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. 

Refugee Lives: Trauma, Celebrations, and Limbo

Photo by Alex Gunn showing graffiti art by refugees in the Zaatari Refugee Camp.
By Michael Murphy
Staff Writer

In 2011, the Syrian Civil War placed refugees on the global stage. Amid al-Assad’s barrel bombs, The Syrian Refugee Crisis was born. Videos depicting thousands of people fleeing their homes filled the airwaves. It wasn’t the first case of forced displacement, but European countries reeled from the sudden surge of humanitarian need all the same, with each country giving a kneejerk reaction on how to handle the hundreds of thousands of newcomers fleeing violence. Meanwhile, millions fled to neighboring countries–Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan—each already struggling with the refugees of the wars in the previous century. Before long, attention turned to North Africa. Images of rubber boats filled to the brim with desperate souls being tossed on the waves of the Mediterranean became unavoidable. Finally, in 2015, the image of Alan Kurdi, a young boy whose body lay on the beach after having drowned on the journey from Turkey to Europe, drew virulent international outrage.

Continue reading “Refugee Lives: Trauma, Celebrations, and Limbo”

DETRIMENTAL DEVELOPMENT: HOW INTERNATIONAL AID ORGANIZATIONS FAILED POST-EARTHQUAKE HAITI

By Jasmine Minato
Staff Writer

2015 marks the 5th year anniversary of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, which took over 250,000 lives, including over 18,000 highly skilled professionals and destroyed a majority of homes, schools, hospitals, and government buildings in Haiti’s capital of Port Au Prince (PAP). The monstrous natural disaster was ranked by the U.S. Geological Survey in the top 10 worst natural disturbances in all of human history. A self-proclaimed novice expert of Haitian history, yet confirmed avid researcher on the Caribbean island’s cultural developments and colonial periods, Ivan Evans (who is also the newly appointed Eleanor Roosevelt College provost), hosted a seminar called “Haiti After the Earthquake” on February 18 in the Cross Cultural Center’s Communidad Room at the University of California, San Diego. Guest speakers included Literature department Professor Sarah Johnson, UC Berkeley’s School of Environmental Engineering Professor Mary Cameiro, and Dickinson College American Studies Professor Jerry Philogene. Although Haiti has relatively avoided recent news headlines, commotion regarding international aid has not. The phenomenon of aid organizations flocking to regions struggling with rebuilding post-disaster continues to be a relevant headline. However, the role of international aid organizations in the reconstruction process deserves a second look. In particular, should organizations dictate whether a nation should enforce recovery or development policy post disaster reconstruction? In Haiti’s case, international aid organizations dictated the choice to fund long term public projects during an emergency disaster crippling the nation’s ability to re-build on it’s own. Pipeline projects were promoted as a recovery priority for aid cohorts. Is the fundamental intention of aid changing or was Haiti cheated out of relief aid?

How is Haiti remembered?
Haiti is well known as a poor nation with the “lowest per capita GDP in the Western Hemisphere,” according to Literature Professor Sarah Johnson. However, she continued, within “Haiti’s history contains the highs and lows of human emotion,” from which we can all remember Haiti by if we are willing to dig past a common single narrative strangling the nation’s true exceptional resiliency. Often overlooked is Haiti’s ability to overcome overwhelming circumstances. For example, in 1804 Toussaint L’Ouverture, a free slave and Haitian rebellion leader led a successful populist revolt against French colonial military forces leading to national independence. The logic of Haiti’s resilience lies in an ability of its people and it’s culture to adapt to renewal or as Johnson calls it “building from the ground up.” For most of the 17th century, Haiti was an empirical trade frontier where crops and eventually people were stolen by European colonizers. Haiti was forced to support foreign prosperity at the cost of domestic degradation. Post independence, social order was an anomaly where 60,000 Haitians lived as free people and half a million Haitians were still enslaved as laborers. Johnson asks “how could Haiti rule a society with slaves led by free people?” Her answer is years of extreme violence and bloody revolutions between different classes of people. Colonization caused unnatural violence and social disruption in Haiti. An intervention of foreign powers caused Haiti to become chaotic. Foreign intervention today no longer looks like colonization, but takes form in international aid. International aid organizations are pre-occupied with planning long-term business developments than providing emergency humanitarian relief. In 2010, disaster recovery became an investment opportunity for international aid organizations swarming PAP. Haiti has a spirit of resilience and a unique history of survival in the face of uncertain and tremulous conditions, but in the aftermath of an event of total geological destruction, was Haiti’s spirit of resilience enough to recover? Reliance on outside organizations caused Haiti to fall into an economic chokehold where recovery was possible, but with coercion. An immediate need in the aftermath of destruction would be water, shelter, and search crews, however, for Haiti commercial development as a recovery plan seemed to attract aid organizations.

How did Haiti fall victim of disaster capitalism?
To understand Haiti as a victim of deceitful aid, turn to theories of aid policy. Dr. Dambisa Moyo, who received a doctorate of Economics from Oxford and Master’s in government from Harvard’s Kennedy school, describes why foreign aid innately destroys the longevity of a nation in her 2010 published novel “Dead Aid.” Moyo’s novel can best explain how recovery policy and development policy are completely separate animals. Development policy is a geopolitical hold for advanced nations to dictate poor nations economically and divide physically. Thus, advanced nations embark on economic colonization by forcing business assets abroad. Recovery policy is either free or loaned immediate relief and often descends into a vicious cycle of aid, leaving a receiving nation addicted. Short phases of aid cause a culture of dependency, which ensures underdevelopment as well as economic failure even in the poorest of aid dependent nations. Recovery policy is a tool of international relief, yet used often without empathy for cultural survival. The very nature of aid is changing from fiscal loans between governments to NGOs sending humanitarian cohorts to supply emergency relief. However, considered an outlier is international aid organizations choosing to impose development policy in Haiti. Moyo formulates that development policy is strongest when a nation has equal economic and political leverage with foreign interventionists, but vindictive when a nation relying on aid is dependent on the hand which feeds it to ensure economic survival. Only nations with similar economic power should work multilaterally to mutually enforce development policy, but where a weaker state and powerful state work together, often the latter will be deceitful. The benefits will be asymmetrical and impose an agenda of development favoring the more advanced nation.

How did international aid organizations deceive Haiti?
Mary Cameiro, a world renowned expert on international post-disaster recovery, volunteered as an academic professional to join a recovery plan committee in Haiti in 2010. She says, “Being an academic in a room full of land developers, I felt as if I were in the twilight zone.” She was blindsided when she learned the true intentions of international aid organizations being more concerned with property licensing and land ownership rather than ensuring humanitarian aid to residents suffering from trauma. Camerio recalls that residents refused to remove rubble piles from the street, possibly knowing that land plot once belonged to them; a space where their business once stood. The beginning of territorial expansion processes began. Rubble piles were forcefully removed in order to build infrastructure in the city against the will of the Haiti residents. Camerio also noted that foreign aid development controlled by U.S. AID, IDB, the French Government, and the Clinton Foundation had no sort of common agenda and because of their disjointed goals to begin economic and social recovery. Chosen as one representative to oversee land-transferring committees, Camerio emphasized that fiscal investment in land property just was not normal for organizations that would support recovery in the face of disaster. In small meeting rooms, Camerio was an academic amongst “representatives” from aid organizations who claimed to be in Haiti to support recovery processes, but land developers were on the phone making business deals. She witnessed residents with honest intentions to protect their property, lose everything to a room of developers representing wealthy foreign organizations fighting for land. Who knows how many properties were stolen from residents because of the intervention in foreign aid. What is certain is PAP became a victim of disaster capitalism. Camerio recalls thousands of residents with missing family members and even more residents concerned about what to do next about their destroyed homes. It was perplexing that international aid organizations send land developers and business partners rather than emergency relief cohorts given a frantic outcry of the local residents. Without human security, disaster victims often resort to refugee seeking and migration. In Haiti’s case, many international aid organizations had no empathy of cultural survival, only a hunger to conquer and build.

Camerio says “one of the worst outcomes of the destruction was the loss of government records because land property licenses were completely unknown” and now, land was vulnerable for foreign developers. Haitian families who once owned stores in PAP had to give up that space for a school or new vocational resource center to be built. This type of development is infrastructure for future sustainability not emergency relief, or as Camiero says, “10 steps ahead of what really needed to be addressed as far a recovery policy was concerned. The immediate need was for survival and safety, not buildings and institutions.” While international organizations set up shop to build schools, life in the campsites for residents who had lost their homes was unsafe, unstable, and to the rest of the world, blue tent life looked like a dangerous war zone. Residents were put in danger due to enforced international aid. Crime was high as emergency relief supplies such as medical kits and blankets were stolen daily. “Children were abducted at night, in the middle of the day, and in the early morning in part because UN peacekeeping troops had militarized certain parts of PAP as regional zones and were too busy chasing organized crime” says Camerio. Mothers lost their children with no record of which part of the city their children might have been taken to or which blue tent their child may be in as tent rotation was a common trait of camp life. Even more bizarre, Cameiro explains that the U.S. military taking over Haiti’s national airport only because someone or something had to. “It was difficult to successfully do search and rescue because the streets were damaged and the land was destroyed. I witnessed residents collecting rainwater in puddles along the damaged streets for water. Between cracks there would be puddles for water to be collected in plastic bags and that was how you drank water, out of the spout of a plastic bag. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed. There were no classes for children and in an urban disaster, the effect was that school just ended” says Camerio. 80% of schools and ½ of the hospitals collapsed. Even UN offices were destroyed, killing over 300 employees. 1.3 million residents in Haiti lost their homes. Camerio sighs, “the entire nation was in shock.” Yet, Camerio like Johnson says Haiti’s tradition to rebuild in the aftermath of disaster gave her hope for strengthening the nation.

Where is the empathy for cultural resiliency and what is struggle of its survival?
Carrefour, pronounced “ka-fou” in Haitian Creole, is a large metropolitan, low-income neighborhood in Eastern PAP where disaster recovery has been relatively unsuccessful. Immediately after the quake, it was speculated Carrefour’s residents were suffering from waterborne diseases. Thankfully, staff from Doctors Without Borders identified a need to support Carrefour and within 24 hours upon arrival to Haiti they set up a pop-up hospital to treat over 500 local residents. However, as the only medical clinic available for miles, it was sacked by corrupt criminal activity; stolen medical devices such as thermometers were sold on the streets. There were no schools or resource centers. There was not enough law enforcement. Carrefour remained in need of relief groups, but only received minimal efforts to secure emergency relief. Instead, the focus was development. Regional planning for pipeline projects like recreation centers and transportation systems exist to sustain a strong city. Formally, infrastructure policy should embody these blueprints. For disaster recovery, basic necessities such as search and rescue should have been organized first. Every international organization representative was certainly made aware of the lack of public safety with unacceptable high crime rates and the difficulty of locating displaced people. A need for extensive search and rescue should justify a plan for an immediate relief project since Haiti was in a state of emergency. Developers did not care about who was going to enjoy these facilities. Lacking empathy for the cultural survival of Haiti, emergency relief turned into a business enterprise. From Camerio’s perspective, there was no investment in the primary relief of the Haitian community including the survival of residents. Today, the outcome of funding pipeline projects over encouraging emergency relief has deprived Haiti of a full national recovery.

Changing Aid To Recognize Empathy UCHI: What is the University of California’s connection to recovery in Haiti?
Today, Haiti is swarming with anti-establishment small university charted aid groups including the University of California’s own UC Haiti initiative group. Partnered with the L’Universite d’Etat d’Haïti (UEH), Haiti’s largest public institution for higher education, each of the ten UC campuses has dedicated students to support “Haitian brothers and sisters.” The initiative, which began in 2010 as a response to the earthquake, emphasized the necessity for global collaboration in all sectors to support self-sufficient recovery for residents in Haiti. “International governments often do not prioritize higher education in their plans for reconstruction” says UCHI. However, now cross-cultural alliances between universities can ensure long-term stability. It is possible that UCHI may be the prospect to reversing the voice of aid back to support emergency relief. If smaller groups can increase international education infrastructure, then international organizations would have to respond to emergency relief. Facilitating self-sustainability for the Haitian people is a positive first step towards development rooted in empathy.

Image by United Nations Development Programme