban preparadas para dar servicio a distancia. Esa idea utópica del gobierno y la empresa privada a la vanguardia con la tecnología resultó una falsedad. No estábamos preparados, pero nos han capacitado a muchos, a contra reloj y a la fuerza al trabajo remoto. Las quejas no terminan en el ámbito de la educación obligatoria a distancia, de estudiantes, maestros, universitarios y profesores.

Entonces es que nos mostramos Isla, sin reconocer que en todo el mundo la educación a distancia es una realidad. Es, irónicamente una forma de conectarnos con otros. La resistencia ha sido de lo que tienen los recursos tecnológicos. Sin embargo, aquellos que anhelan terminar sus estudios, han sufrido de la falta de equipo, acceso a la internet, y se les exige sin ponderación y/o entendimiento de sus necesidades.

Somos extremistas, nuestros puntos cardinales nos alejan y nos acercan.

La pandemia nos ha unido desde el distanciamiento. Se ha disparado la solidaridad alimentaria. Nuestra cultura agrícola despuntó. Los agricultores y empresarios agrícolas han provocado con mayor ahínco el consumo de nuestros productos locales. La canasta básica boricua reapareció, llena de frutas, vegetales, carne y todo lo que producimos y que hemos despreciado por la chatarra de BK y el McD. Aumentar y fortalecer el sistema inmunológico para enfrentar el COVID-19 se convirtió en lo fundamental. Hemos tenido siempre los productos esenciales, y parece que lo olvidamos.

¿Cuándo fue la última vez que eso sucedió en Puerto Rico? Los más jóvenes no podrían recordarlo. Porque el huracán María destruyó nuestra agricultura. El COVID-19 la ha rescatado y levantado. Qué ironía.

Pero también ha rescatado en muchos la creatividad, las microempresas, reinventar en tiempo de ocio y desempleo. Diseños de mascarillas, servicio a domicilio, interacciones virtuales (en exceso) de conciertos, talleres, adiestramientos, apoyo médico, entre tantos. La tecnología que nos alejaba, ahora nos acerca con otros propósitos.

Sin embargo, algunas situaciones conocidas, se han convertido en pesadillas. Un incremento en el maltrato a las mujeres, crímenes de odio, abandono de ancianos y un cuadro mayor de necesidad de apoyo a la salud mental. Sí, vemos a uno cuantos puertorriqueños, los que no creen en el civismo y el respeto atentando impunemente contra el bienestar de los demás. Al que no respeta el distanciamiento y se resiste a usar la mascarilla. Una elevada cantidad de vagabundos sin techo, ahora más despreciados porque podrían ser portadores del virus. A los que no han sido empáticos y en su limitado espacio de poder, no son flexibles, no entienden a los que no tenían antes y no tienen ahora. Quedan, sí, de esos puertorriqueños. Forman otro tipo de pandemia que nos sigue acechando y en momentos como éste de ahora, salen orondos contagiados de violencia y frustración personal. ¿Qué mascarilla le pondremos?

Encerrados, pero agobiados de estarlo. Encerrados vivos. Nuestra Isla del Encanto, sí lo es, se encerró; y sus playas se convirtieron en nuestra muralla. Las arenas que extrañamos, las que seguirán siendo nuestras cuando salgamos finalmente del encierro. Ojalá conservemos lo que adquirimos en esta cuarentena, ojalá sigamos siendo humanos y valoremos lo que tuvimos que dejar, la libertad. Ojalá no provoquemos otro pico de la enfermedad.

El Covid-19 y la vida cotidiana de los habaneros

May 14, 2020

El Covid-19 y la vida cotidiana de los habaneros

By Gladys Marel García Pérez
Gladys Marel García Pérez es historiadora e investigador Titular de la Academia de Ciencias de Cuba.

La Vida Cotidiana

Una mujer camina en la calle vacío en una parte de Cuba.
La imagen es de Todo Cuba.

El coronavirus entró en La Habana sin conocer la población de su presencia. Ya las autoridades estaban informadas sobre la pandemia, pero nosotros comenzamos a percibirla en el mes de marzo, después del cierre de las fronteras en el aeropuerto.

Se inició la ofensiva de hombres y mujeres de las ciencias médicas, exactas y el sistema de salud, determinando la política a seguir en el padecimiento y el contagio de la enfermedad. La vida cotidiana comenzó a cambiar para los individuos y familias, los trabajadores, grupos y sectores sociales.

Las costureras y modistas habaneras confeccionaron nasobucos en sus casas. Muchas los regalaron en el barrio o los vendieron a los trabajadores de las tiendas – donde se compran los alimentos con la libreta de abastecimiento – a pequeños comercios particulares y a los que laboran en los centros de trabajo cercanos. Los estudiantes de medicina comenzaron a visitar los hogares diariamente, para detectar síntomas de la enfermedad.

Fue necesario guardar el aislamiento en el hogar y el distanciamiento social de los que salen a comprar alimentos. Pero en las colas muchos mantienen esta disciplina y usan el nasobuco, mientras otros se aglomeran propiciando la contaminación. Conducta que se relaciona, entre otros factores, con el nivel de ingresos, el encarecimiento y la escasez de los productos, y el estar conscientes o no de la necesidad de protegerse.

Del mismo modo ocurre por la no correspondencia de la oferta con la demanda , al comprar en las empresas del Estado; el sobreprecio en las ventas de vegetales, frutas, viandas y granos en los Agro mercados 1 y establecimientos del Ejército Juvenil del Trabajo (EJT) donde se producen grandes colas, que se reducen en los chinchales2 abastecidos por, los organopónicos.

Colas y aglomeraciones que causaron el contagio de dependientes y clientes, en grandes empresas del Estado3 –como la que sucedió en la de Puentes Grandes, con ventas en moneda convertible (CUC) o con el peso cubano (CUP) – lo que motivó que se cerraran todas en la ciudad.

El desafío ha creado hábitos y costumbres que no existían. Una particularidad es la de los trabajadores laborando desde sus casas. En el uso de las manos, la gran mayoría se las lava con agua y jabón. Cuando entra o sale de los establecimientos o de la casa utiliza el agua clorada. Al saludar no da la mano ni saluda besando. Quita sus vestimentas, el nasobuco y, los zapatos cuando regresa de la calle y los desinfesta para evitar el contagio.

En el campo científico se valora el contexto histórico y la experiencia de otras pandemias. En las ciencias sociales se estudia el impacto del aislamiento y en las naturales el medio ambiente. Algo novedoso en estos sesenta años es que se valora y enfrenta el Covid+19,,en el contexto de las Américas y del mundo, cumpliendo las orientaciones de la Organización Mundial de la Salud.

Con el aislamiento social sientes la nostalgia del paisaje de La Habana, que no es el de la ciudad por donde caminabas. Brotan imágenes no percibidas antes. Entre las que se destaca la casi totalidad del comercio cerrado y el incremento de hombres mayores sentados en el exterior de la casa debido a la presión del encierro. Contrasta el barrio vacío y silencioso, ausente en las ventanas, hasta que comienza una explosión de aplausos, música y retumbar de pitos y matracas, que extiende el sonido por toda la ciudad, en homenaje a médicos, enfermeras y trabajadoras de la salud.

¿Qué va a pasar cuando finalice la pandemia y enfrentemos el panorama de destrucción que vivimos? Interrogante que conduce a reflexionar sobre la experiencia, de la puesta en práctica metodológica del trabajo científico interdisciplinario, que ha determinado la política a seguir. ¿Continuará? Sobre todo en la economía como necesidad vital.

Footnotes:
1.Agro mercado, Establecimientos donde los cooperativistas venden vegetales, frutas y viandas.
2.Chinchales. Pequeños centros de ventas de vegetales, frutas y viandas.
3.Como el que sucedió en la empresa E de Puentes Grandes, Aenida 26 y Calle 51, Municipio Plaza, donde se infestaron 10 empleados y clientes por el aglomeramiento.

Dispatch from Quito, Ecuador

May 14, 2020

Dispatch from Quito

By Nathan Gill
Nathan Gill is a graduate student in Latin American history at UNC-Chapel Hill and a 2020 Fulbright-Hays scholar in Ecuador. He worked as a news reporter in Latin America for eleven years and was the bureau chief for Bloomberg News in Ecuador from 2010 to 2016.

Dispatch from Quito

People wearing face masks wait with oxygen tanks at a private distributor that
recharges tanks in Guayaquil, Ecuador, April 9th.
Image taken by REUTERS/Vicenter Gaibor del Pino.

I’ve watched the coronavirus crisis unfold from a quiet street in the suburbs of Quito, where I’m living with my family while on a research fellowship in Ecuador. After an early outbreak overwhelmed the port city of Guayaquil, many thought the rest of the country would also become a global hotspot. But relatively strict quarantine measures seem to have stemmed the outbreak for the moment. Still, it’s clear that what Ecuadorians are calling la cuarentena is exacting a terrible cost.

With over 7,000 suspected deaths from the virus in Ecuador, almost all aspects of normal life have ground to a halt. For all but essential workers, we are on a 2 p.m. curfew. Even when we can go outside, most activities are banned and regional and international travel restrictions have left refugees, tourists, and others stranded at the borders. Most public buses no longer run, there are few taxis, and private cars can only be driven once a week. When people do leave home, many walk or use bicycles.

There have been few shortages so far, but a trip to the grocery store can take up to three hours and involve standing in lines that circle the block. As I waited for my turn one-day last month, I stood behind a masked woman who would periodically spray herself with rubbing alcohol from head to toe. Even though it was sunny, the man behind me was wearing a bright-yellow rain suit, and I pulled nervously at my size-too-small rubber gloves and tried not to touch my face. To make things stranger, social-distancing instructions blared from loudspeakers normally used for volcano warnings and municipal trucks patrolled the streets reminding everyone to be careful. Hidden behind our personal protective equipment, we all looked at each other with silent suspicion while waiting for our turn inside.

More recently, I borrowed a car from a friend to run some errands. It had been a month since I’d left home and I was surprised at how many people were out. The streets were full, most small shops were open, and masked pedestrians and cyclists were everywhere, taking up whole lanes of the road in some parts of the city. Street vendors who used to clean car windows at stoplights are now offering to disinfect vehicles with spray pumps. I saw what appeared to be a group of refugees walking north, pushing a baby stroller filled with their belongings while a man carried an infant. Further on, a half-dozen adults with hiking backpacks were walking on the side of the road. Only a few of them had masks and they almost certainly had nowhere safe to shelter.

Even for families who haven’t lost their jobs or gotten sick, the social separation has taken its toll. My partner’s grandmother passed away in Quito on Mother’s Day. She was in her 90s and didn’t have coronavirus, but all public funerals have been banned. Instead, her more than one hundred children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren virtually gathered on YouTube to watch a mass in her honor. The audio was awful and people were worried because the priest didn’t take communion himself. We hope to bury her ashes together as a family someday soon.

For others, the anguish of not knowing when or if they will be able to return to their jobs has been as scary as the virus, leading many to accept wage cuts and furloughs in the hopes of not losing their jobs permanently. My daughter’s elementary school has cut their fees in half and her teachers, who send us home-videos every day with activities to complete, have accepted a 25-percent pay cut to help the school stave off bankruptcy. I’ve heard others say they’ve renegotiated their rent, or are trying to take out small loans to help cover expenses until things return to normal. But normal still seems a long way off.

In Ecuador, even before the coronavirus destroyed global demand for its crude oil, fresh-cut flowers, and other exports, the country was struggling economically. A government-debt crisis followed by austerity measures last year sparked nationwide protests that grew so violent the president was briefly forced to flee the capital while the military engaged in running street battles with angry protesters. The coronavirus has only made that economic distress worse, leaving many wondering how long they can endure. But in a sign of the times, there has been little opposition to the plan to remove the controversial fuel subsidies that triggered last year’s protests, and new austerity measures and tax hikes are being debated by congress now.

Yet despite Ecuador’s fame as a “banana republic,” the government response here has been far more competent than what I’ve witnessed from my home state in North Carolina, or even the White House. Here, there are no armed virus-deniers stalking politicians and threatening minorities in the middle of a humanitarian crisis, as happened in Raleigh this month. And while families are suffering terribly, no one is suggesting that people inject bleach or pretending that life will go back to normal anytime soon. Why would they? This is Ecuador, not Macondo.

Colombia and the World

May 12, 2020

Colombia and the World in the Time of COVID-19

By Mauricio Salazar-Saenz
Mauricio Salazar-Saenz is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Colombia and the World

Chart depicting the number of cases on May 4th since the first case per country.
Countries include the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Panama, Argentina, Bolivia, and Cuba.
Created by Mauricio Salazar Saenz, Ph.D.C. Econ. UNC-Chapel Hill.
Data received via Our World in Data

In the country with more than 60 years of armed conflict, COVID-19 is the first time that the whole country shut down. This time, the menace is not the drug traffickers alarming the Colombian state, or the guerrilla groups surrounding the main cities, nor the paramilitary displacing peasants to assure more land to landlords. This time the invisible enemy incubates inside our bodies for 14 days, infecting those around us.

In early March, the rightwing president was advised by experts with a poor academic reputation to not shut down the country. Nonetheless, the mayors of the three largest cities: Bogota, Medellin, and Cali, implemented a mock quarantine to evaluate the protocols in a country with no previous lockdown experience. A power struggle started as the president claimed that he is the only one with the authority to shut down the economy, a conflict similar to the one seen in the US.

Then something unexpected happened, maybe the images reflecting the crisis in Spain and Italy made the president declare a national quarantine: if countries with more resources than us were suffering in that magnitude, what makes us believe that we are immune? The borders were closed, and a national lockdown started on March 24th until April 27th, when manufacturers and construction companies returned to work with new safety policies to avoid the spread of the virus. On May 11th the president will reevaluate the need for a lockdown. Additionally, during the quarantine, the greater armed actors, guerrillas and the state, had made a truce to fight the invisible enemy by no fighting the visible ones.

Colombia Graph 2

Chart depicting the number of cases on May 4th since the first case per country.
Countries include Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Mexico and Chile.
Created by Mauricio Salazar Saenz, Ph.D.C. Econ. UNC-Chapel Hill.
Data receieved from Our World in Data

Colombians shared a common destiny with the other Latin American countries: as a result of an underfunded healthcare system, the expected hit of the pandemic is much harder than in richer economies. When most countries in the region decided to start implementing national quarantines, to reduce the speed of contagion, Colombia was among the first to react. Chile and Mexico were the last countries to start quarantines, and initially, the presidents and ministers were making fun of this new flu. In Brazil, almost no measures were taken at the national level.

The results of the country’s timeliness on implementing a national quarantine are: Brazil has more infected people and deaths than China, followed by Peru which has numbers similar to Belgium, followed by Ecuador with infected people similar to Saudi Arabia, and Mexico and Chile complete the top 5 with about 25K and 20K infected people, respectively. The Dominican Republic is approaching 8.3K infected people, while Colombia and Panama have about 8K and 7.4K cases, respectively. Argentina, Cuba, and Bolivia complete the countries with more than 1K cases with 4.9K, 1.7K, and 1.7K, respectively.

In contemporaneous times, mankind has never faced such a difficult trade-off: don’t declare quarantines and expect a collapse of the health system, making people die massively or declare quarantines, flattening the contagion curve but increasing the unemployment. Because of the latter option, the World Bank expects world poverty to double after COVID-19.

It seems that without a vaccine or medicine, we will be living in this situation for more than a year. We don’t know how future malnutrition will weaken the immune systems of a new impoverished population, and hence how the fatality rate could increase due to that. What we saw at the beginning of April, was Guayaquil suffering like no other city in the world, with people dying on the streets and inside households without the personnel to remove the bodies. A society collapsing with no funeral homes open because the personnel of that industry was avoiding contagion. The only available measure to avoid a comparable situation is social distancing. After declaring national lockdowns, LAC governments also declare economic measures such as subsidies and transfers in kind to vulnerable populations, in a battle against time to provide people the incentives to stay at home.

In the current regime, we all eventually will get COVID-19, the big question is at what speed each society will get it, and how long can we fund, support, assume a national lockdown with limited country-level economic resources and a geometrical contagion rate that make individuals hard to understand the risk of an enemy that has shown to take any advantage to spread inside human societies.

In the meanwhile, Medellin remains at a very low speed and with a high air quality measurement, which hasn’t been seen in decades. My Spring Break became an undefined stance. I am finishing my semester doing remote teaching and grading, while I haven’t been able to see my family that lives in Bogota, previously at a distance that was 35 minutes away by plane but under the current circumstances seems infinite.

The Case of Coastal Ecuador

May 12, 2020

COVID-19: The Case of Coastal Ecuador

By Maja Jeranko
Maja Jeranko is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Coastal Ecuador

Ecuador Image – Taken by Maja Jeranko in Don Juan, Ecuador.

Don Juan is a small fishing village on the Pacific coast of Ecuador in the Manabí region. This place of about 300 families with an average of three children appears idyllic at first: small fishing boats sit on the sandy beach, waiting to take men fishing at 3 am; a children’s library made of bamboo offers an incredible selection of books and activities to all community members; a wooden house known as “Casa Comunal” comes to life three times a week when local women get together to dance to the rhythms of reggaeton and salsa. In the heart of the village, a settlement of 60 identical houses that were built after the 2016 earthquake destroyed 98% of existing infrastructure, offers a reminder that a traumatic event forever changed the lives of people in this quiet rural village.

I have been conducting research in Ecuador every summer since 2016, mostly on topics related to gender-based violence. On January 19, 2020, I went to Don Juan to conduct anthropological dissertation research and focus on how post-earthquake initiatives continue to impact gender relations and the daily lives of women. I felt confident about the year-long plan we made with my local collaborators about what my role as a researcher and a volunteer at A Mano Manaba Foundation would be. However, just as I began to ease into the slow-paced life, the threat of COVID-19 began to lurk.

Like most things in the news, many believed that Don Juan was immune to what was happening in the world. That was the beauty of living in a small isolated area. There were barely any cases of COVID-19 in Ecuador, so there seemed to be few reasons to worry. People were more concerned about the torrential rain that has been unusually strong during this rainy season, flooding people’s precarious built homes and causing roads to collapse. People were evacuated due to increased river tides and most ended up temporarily living in the elementary school or the “Casa Comunal”. The local mayor informed people that there are no funds to build safer homes, which meant that many would build another unauthorized wooden or bamboo structure near the river that would eventually get flooded. And so the cycle repeats.

Maja Flooded

Ecuador Image – Taken by Maja Jeranko in Don Juan, Ecuador.

At the very beginning of March, one of my friends in Don Juan returned from his trip to Quito and joked about people wearing masks on the bus and buying into the panic. He joked that he coughed on purpose just to freak out his fellow passenger. He was far from worried: “This virus has nothing on me! We grew up in mud and dirt … This is something that you, white people, should be worried about!” This lead to a light conversation about the origins of the virus but most of the volunteers were unbothered by the global pandemic in the making, even though some of us had close family in places around the U.S. and Europe that were becoming the global epicenters.

That same week, I began to receive unsettling messages from my loved ones in Slovenia, where they just entered the national lockdown in hopes of avoiding the disaster that was unfolding in neighboring Italy. As there were still less than 50 confirmed cases in the entire country, I concluded that things weren’t that bad. Shortly after, I decided to take some time off my research and spend a week in Quito. I packed a scarf and white vinegar (I could not find any masks or disinfectant in the village), only to arrive in the national capital where I received a sharp reality check on the state of the pandemic. COVID-19 was definitely no laughing matter in Quito. The friend I was staying with asked me to change from my outside clothes the minute I came into the house—to prevent any possibility of a lingering virus—and asked me to wash my hands profusely lest I touch any food at all with hands that may have touched surfaces where viruses are known to linger. Though people were worried, we were reassuring each other that there are practically no confirmed cases and the state is already taking precautions.

I had to go for a routine doctor’s checkup to obtain a health certificate for my Ecuadorian visa. My friend found a pack of masks in her house from the time volcanic eruptions were a public health concern and I put one on, just in case. I went to a small clinic where a male doctor mocked my use of a mask: “Niña, in our culture people, will be freaking out by seeing a white woman using a mask. They will assume that you are sick. Don’t buy into the panic!” It was only a few days later that the country went into full lockdown. It was only a few weeks later that the national health and funeral services began to collapse.

During the week of March 6, I still felt like staying in Ecuador was the safest decision, so I decided to return to Don Juan as soon as possible. While the number of cases was rising, there were still none in Manabí province, and we were hoping it would stay that way. Many people from Quito had told me that “costeños” never respect the rules anyway, so they wouldn’t stay inside even if it came to that—a stereotype about the Ecuadorian coastal culture that would later prove to be false.

Regardless, I decided to return to Don Juan that week to wait until the crisis passes in my small bamboo house. As there were few cases, I assumed that we would not need a strict lockdown, thus I would still be able to conduct my research. On March 12th, the government announced a full lockdown within 24 hours. The panic was palpable and it became clear that it was going to be impossible to do fieldwork in these conditions. Research can seem invasive in and of itself but trying to approach people in times like these seemed particularly inappropriate. With no research to focus on, being isolated in a small village for an indefinite period, with the closest hospital located 2 hours away, my continuation of research no longer seemed like a viable practice. I consulted with my local collaborators and I decided to take the next flight home. The next morning, I packed some essentials and left the coast, assuming I’d be gone for a month or so.

My plan was to catch a flight from Quito to Fort Lauderdale on March 17. I decided to go to the U.S. where I have friends and family rather than attempt to fly across the Atlantic to Slovenia. This was the last day when intra-provincial transport was allowed and I was paralyzed from anxiety that international borders would close before I would reach my destination. My fears came true: about three hours into my bus ride, my flight was canceled, because of the closing of borders. I used my spotty internet to book another flight that was also canceled right after. I was finally able to secure a direct flight the next day. That same night, the country announced a suspension of all international flights starting at midnight the next day, March 17. My flight was at 2 a.m., so I missed my chance to get to the U.S. by two hours, with no available flight insight.

I embraced the fact that I was stuck in Ecuador indefinitely, and fortunately, my friend generously welcomed me into her house indefinitely, a privilege that not too many field researchers would have. Quito turned from a vibrant metropolis into a quiet, empty city surrounded by the beautiful Andean scenery, and only a few open food markets. Curfew rules were changing daily, and soon we were only allowed to leave the house for a limited amount of time on limited days. The curfew got stricter and ordered people to stay inside between 2 pm-5 am, with police and military guarding every corner to make sure rules were obeyed.

A few days later, I began to receive news about repatriation flights to Europe as Slovenian Embassies across Latin America began to reach out to me, advising me to get on one. At that time, Europe was still the epicenter of the pandemic and the idea of spending several days on international flights and European airports seemed unthinkable. They argued that Ecuador might collapse when the pandemic really hits: “You should consider that if Europe is struggling, imagine what will happen in Latin America.” Years of critical social education cautioned me not to give into potential Eurocentric beliefs, so I took those comments with a grain of salt and I asked myself what more could have happened in Ecuador after all to execute safety measures appropriate for their context. While I was still convinced that Ecuador did a good job of enforcing restrictions, I began to realize that the crisis wouldn’t end anytime soon, I decided to go be with my family in a place where I have secure health insurance.

On March 20, I boarded a repatriation flight back to Slovenia. Each step was a struggle: My friend was not sure whether she could take me to the airport, because we were receiving mixed information about whether or not she was allowed to travel for non-essential purposes. I decided to get a taxi, which is usually a painless task, as Quito is filled with them. However, due to mobility restrictions, it was impossible to find a one, but I was eventually lucky to get help from my colleague who works in the tourism industry who made sure I got there on time. The Slovenian Embassy in Brazil sent me a salvoconducto (safe-conduct) signed by the minister of external affairs that allowed me to move around the city. We had to show that along with my confirmed ticket to several police officers before we were allowed to get anywhere near the airport. The airport was very quiet, only people who were boarding the same flight as me were lined up at the entrance.

Our flight was packed with European citizens and I was surprised to notice that the atmosphere was eerily calm. In-flight instructions avoided pandemic-related discourse but warned us that flight attendants would operate with minimum contact. There were no specific instructions on sanitation. I did not find their service very different from “normal”, though the only served closed-bottles or cans to us. I noticed that more people than usual sanitized their trays and handles of the seat, but we were not encouraged to do so. An occasional cough made everyone nervously look at each other, but the majority of people fell asleep minding their own business. Once we got to Amsterdam, we passed through security rather quickly, without getting screened. Usually a vibrant international port, Amsterdam Airport was completely empty without a single open store, which was frustrating once I got hungry. I managed to take a brief nap on one of the comfortable chairs, feeling hopeful that I would soon be boarding a flight to Zagreb, Croatia, and get home.

A few hours later, as I turned on my phone, I learned that Zagreb was shaken by a 5.3 magnitude earthquake, with serious infrastructural damage. The feeling of being so close to the finish line only to be told that another thing went wrong was mind-boggling. It felt sobering and humbling to be reminded that no matter how much we try to defy the basic laws of nature and control the outcome, tomorrow is ever the same as today. Passengers at the gate were similarly confused and worried, calling their loved ones in Croatia to see what was going on. The flight was delayed first by 30 min, then by one hour, two hours, and finally by four hours.

Eventually, we were able to leave on a very packed flight. There was no service on the airplane, only instructions on the changes made about security. We had to undergo an extensive interview about where we were coming from and where we were going, and I was only allowed to pass calmly because I was going to Slovenia—otherwise, I would have to spend 2 weeks in Croatian quarantine at my own expense. I took a taxi to the Slovenian border where my family was waiting for me. The taxi driver was telling me about his experience with the earthquake earlier that morning while warning me that I am in for a long medical exam at the border. Luckily, there was no such thing, and I went straight home into quarantine.

Body

A body covered by a sheet lies outside of a health center of Ecuador’s Public Health Ministry
Image from Reuters /Vicente Gaibor del Pino

A trip from Ecuador to Europe would normally take less than 20 hours, but it took me 44 this time. When I got there, the number of confirmed cases in Ecuador had increased by several hundred. Today, there are over 29,000 confirmed cases, with many more undetected. Officials speculate that over 10,000 people have died, which is 10 times the amount of confirmed deaths. Devastating pictures from Ecuador’s biggest and most socio-economically divided city of Guayaquil have begun to circulate across international media. For a while, community spread was out of control, and the national health and funeral services collapsed as the province struggled to contain the outbreak. The authorities could not remove the overwhelming amounts of people who were dying in their homes fast enough which led some people to burn corpses in the middle of the street. Hospitals had to turn away even the illest patients as death rates escalated quickly. This has served as a grim reminder of how deeply-rooted histories of the class divide, race, and an unexpected disaster can intersect most devastatingly.

While I am no longer in Ecuador, I am keeping in touch with people there. My friend in Quito is quarantined until the end of May and says that Quito is still quietly calm, as they have managed to somewhat contain the spread, except in the poorest parts of the city. In contrast, Don Juan remains without confirmed cases. Community members have self-organized and enforced their own rules, thus rejecting stereotypes such as them being lazy and stupid by actively organizing and taking measures into their own hands. The curfew has made it difficult to go fishing but every few days some of the men went to get enough food for others. The vegetable truck that would normally come twice a week is not always allowed to enter, as men also decided to protect the entrance of the village from anyone entering unless they’re local. At the onset of blocking off the road, they first started with throwing a tree trunk down in the street so people couldn’t pass. After the police removed the tree, about 10 men spent 24 hours a day up at the top of the hill at the entrance into the village not allowing people to come through. Eventually, they upgraded to make a gate that they could pull up and down, like a bamboo trunk. Then they installed a donated full-size gate where only three men guard the entrance. They are spraying people down with a Clorox solution when they enter the town, and a truck has come several times to spray the village with it.

The COVID-19 pandemic will have differential effects, and it will be particularly interesting to see how a community that only so recently dealt with a catastrophic event will be affected in the long-run. Quarantine-imposed restrictions might have particular consequences for household relations and violence in a context where large families are forced to be locked down in a small 2-bedroom house with a hot tin roof and very high temperatures. A lot of people are struggling with resources, as they are not getting sufficient income or food, which normally comes from selling fish, produce, or maintaining gated tourist communities. It will be a long recovery from an unexpected public and mental health crisis.

I have lived through a unique moment during the initial few days of the pandemic together with the people which has brought us all closer, though physically further apart, building connections that have been maintained across continents. I’m eager to return and help with the post-COVID relief, though it is unclear not only when it will be, but also how it will look. The nature of fieldwork and the role of an ethnographer in a post-coronavirus context might never be the same.

Quarantined in Buenos Aires

May 12, 2020

Quarantined in Buenos Aires

By Liz Mason-Deese
Liz Mason-Deese received her BA in Anthropology from UNC in 2005 and her PhD in Geography in 2015. She currently resides in Buenos Aires where she works as a freelance translator.

Buenos Aires Quarantine

A man waits in front of a poster with a message from the government to ask
people to comply with quarantine rules, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Photograph: Juan Ignacio Roncoroni/EPA from The Guardian

Walking along the usually busy streets of Boedo, a traditional, residential Buenos Aires neighborhood known for its tango and literature, the first thing I notice is the silence. The first two produce shops I pass by are closed, as is the butcher’s, the pasta shop, and the fishmonger. The only place where I see other people is lined up to enter the pharmacy. I finally find an open shop and but quickly realize that prices have already more than doubled in the week since the quarantine began. Ultimately, I decide against spending half of my daily wages on spinach and a few apples, the only remaining produce in stock, and head home empty handed.

Argentina has had one of the swiftest and strictest responses to COVID-19 in the Americas. President Alberto Fernández issued a decree closing the border and canceling large events in early March, which led to a nationwide shelter-in-place order on March 20th. Only a strictly defined set of “essential workers,” limited to those who guarantee the food supply, health care, and public safety, are allowed out. The majority of residents are limited to their homes, only allowed to go to the closest grocery store, pharmacy or medical locations for emergencies, where we are required to wear masks in these enclosed spaces.

Staying off the streets does not come easily for us in Buenos Aires. Less than two weeks before the quarantine started, hundreds of thousands of us marched through the downtown streets as part of the international feminist strike, protesting against gendered violence, inequality and exploitation, and for our right to legal, safe, and free abortion. Only a few weeks later, on March 24th, the anniversary of the military coup that brought a brutal dictatorship to power in 1976, and a historical day for human rights struggles in the country, we find ourselves confined to our homes and unable to hold the usual multitudinous march to declare “never again.” Instead, each household fashions their own white handkerchief, the symbol of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, and hangs them on their balconies, windows, rooftops, sharing images on social media and chanting from our homes in what has become the new form of protest.

At the same time, there have been a few right-wing protests, also from their balconies, against the quarantine measures. However, the majority recognize that the government’s actions are necessary, not only because of the severity of the virus itself, but also because of the condition of Argentina’s healthcare system. After decades of neoliberal policies, the public system is drastically underfunded, leaving us with a public-private patchwork of medical facilities that varies greatly by neighborhood or region, one’s job and socioeconomic status. The previous government of Mauricio Macri was notorious in this regard, leaving hospitals half built in some of the country’s poorest areas. Medical workers have already held protests decrying the long hours, low pay, and lack of PPE and other necessary medical equipment. COVID-19 is not the only thing that kills.

On March 30th, we took to our balconies again, this time to protest against the alarming rise of femicides. Since the quarantine began, an average of one woman a day has been killed. “Stay at home” means that women are stuck in homes with their abusers, with few escape routes. With schools closed, friends with children tell me that they are working nonstop, feeding, educating, entertaining their kids, while also doing their own jobs and regular domestic work. Yet the feminist movement continues putting forth proposals for a feminist response to the crisis, pushing the government to provide resources to address domestic violence and building our networks of mutual aid.

After two weeks, I finally get fresh produce, I sign up for a weekly box of fresh fruits and vegetables that comes from a collection of local farms and is delivered directly to my door. These sort of arrangements – delivering produce direct from the farmers – multiply, allowing consumers to avoid the speculation in food prices that we have seen in the major supermarket chains, while allowing small farms to continue functioning. It also highlights problems that existed in Argentina well before the pandemic: the rampant inflation, especially of food items and the inherent limitations of an agro-export model. For decades, much of the population has relied on this “popular economy” to get by, working informally or in cooperatives, obtaining goods through informal markets and food from soup kitchens run by social movements.

Now, with the coronavirus crisis, more people across the country rely on those small agricultural producers, community soup kitchens, or other forms of mutual aid organized by social movements, in order to have enough to eat. With nearly half the population working informally and with the country coming off two years of a recession, fears of the economic impact of the crisis are just as great as fears of the virus itself. In an effort to alleviate the worst of these effects, the government implemented a series of extra benefits for the unemployed, informal workers, self-employed, and retired. The need was so great that the people started lining up the day before the benefits were to be released, waiting outside of banks overnight to be able to withdraw the money.

Meanwhile many continue working because they have no other option and because they are considered “essential” for the rest of us. The most notable of these are the delivery workers, working for Apps such as Rappi, Uber Eats, or PedidosYa, who, as ‘independent contractors’ have few guaranteed labor rights. On April 22th, those workers went on strike demanding pay increases and guaranteed benefits for risking their lives so that the rest of the population can stay at home. Subway workers have also organized work stoppages, decrying the lack of protective gear from the city government and inconsistent sanitation of subway stations. In one of my weekly grocery runs, I noticed an increase in the number of people sleeping on the streets.

A friend working in a shelter for homeless youth in the city of Buenos Aires tells me about the dire conditions: overcrowded, lack of cleaning products and protective gear, and, because of the city government’s incompetence, much of the staff hasn’t been paid in months. Another friend who works with incarcerated women tells me about the situation in the country’s prisonswhere protests over the lack of cleaning supplies and hygienic conditions were met with repression both of prisoners and their family members, resulting in the death of at least one prisoner.

Meanwhile, the first cases of COVID-19 were recently reported in Villa 31, the slum behind the city’s major train and bus station. With much of the neighborhood lacking clean drinking water and electricity, and often a dozen people sharing a single, bathroom, preventative measures such as hand washing, and social distancing are near impossible. These inequalities make it so that the virus poses an especially big risk here. But could this crisis also be an opportunity? Fernández has proposed an extraordinary tax on the country’s largest fortunes, in an attempt to make the wealthy pay for the crisis, while continuing to provide financial assistance for the popular economy workers to stay at home.

A campesino leader was recently appointed as the director of the Central Market, leading to hopes that this will lead to lasting changes to the food system. Meanwhile, I stay at home and order face masks from a cooperative, I do an online Pilates class with comrades from my feminist collective and participate in video conferences to try to organize mutual aid and to cheer each other up, while we anxiously await the day that we can be on the streets together again.

COVID-19 in Peru

May 12, 2020

COVID-19 in Peru

By Lucía Isabel Stavig
Lucía Isabel Stavig, Doctoral Candidate, Department of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

COVID-19 in Peru

Peru Image – Taken by Lucía Isabel Stavig on the streets of Cusco, Peru.

I was doing fieldwork in a rural community in Anta, Peru when the president closed the borders and instituted quarantine. I stayed in the community for the first two weeks; but when Quédate en Casa was extended, I started to make tough decisions about the future. My heart was heavy with the knowledge that if I left, it would be for an indefinite period of time. I love the friends and family I have made while in the field and I knew I would miss my compadres and my god-babies, but when my newfound family sent me off, I knew I had made the right decision.

Over the preceding weeks, it had become quite clear to my host and I that if COVID-19 made it into the community, we would all be in real trouble. There is a posta médica, but it cannot and does not serve the community well. Most only go after the use of medicinal plants has not worked. Medicine is limited and the nurses are quite dismissive. I was afraid for my friends, and I was afraid for me. I have learned through my research that my friends and new family have an arsenal of medicinal plants at their disposal that could help them, but if anyone needed a ventilator, they would die. Many of my friends said that if it was their time, it was their time. Being here during COVID-19, I have learned a lot about attitudes toward death—mainly that in realities where medical care is scarce, death is always at the threshold, and is not seen as an enemy but as a constant possibility.

Also, I began to notice a shift in attitude toward my presence as a misti, white person. Going to the market, I noted that people were starting to look at me with more suspicion than usual. People have always been curious and a little suspicious; but as the quarantine dragged on, the tone changed. When comuneros returning from jobs abroad because of the pandemic started to get thrown out of close-by communities, I could feel my anxiety rising. I felt safe in the community…but then again, it had doubled and even tripled in size since I first arrived as people who lived and worked in various cities around Peru began to come home. Those people didn’t know me. I was worried that all it would take was a couple of individuals getting infected for people to get scared and look for someone to blame. I feared not only for me, but for my newfound family. Would they be blamed and punished if it were decided that I was the problem? So, with a heavy heart, I decided to go to the city of Cusco to wait out the quarantine.

Though I am not in the community, I maintain regular contact with my friends via phone, Messenger, and WhatsApp. I ask how they are doing, and much to my relief, they mostly report being bored, but every once in a while, the news is quite interesting. For instance, trucks of food are going from the countryside to the city to feed starving family members. Many migrants in the cities work for their pan de cada día; if they don’t work, they don’t eat. Though the supply chain has not broken down, food prices have gone up due to speculation. Therefore, people stuck in cities with no work are having trouble accessing food. The mayor of the district where I was living coordinated a truck to take food to migrant families living in Lima. After much discussion of how the city supports life in the countryside, it is being revealed the opposite is also resoundingly true.

Without campesinos, none of us in Peru would be eating; and yet their work is grossly undervalued. The importance of agriculture and food sovereignty have become common topics of campesinos during quarantine—this at a time when many family farmers are giving up on agriculture because they lose more money than they make. The price of potatoes and other staple products is artificially low. Twelve kilos of potatoes are selling for s/5, or $1.50. That doesn’t even cover the price of cooking oil. Campesinos were already looking to plant more lucrative crops, like quinoa, wheat, or rye, but now the country is having a serious discussion about what it means to value agriculture and farmers.

The Ministry of Agriculture has created pop-up markets where campesinos can sell directly to the public so that middlemen cannot speculate. This option isn’t open to all families, however. Most families are struggling to find markets in which to sell their products. Without this cash, or the cash male members of the family usually make working as transportistas in Cusco, many families are finding themselves struggling to buy basic goods. It is amazing that, in this context, people in the countryside still send food to their families in the city. This is ayni, or reciprocal care/labor, at its most critical and beautiful: no matter how little there is to go around, it is shared.

Here in Cusco, people line up for blocks to get their government payments. With tourists gone, the livelihood of the majority of Cusqueños has dried up. My housemates and I wonder how long this situation can continue before people get desperate. Many people who worked in Cusco, Lima, Arequipa, etc. are walking back to their rural communities in search of food. Does COVID-19 walk with them? Hard to know. There are officially 130 cases in Cusco, though there is no one in the hospital. All those patients have recovered. But April 23rd, a plane of 300-odd Cusqueños who had been stuck in Lima landed in the city. They are being held in quarantine until it is clear that they do not have the virus. However, those coming home walking, hitchhiking, or hanging on to the back of fruit trucks (as one man coming home from Arequipa explained he did) are not being tested.

On the same day, the quarantine was extended for another two weeks. The last two times extensions were announced, a flood of people left cities and made their way home. I am sure this extension will be no different. While I worry about the spread of COVID-19, I also recognize that this homecoming is changing community life in good ways as well. With the influx of able-bodied laborers, ayni, or reciprocal labor, is coming back. When there were not enough people to help with harvest, families had to pay for laborers to come help them. With this influx of people, families can again lend out their labor to one another. One day you, another day me. COVID-19 is both a moment of fear and renewal.

This crisis is revealing just how fragile social mobility is in the Andes. I worry for my friends in university or pre-university academias. Will they be able to go back? Or is this it for them? It is unclear what will happen. Young professionals have been part of a generational transition toward a general acceptance and pride in Quechua and Andean culture. How will COVID-19 affect this change?

For its school-age population, Peru has instituted a distance-learning program so that students don’t lose the year. But the reality is that there are not enough computers, internet, or radios to make this work. There are other issues with “Aprendo en Casa” which I outline here in an article I wrote for Noticia SER.

No one knows how this will end and what the post-COVID world will be like. But one thing is clear here in the Andes: access to land along with food sovereignty are taking on renewed importance in the lives of campesinos. Where these realizations and discussions will go, only time will tell.