Colombia’s infection rate is relatively low, but its ruthlessly enforced lockdown is causing hunger and nationwide anger. In the working class districts of Bogota, signs of desperation are everywhere.
By Nash Landesman
Bogota, Colombia — Red flags hang draped from the doors, rooftops and windows of Bogota’s impoverished southern neighborhoods. They symbolize the suffering wreaked by a now thrice-extended house-arrest and quarantine policy purportedly aimed at containing the Coronavirus. While the pandemic has infected only a few thousand people out of a population of more than thirty million in Colombia, the quarantine has caused prolonged unemployment, a wave of housing evictions, and rioting; fueling scourges like domestic violence while pushing many to the edge of starvation.
Colombia’s tragedy mirrors those of the many developing countries which followed the strict lockdown polices promoted by the W.H.O. and its second-largest funder, the mega-billionaire Bill Gates. The precarious state of existence for many citizens of global South countries has nothing to do with infectious disease, but with policy.
The U.S.-friendly government of El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele, for example, has formalized baseball bat gang beatings as a means to impose quarantine. While no peer-reviewed studies have been conducted on the novel method of enforcement, many scientists would likely conclude that systematic bat-beatdowns could pose a greater public health risk than the virus.
In Chile, which is ruled by right-wing billionaire Sebastian Piñera, riots led by informal sector workers erupted this May as a result of food shortages caused by the shutdown in Santiago.
Meanwhile, in Colombia, a total lockdown of the economy has resulted in the spread of starvation as people are stripped of their right to work and public handouts fail to meet targets due to widespread corruption. Hunger is spreading by the day.
In Bogota, the lockdowns, which include informal business closures, are enforced by large fines and hair-trigger detentions insisted upon by the mayor, Claudia Lopez. Revealingly, Lopez has not followed her own quarantine policies, recently causing a minor public scandal by entering a grocery store with her partner, thus ignoring the ban she imposed on people entering stores with accompaniment.
Those who face the most risk under Colombia’s lockdown policies are members of the informal sectors of the economy like urban street vendors. As a public administrator named Oscar Oviedo, who is active in the opposition movement to president Duque, explained to me: “[President] Duque’s right-wing ruling party is not interested in protecting the popular or poor classes; rather it wants to protect private business and big capital. The informal sector in Colombia is invisible to public policies. It has no social benefits, nor security, nor are they eligible to receive state aid such as money transfers.Duque does not represent the poor. Duque is the Trump of Colombia.”
For neoliberal leaders like Duque, the advent of Covid was a lucky break, as it forced people off the streets and into their homes, just after mass global protest movements against right-wing regimes like Chile and Colombia’s reached their peaks. The timing of this disease certainly helped to prevent any remaining embers of dissent from being re-lit.
In global South countries which did not reflexively heed public health advice from Bill Gates, the U.S. or the W.H.O., challenging the faulty predictive computer models on which so many lockdown policies were initially based, the situation is considerably better. In Nicaragua, for instance, the Sandinista government refused to lockdown, likely because its base among the rural poor and informal labor sector in the cities would have been driven into destitution.
Despite a spate of unfounded accusations made by anti-Sandinista mouthpieces in the US, which have falsely claimed that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has declined to take action – and might have even been dead – the country has so far disproven its critics.
As Nicaragua-based journalist John Perry wrote in the health journal, The Lancet, “Accusing the Nicaraguan Government of an erratic response to the epidemic, ‘violating the human rights of its citizens’, is both inaccurate and unfair. In criticizing Nicaragua’s response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, [such critics] fail to note that the country has the lowest level of infection in the Americas…The government is genuinely attempting to balance the fight against COVID-19 with the economic needs of the population. To impose an untimely lockdown would not only cause huge resentment and hardship but could be counterproductive.”
It is in Colombia and in other less developed countries that followed the global consensus where the impact of Covid has proven the most deadly.
According to a model developed by the Actuarial Society of South Africa, the lockdown imposed in Colombia will lead to twenty nine times more lives lost than the harm it seeks to prevent. A walk through one of Bogota’s “red-flagged” neighborhoods reveals how such morbid math might play out.
“It is impossible to continue quarantine because people need to eat,” argues Caesar Diaz, a social activist from the Usme district in southern Bogota. “People need to have the minimal conditions, which are absent during the lockdown. With time, these social conditions are going to produce a crisis because people don’t have access to minimal life conditions. They need to obtain these conditions one way or the other and right now is the wrong way—with violence. What we have is a social time bomb waiting to explode.”
David Beasley, head of the UN World Food Program, also confirmed that, as the lockdown continues, millions can be expected to starve to death. “Millions … face being pushed to the brink of starvation, with the specter of famine a very real and dangerous possibility,” he wrote. “Due to the Coronavirus [lockdown policy response], an additional 130 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020. That’s a total of 265 million people.”
Colombia serves as a microcosm for how a multi-tiered, highly-fractured society might fare during a period of extended lockdown, now thrice extended and set to lift gradually starting in June. “People live at the edge, day by day,” Diaz, the activist from southern Bogota, said. “They cannot stay in their homes because they cannot pay rent without working for two or three weeks or longer. It is impossible to set money aside for food water, medicines. So people are in the streets. They’ve been evicted. There is help in theory but it is very difficult to access because of bureaucracy and corruption. Here corruption has grown out of the coronavirus.”
Confining people to their homes by force for months on end has also been an obvious recipe for family crisis. “One of the principal problems [to arise from the coronavirus lockdown] is domestic violence,” Diaz added. “Combine people in a confined space for a long period of time with the poverty, the lack of employment—and violence emerges naturally under these lockdown conditions.”
Or, as a doctor from an urgent care clinic in Usaquen, Edgardo Enrique, explained: “We have seen a major spike in domestic violence during this lockdown, in addition to increasing signs of emotional disturbance, stemming from the anxiety and depression caused by forced isolation and the insecurity it brings. This can be manifested in alcoholism or suicide.” The doctor added that he was strictly forbidden from discussing anything related to Coronavirus.
Colombians are determined to survive nonetheless. Instead of white flags to indicate surrender, there is a sea of red, the color of alarm, urgency and blood—which organizations like the WHO will have on its hands if and when the consequences of this lockdown are finally tallied.
“That red cloth (red cloth) means that there is no food to eat, there is no support, no work,” Usme resident, Miguel Quiroga, said. “It is hard to endure. We already owe three months of rent because we don’t have a job or anything like that. I was about to sign a work contract before this all started.I have a little daughter. We have not received any help from [Bogota Mayor] Claudia Lopez. In this house live four families and we have not received no help from Lopez. From nobody, honestly from nobody.”
“We are Pailas,” Miguel continued, using a slang term for “in the dumps.” He then cupped his head in his hands and broken into sobbing.
Riots have erupted sporadically since Bogota’s unpopular mayor visited Usme with promises of food aid. “The mayor came here and told people to go home, to comply with the isolation, that she was going to solve the food issue here,” recalled Yourman Rojano, a young Venezuelan immigrant living in Usme. “She [the Mayor] said they are going to give us meals—some bags of food, some bags with products, which have not arrived. So people are a little rowdy about it because they have promised to bring it and they haven’t brought it. We are not getting that help, neither food, money, or anything. Here we solve it with our own hands. That is principally why the protests have taken place. People are confined and frustrated that promises are being broken, by a quarantine with no end in sight.”
Yourman is 21 years old and lives with his mother, father, one year-old daughter and four year-old sister. His mother is the household’s lone breadwinner, cleaning houses in the North; while his father has been barred from doing his job as a coffee vendor in the streets. He the damage from this lockdown will last a lifetime.
“In regard to my sister, she is a very active girl and the confinement is affecting her severely. Obviously this is affecting her in all respects, at a crucial stage in her development. Even if she does the activities and tasks sent by her school, she has a lot of free time and she is locked up here almost without being able to vent all that adrenaline she has,” Yourman reflected. “She wants to be playing, wants to be running, she wants to be doing something, and she’s not able to do it; so it is already a potentially lasting psychological and emotional impact for her.”
Another Bogota resident I spoke to, a young portly college student with a red flag hanging from his window, opened his door to explain the meaning of the flag. “I am a university student so I have no income,” he said. “My parents worked in clothing making T-shirts, but many companies have broken, the work decreases a lot. That is what’s going on. Hopefully this quarantine will end soon, just as many companies have gone bankrupt and employment disappears. I needed to travel. Instead I’m strung up with no mobility.”
Businesses in the affluent North have also begun buckling under economic pressure caused by the lockdown. The owner of an upscale hotel, Casa 93, Felipe Holguin, explained, “The economy is finished. It is not coming back. They ruined it. I can’t make payroll; I can’t pay my employees, I’m behind on my expenses. It’s a total nightmare.”
With only three guests staying at the fifty-plus room hotel, a worker named Lisa Nieto hustled back and forth between the kitchen and the front desk, grilling a steak for a customer in the restaurant while checking guests in and out and answering phones as the steak sizzled. Like most other employees of the hotel, the chef who normally ran the kitchen was on furlough.