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. 

Op Ed: Latin America’s League of Socialist Dictators and the Call to Stop Romanticizing Socialism

Sometimes it is hard to comprehend the magnitude of what is being glorified. Socialist rhetoric and how it led to the demise of Bolivia. 

by Sofia Meador Sauto
Staff Writer

I cannot help but laugh at my friend as she throws her middle finger up at capitalism and proceeds to tell Alexa to turn off her alarm. Can’t help but chuckle at the stereotypical anti-capitalist rebel, walking down Library Walk with her Birkenstock sandals, preaching about the wonders of all the “free” stuff socialism has to offer. Nor can I help but roll my eyes and smirk at the memory of my professor last quarter who while conveying a talk replete with anti-capitalism and anti-neoliberalism sentiment, dropped his Mercedes car keys. Have these people not seen the detrimental state their socialist wonders are in? Oh, the sentiment of self accomplishment these heretics must feel when going against their dysfunctional capitalist system. 

Continue reading “Op Ed: Latin America’s League of Socialist Dictators and the Call to Stop Romanticizing Socialism”


By Aisha Ali
Staff Writer

This past January, Bolivia celebrated the 10-year anniversary of President Evo Morales’ historic inauguration as the country’s first indigenous president. A presidential parade in La Paz and a trending topic on Twitter, #10AñosConEvo (10 Years with Evo), highlighted the changes Morales made over the last decade. During his five-hour speech to congress on the same day, Morales specifically addressed how his administration has turned around the Bolivian economy: external debt (as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product) has reduced from 67% in 2005 to 17% in 2015, while spending on education incentive programs has doubled in the same period.

On the heels of these 10-year anniversary celebrations, initial polls expected Bolivian voters to approve a referendum proposed by Morales, which would allow him to alter constitutional term limits and run for the fourth time as a presidential candidate.  A win in the 2019 election would have made Morales one of the longest sitting presidents in the region, extending his rule to 2025 and adding up to nearly 20 consecutive years in office. In order for the referendum to pass, Morales needed 70% of Bolivians to vote in favor of the changes. When the final numbers came in last week, only 48.67% of the population voted ‘Yes’, and the referendum failed to pass.

The breakdown of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ votes were drastically different by department, or subdivision, which was largely due to where Bolivians have seen the most progress during Morales’ rule – or lack of. The Departments of Oruro, Cochabamba, and La Paz were mainly in favor of the referendum as ‘Yes’ beat out ‘No’ by nearly 10 percentage points in each area. The local governments of Oruro and Cochabamba, headed by members of Morales’ party MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo / Movement for Socialism), while La Paz’s governor Félix Patzi, a former MAS member, came out strongly against the referendum. In fact, some of the loudest opponents to the referendum were ex-MAS supporters and allies concerned about Morales’ possible extended rule and its effect on Bolivian democracy. Other opposition voters based their decision on Morales’ perceived ‘neglect’ of their regions and interests, particularly indigenous groups in the Amazon affected by the proposed TIPNIS highway, as well as people in the growing urban middle class. Bolivia’s younger population also voted primarily against the referendum, an indication of changing opinions on Morales and MAS among younger voters eager to see new leaders rather than the old guard.

Even among those who voted ‘Yes’, there is a growing suspicion of Morales’ hyper-focus on the development of Bolivia’s extraction industries. During the first half of his presidency, Bolivia took a leadership role in environmental protection under the overarching development principle of ‘vivir bien’ (living well). Since then, German and Chinese companies have been competing to invest in the development of Bolivia’s lithium reserves in Potosí, which constitutes 70% of the world’s total endowment. The development of these reserves could potentially net millions of dollars for the Bolivian government and its partners, which is why Morales’ government has already pledged to invest over $600 million in the project between now and 2019. Neither the government nor Morales have yet to address the environmental consequences of lithium production, particularly desertification of the area and water contamination. Petroleum, which has its own set of environmental concerns, accounts for 48% of Bolivia’s annual exports and an estimated 19% of GDP. Nationalization of the oil and natural gas industry, spearheaded by Morales’ government during his first term, has been the main factor in Bolivia’s relatively steady 5.5% GDP growth rate over the last few years. But declining commodity prices in 2015 could negatively impact Bolivia’s economy if oil prices fall too low, causing the country to lose its spot as Latin America’s strongest economy.

Regardless of the ‘No’ majority, Evo Morales still has one more term to finish as president of Bolivia. A new development plan for the country, the National Plan for Economic and Social Development 2016-2020, was introduced last year and will focus government efforts on diversifying exports, implementing infrastructure improvements, and increasing investment in public programs. In the meantime, MAS and opposition parties will need to start looking for a candidate to succeed Morales in 2019.

Image by Eneas De Troya