How the Developing World is Coping with COVID-19: The Case of Bolivia

A Bolivian woman in La Paz covers her face with a mask to protect against COVID-19. 
Credits: Abad Miranda

By Olivia Bryan
Staff Writer

It seems that there isn’t anything new to be said that hasn’t been said already regarding COVID-19. Unprecedented. Once in a lifetime. Unforgettable. Most mainstream media coverage of the pandemic remains fixed on East Asia, Europe, and North America, the three geographical areas that have been hit the hardest. But viruses know no borders, and many smaller, poorer countries are being largely omitted from the coronavirus media narrative. These countries are often the ones most vulnerable to the virus’s externalities: lacking proper medical supplies, social welfare programs, and efficient governance to aid citizens’ health and well-being. 

One such country is Bolivia, a landlocked country of about eleven and a half million people just north of the Tropic of Capricorn. Second only to Venezuela in poverty within South America, the country has endured many hardships in the past year: the devastating Amazon fires that burned 4.2 million acres of Bolivian land, a national strike that halted the country’s economy for 21 days in protest of fraudulent presidential elections, and now, a global pandemic. 

Sofia Meador Sauto, a native of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, and fellow Political Science colleague of mine at UC San Diego, returned to her hometown in late March, and has witnessed firsthand the harsh socio-economic impact of the virus on an already struggling country. Just before she departed for home, I recalled her account of a Bolivian news story on the first coronavirus patient in Bolivia: a woman returning from Italy who was transported to the hospital with a jacket over her head to prevent the spread of the virus. Medical personnel had nothing else with which to cover her face. 

The woman with the jacket over her head illustrates Bolivia’s dire health situation. Like many third world countries, Bolivia’s already strained government and economy lacks major resources needed to combat COVID-19. Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the country’s largest department with over three million people, had just 21 respirators available for coronavirus patients across all of its public and private hospitals. Even if more respirators were available, the district would not have nearly enough medical personnel available to equip patients with the machines. 

Sofia’s mother owns two bakeries in Santa Cruz, one of which has already had to shut its doors permanently due to loss of revenue from the virus. “The economic situation for private enterprises is not good to begin with,” Sofia articulates. Even Panaderia Victoria, her mother’s second bakery which she co-owns with other family members, is experiencing harsh losses. “It’s not the same,” Sofia laments. “We’re not making the same earnings as we would on a normal day.” The employees of the closing bakery, Panificación del Oriente, will still receive severance pay for three months after their release, but beyond that there are little social welfare policies in Bolivia to protect them. 

Panificación del Oriente, 1991-2020

“In the US… the system can kind of support unemployment” she asserts. “Whereas here, if you’re unemployed, you’re f*****”. Although the Bolivian government does have social safety nets for the elderly, disabled, or pregnant, it does not provide any kind of unemployment insurance, leaving many citizens with few options for a source of income and bleak future career prospects. “A lot of people here make their living out of being bartenders, waitresses, you know… entry-level jobs, and those are the jobs that aren’t going to be opened until February or March”, she postulates. 

Not only is the future full of uncertainty for many Bolivian blue-collar workers, but numerous businesses cannot bear the rising costs of operation much longer. Businesses had already taken a large hit economically from the national strike in the fall. “For the paro nacional, everything was closed for 21 days, so… you [business owners] were paying salaries and you were still paying taxes, and you were not generating any money”. The Bolivian government has continuously increased the social security contribution of employers for their employees, bringing total taxes on medium-sized businesses in Bolivia to account for up to 80% of profits. “Let’s face it, no private enterprise has earned any money since 2016,” she reasons. 

 “And for the Amazon fires, I don’t think it affected private enterprise, but it took a toll out of the government’s funds”. The Bolivian government shelled out a mere 20 million USD to fight the fires; however, almost 50% of Bolivia’s gross domestic product comes from services, which are now heavily restricted by the virus. International flights have been grounded indefinitely, and people are allowed outside only on certain days between certain times; not exactly an environment conducive to vacationers.

The case of Bolivia illustrates the especially all-encompassing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on a developing nation. In the United States, many of us take for granted our social welfare programs such as unemployment insurance, or the fact that if we go to a hospital, there will be a doctor present there to treat us. Although the United States certainly has many issues with its social welfare programs, they are nevertheless there. The virus has further exacerbated the staunch discrepancy between the developed and underdeveloped world. In dozens of countries like Bolivia, there is no unemployment check in the mail, or a Paycheck Protection Program to apply for, something that many Western readers should be mindful of as we grieve over lost haircuts and manicures. 

How COVID-19 is Affecting the Sex Work Industry

There is an industry that we tend to forget about during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite finding itself in every country on earth: the sex industry. 

by Isana Raja
Staff Writer

Sex work provides income for over 42 million people worldwide. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this “close-contact” profession is now banned, rendering many distraught, unemployed, and at high risk of contraction of the virus. Sex work takes many forms, but prostitution —  being paid for sex —  seems to be the most relevant when dealing with government laws and legislation.  Since prostitution is legally regarded differently by each nation, sex workers are facing the repercussions of the pandemic in vastly different ways. But despite the inconsistencies in the way sex work functions across the globe, it is certain that the coronavirus is drastically changing the sex industry landscape. 

Continue reading “How COVID-19 is Affecting the Sex Work Industry”

COVID-19 in The Philippines: The Case Against A Dangerously Inadequate Response

by Lauryn Lin
Contributing Writer

Police and armed soldiers now walk the streets of Manila as they try to keep people inside their homes. “Shoot them dead,” ordered Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in a national address after a protest in Quezon City. The protest occurred at the beginning of April after people had not received relief supplies and food starting March 15 when the COVID-19 lockdown went into motion. Duterte initially enacted a form of martial law back when he first declared the administration’s War on Drugs. Threatening to further this in a time of crisis is reminiscent of his extrajudicial killings that occurred before the pandemic. Duterte’s zero tolerance policy for illegal substances already has many frightened for their lives. The circumstances of COVID-19 are giving Duterte room to broaden his regime of cruelty. 

Duterte was granted emergency powers on March 25 with the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, a measure to allocate funds and direct hospitals to prioritize efforts that target the pandemic. Critics argue against this because of the extreme measures he took when he waged his drug war. Duterte’s orders allow security forces to shoot to kill anyone they feel is a threat. In a personal statement addressing the president’s overstepping of authority, University of the Philippines Law professor Jay Batongbacal said, “No to emergency powers. The existing powers are already being abused.” Duterte’s past points ontaking advantage of these powers  are widely regarded as a means of keeping the people in a state of fear. So far he has only asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) to work around the clock, never closing under the new twenty-four hour operation. These agencies work to find a vaccine and assess effective medicine for the virus. 

Even though the Bayanihan Act’s main purpose is for Duterte to redistribute funding for efforts against the virus, it contains provisions that would punish those who are spreading fake news about the virus. Some say that it could be used to target people opposing Duterte’s regime. “Under such emergency, local government officials risk being booted out from their post for merely adjusting their COVID-19 response to the specific needs of their jurisdiction,” says Rep. Arlene Brosas. As local governments try to figure out the best way to combat the virus, this provision will limit the possibility of exploring every option. 

There is one measure in the act however, that allows for Congress to examine Duterte’s actions and regulations in regards to his new emergency powers. Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros is keeping an eye on how this will be carried out, saying that “The Senate must exercise its oversight functions,” she affirms. “I’ll be very active that Bayanihan Law is exercised without abuse and funds will reach those who need it most.” In addition to this clause in the act, Duterte must also send weekly reports to Congress about how effectively he has utilized these powers. 

On May 5, the leading broadcast network ABS-CBN was forced to shut down by orders from the National Telecommunications Commision. Duterte has been targeting the network since his election in 2016 when they refused to run his presidential campaign ads. Since then, they have closely followed the cruelty of the drug war and more recently, have been communicating important updates regarding the current public health crisis. A statement from the network reads, “Millions of Filipinos will lose their source of news and entertainment when ABS-CBN is ordered to go off-air on TV and radio tonight (5 May 2020) when people need crucial and timely information as the nation deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.” The last time ABS-CBN was forced off the air was in September of 1972 during a time of martial law when President Ferdinand Marcos chose not to renew the network’s license. A controversial leader, Marcos was known for his brutality and corruption, quite similar to Duterte. A repeat of the past seems to be becoming a threat to the freedom of press and has even caught the attention of human rights activists

The United Nations has reported that such a “highly militarised response” from the Philippines with coronavirus restrictions is cause for concern. They also named China, Sri Lanka, and El Salvador as countries who instrumentalized the pandemic as a means to hide their human rights violations. Peggy Hicks, the Director of Thematic Engagement at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned that any restrictions enacted in these states as a response to the pandemic, must be absolutely necessary and of a temporary placement. The United Nation’s unease about how many countries are dealing with the pandemic is indicative not only of the change that needs to occur in the Philippines, but every country scapegoating the health crisis as a means to extend austerely draconian policies across the globe.