Letter from Bolivia

Desolate Streets and Desperation about the Economy’s Future 

Oprime aqui para leer el articulo en Español.

 

By Raúl Peñaranda U.

The death of a well-known businessman to the coronavirus has provoked alarm among Bolivians. If a wealthy man with many possibilities of receiving good health care could succumb to this disease, what can the millions of poor who are the majority of the Bolivian population expect? 

The death of Richard Sandoval general manager of AXS, a telecommunications firm, underscored the lack of coordination between government officials and private clinics. A guide sent by authorities to private entities established that all patients with coronavirus should be sent to “a referred hospital,” in this case, the municipal health center of La Paz. But when Sandoval arrived there, no intensive care doctor was on site to operate the respiratory ventilator that Sandoval urgently needed. The doctor who dealt with these emergencies was at another hospital, taking care of several patients. Before he could be transferred to another health center, Sandoval died.

This case illustrates the terrible situation of the state of health in Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in the region. In spite of a decade of economic bonanza, the previous government of Evo Morales, who resigned last November, did not make significant improvements in the area of health. 

Thus, the country faces a crisis with a scarcity of intensive care beds and artificial respirators. Health care workers are lacking protective gear like masks and gloves. To date, the coronavirus has not spiraled out of control, with 183 confirmed cases as of Monday, April 6 and only 11 fatalities. However, it’s thought that cases are seriously undercounted, according to the health minister of Santa Cruz. The doctor estimates that it’s quite possible Bolivia might have already 500 cases, although they have not yet been detected. Bolivia has performed fewer tests than any country in the region because of a lack of specialized laboratories.  

Meanwhile, as of March 22, the country has been in strict quarantine. Citizens between the ages of 18 and 65  can go out of their homes only once a week between 7 a.m. and noon, depending on the last digit of their identity card. No public or private vehicles are allowed on the streets at any hour within the city or between cities. Borders and airports are closed. 

The normally chaotic city of La Paz only offers, like the rest of Bolivian cities and towns, desolate and silent streets. Supermarkets and pharmacies are open—but only until noon. 

Bolivians over 65 cannot leave their homes under any circumstance, and those who live alone have encountered problems getting food and medicine. There are some 30,000 people over the age of 65 who live alone in Bolivia. Many of their relatives and friends live far away, and because there is no transportation, it’s very difficult to help them out and bring them medicine  or food.

The quarantine was scheduled to last three weeks and to end April 15, but government officials have sent signals that they may extend it until the end of April. If this happens, the impact on the economy would be even more disastrous than the actual situation. In Bolivia, around 70% of workers are in the informal economy without income if they do not work every day. Thousands of taxis, hairdressers, waiters, merchants and other informal workers are in a situation of real desperation, and if the quarantine is extended, serious violence may ensue. 

To ease this situation, the government has begun to distribute vouchers to citizens, one for 500 bolivianos (US$71) for every child in public school, benefiting about 1.5 million families; the other, for 400 bolivianos (US$57), will be given to the poorest 1.2 million households, about 40% of the total. The government has stated that both vouchers will reach 70 percent of Bolivians.

Congressional bills have managed to postpone payments for bank debts until at least September, giving relief to thousands of debtors, individuals and businesses, who at this time would have great difficulties in paying back loans. Electricity, water and Internet bills have also been lowered with the government making up the difference. Finally, tax payments have also been postponed. 

Despite all this, it’s believed that the consequences for the economy will be devastating and could aggravate instability, which is already quite acute. Moreover, with oil prices at US$30 a barrel, income from the export of natural gas to Brazil and Argentina, the country’s principal income, has plummeted. The coronavirus, as it has the world over, has brought threatening clouds to the future of Bolivia.

 

Raúl Peñaranda U.,Harvard Nieman Fellow ’08,  is a Bolivian journalist. He is the editor of the digital newsite Brújula Digital. Peñaranda was awarded Columbia’s Maria Moor Cabot Prize in 2017. He founded three newspapers in Bolivia, among them, Página Siete, now one of the main newspapers in the country.