Andrea G* is a 24-year old mother of two young children who works as domestic help five days a week in three different households in Bogotá. On an average day, Andrea leaves her home by 7 am and travels for two hours to reach the apartment of a foreign couple who, like her other clients, pay her $55,000 pesos for vacuuming, dusting and doing laundry. By 4 pm it’s the commute in reverse, a 20-minute walk from Carrera 7 to the TransMlenio station at Ave. Chile, then two bus rides in peak rush hour to reach her neighborhood in Ciudad Bolívar.
Bringing home the only source of income after her husband Jaime, a physical education teacher, was diagnosed with cancer last year, Andrea’s weekly income of $275,000 pesos (UD$70) put this family of four just at the poverty line, which in Colombia equates to one monthly income of $980,000 pesos (US$245).
Andrea’s precarious existence was one of stability, given that her clients appreciated her easy-going disposition, punctuality and above all, honesty, because in the apartments she cleaned there was always currency lying around, jewelry, silverware and pantries stocked with food.
On Tuesday, March 20, Andrea was ordered by the Colombian Government to stay under quarantine with the coronavirus outbreak and first of its kind in recent history for 50 million citizens. Even though there have been curfews imposed to control situations of public order as was the case on November 22, 2019, with rioting at the start of a nationwide strike by unionists, educators and civic movements, they have always been exceptional measures, ending at day-break to let people resume their activities.
But when Bogotá Mayor Claudia López decreed a Quarantine Drill that began on March 20, the majority of residents believed it to be such: a four-day solidarity exercise in self-isolation. On March 24, life for nine million inhabitants would once again resume with the mayoralty giving a positive assessment on the evening news of Bogotá’s self-discipline. Andrea could count on another week’s income.
The rules changed mid-game and López extended the “drill” to merge with the Presidential decree 457 known as Obligatory Preventive Isolation. Workers were not allowed to return to offices, shops, construction sites or in Andrea’s case, the apartments she cleaned. There was no time either to think about contingency plans to work from home, set aside some cash for groceries and other staples. On March 25, President Iván Duque placed everyone in the country under quarantine as part of the national health emergency and which was to last until April 27. Then – oh, surprise – the quarantine has been extended to May 11.
For Bogotanos with bank accounts, a one-month long quarantine could be weathered by sparingly drawing funds from savings and credit. And herein lies the tragedy: Bogota’s informal workers survive on the survival of an informal economy, paying necessities with day-to-day wages. If the government puts official unemployment at 12% the real number is staggeringly higher as 47% of the Colombian workforce – according to DANE – is independent, from skilled laborers to domestic helpers, freelancers, entrepreneurs and small business owners. And for many in Colombia, the reality of two hot meals a day remains a luxury.
Last week, I reached out to Andrea after one of her patrons shared with me a distressing WhatApp message and was pooling together a donation for workdays erased by decree.
My call was met by a wave of tears when I asked about her family’s situation. The young woman told me that the district’s food deliverers had yet to visit her shanty even though neighbors were out protesting on the streets, she was staying indoors to protect the health of her children and husband. Thousands of homes that have not received any aid from the district have draped their doors with red cloths and known as “trapos rojos.” Andrea has not hung a red towel from her window as she believes it could attract criminal gangs preying on the anxiety and misery of the most vulnerable.
Andrea’s shattered existence is replicated across Bogotá – and Colombia – as impoverished households become even more impoverished with each passing day of the Health Emergency. Like so many others excluded from the financial system (Andrea doesn’t have a bank account so she must rely on cash through micro P2P payment systems), the notion that Colombian families are going hungry in a food abundant nation is inconceivable, and tragically the result of lockdown ideologies from the First World imposed on the Second and Third – where the best anti-viral is a vaccine, but first necessity in fighting disease: having food on a plate.
*Name changed to protect identity.