By Juana García Duque
Coming to Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) as the Santo Domingo Visiting Scholar has been one of the best experiences of my life. I encountered an absolutely challenging and inspiring environment, where one is always learning and, above all, questioning one’s own thinking and knowledge.
I arrived to Cambridge from Colombia, where I work as an associate professor at the Universidad de los Andes Business School in Bogotá, with my husband and two daughters in what would be the ideal sabbatical year. I dedicated myself to research, while 14-year-old Alicia began her freshman year of high school and 12-year-old Ema attended one of Cambridge’s middle schools; my husband Fernando would begin to explore new career explorations.
My daughters rapidly adapted to their schools. They made good friends and quickly became almost native-level English speakers. Alicia joined the crew team and trained very strenuously; she had rowing competitions in the fall, training with her fellow crew members all winter to perform as a better team for the 2020 spring competitions. Ema had some spectacular extracurricular activities, including innovation challenges working together with companies like Bose and the innovation center at Children’s Hospital in Boston. She also participated in a girls’ science club and several classes at MIT. To be an adolescent in a city like Cambridge is a privilege: one can choose from an unimaginable selection of activities in sports, classes at Harvard and MIT and challenges of innovation and entrepreneurship. Above all, there is the sense that one can be out on the streets on one’s own at a very young age with a sense of security, autonomy and independence that my daughters don’t have in their daily life in Bogotá.
Fernando, who initially we thought would spend more time traveling to Colombia for projects with his business, managed to coordinate a great part of his work from home and, after receiving work visa, already had projects here. The possibility of being near the family who live on the outskirts of Boston and in the United States was also part of this great adventure.
For me, the days took place between home and office, a space I shared with a marvelous team of colleagues and other DRCLAS Visiting Scholars from whom I learned a lot. Roaming Harvard’s magnificent and enormous campus on a daily basis, having the possibility of going to classes, conferences and seminars, to make contact with other researchers and professors, lecturers, the most interesting people in the most varied fields, to be able to stop by the library to pick up a book or to work in one of its many inspiring rooms, to go to the gym or sports centers, to visit the lakes, the river, to wander through museums just a few blocks from the office, to gaze at the architecture at both Harvard and MIT and to discover daily all sorts of marvelous corners throughout Cambridge. All this on foot or bike, which reflected a more paused rhythm of life, with much work and projects, but without the pressure of pending deadlines and with an atmosphere conducive to creation and writing. This time at Harvard has been a time to learn to enjoy a process more than concrete results. It is to have given myself the time to learn, to unlearn, to break with paradigms and to receive.
In the midst of this context, we began to hear news about a virus that was in China, news that felt very faraway and that we didn’t think would affect our marvelous routine. At the beginning of March, Harvard sent an email to its students, asking them not to leave for spring break, scheduled for the third week of the month, and that for now we would not return to the office. A few days later, the university sent another email to all students, asking them to leave for spring break and not come back. Those were very strange days. Although libraries and museums still were open to those with a Harvard ID, access to the public was prohibited. We had the possibility of being by ourselves, for example, in the Peabody Museum, a true gift, but at the same time with the emptiness of the halls, feeling that something more severe than we had ever imagined was about to happen. Then the libraries began to close and many of the cafés and restaurants.
The atmosphere in the university was very strange in those days, celebrations in the midst of happiness and sadness, farewells and fiestas rapidly pushed up. We witnessed hugs and suitcases as bit by bit, the campus began to empty out. At the same time, we were watching on television and reading in the press how in each and every country in Latin America was closing its borders and the airports. And that is when, since the four of us were together already here in Cambridge, we decided to stay and wait out the storm: to travel on an airplane would put us all at risk—although at the moment we had absolutely no inkling of how long the storm would last.
From that moment on, the routine and life changed, obviously not just for us, but for everyone. “Stay home,” “social distance” and now facemasks transformed into our new normal. We got used to spend more time at home with work, online schooling, household activities, living a new daily life in which we learned to dialogue, to listen and to construct a new relationship. This has been essential, especially with the girls for whom, like for so many adolescents, this is a frustrating situation.
At the start of the pandemic, my days went by following the news and the increasing number of cases throughout the world, trying to analyze and developing hypotheses, until I arrived at the day of such exhaustion and impotence that I decided to stop trying to be on top of everything that was happening in the world and to follow only a certain amount of news—what was happening in the United States, particularly in Massachussetts, and in Colombia.
The state of Massachussetts and the city of Bogotá have a similar number of inhabitants (around seven million people), but the conditions with which the pandemic has been confronted are very different. We live in Cambridge, on the outskirts of Boston, where the population density is five times less than that of Bogotá. Massachussetts is one of the states with the best hospital infrastructure in the country. While in Bogotá, in spite of having good hospital infrastructure, the most populated and poor zones of the city have fewer hospital resources. Another importanr factor is that in Bogotá, as well as in the rest of the country, obtaining personal protective equipment (PPE) and other hospital supplies has been difficult in the face of market competition—most of it unfair competition—because of power plays on the part of first world countries on an international level.
We have been well, although being so far at home. The daily routine in Cambridge is easier to deal with because there are fewer restrictions than in Colombia’s stringent quarantine. Although only supermarkets, drugstores and takeout restaurants are open, we can go outside to excercise, walk a bit, breathing in the fresh air, wandering down by the river or one o the lakesand enjoying spring in all its splendor. In spite of this, I feel sad and impotent in the face of what is happening in Colombia and Latin America.
The pandemia with its lockdowns and measures to contain the virus has resulted in a very difficult situation for the Colombian economy. The country shut down early, many say, but there was no clear information about the panorama. In the face of the projected necessities of medical infrastructure, the lockdown had two objectives: to contain the spread of the virus and to prepare hospital infrastructure. A difficult decision because it drastically affected the economy and a great part of the population. Even if the pandemic disappeared, the recuperation of the economy will be a very slow process because of the still-existing dependence on basic products and on sectors such as tourism and remittances from abroad have dropped dramatically. All this will leave a legacy of social deterioration.
Perhaps the most worrisome thing in Colombia and in Latin America as a whole is that we are already a region marked by profound inequality—and the pandemia has made this even more evident. For some, to stay at home means the discomfort of not being able to go out for habitual activities, but with the possibility of online cooking and exercise classes. For others, the majority of the population, to stay at home is to condemn oneself and one’s family to hunger or to live in a hell due to overcrowding or in conditions of domestic violence.
Informal work has made the decision to stay at home impossible, and has provided evidence that an enormous portion to the population lives outside a system that has not known how to incorporate them, a system that keeps them from integrating and whose only form of survival in this pandemic is government subsidies or community charity. It is painful and frustrating to see the images on Internet and Twitter, in which red rags are hung out like flags as signs of hunger, while local and national governments hand out some aid.
These inequalities are even more stark between the city and the countryside, and within the cities themselves, some children can keep on with their classes from their computers at home, while some public school students find it impossible because they share a computer among several family members or simply because they don’t have access to a computer at all or they don’t have internet, manifesting a digital divide. Another of the inequalities, in addition to informal work and education, is access to health care. In rural, deep Colombia, there is no hospital infrastructure and sometimes not even a health clinic. This means that in much of Colombia’s territory, people die without having access to a hospital or a doctor; in almost half the national territory, an intensive care unit is eight to ten hours away, and in this context, several regions that have been affected by the conflict and indigenous communities where cases of coronavirus have been reported do not have any access to hospitals at all.
As is that’s not enough, although the quarantine creates s sense of pause, Colombia’s great problems are anything but—there are many challenges for a country in transition from conflict to a a stage of construction of peace, despite weak implementation of the peace treaty and with many difficulties. The assassination of social leaders and former combatants continues; deforestation has increased in the midst of the pandemic; foundations and experts have denounced that the burning of lands in the first four months of this year has been greater than in the entire year of 2019 and in many regions, the norms of quarantine are controlled by the armed groups.
In spite of this situation, solidarity has flourished among Colombians; all across the country, society had movilized to make donations, distribute food and subsidies to those who most need them, some initiatives coordinated by local and national governments, but the majority individual initiatives by people who have managed to collect a great quantity of resources. In the middle of all this, many businesses have reinvented themselves, exploring ways to keep their employees on the payrolls and making large donations. In the midst of all this overwhelming inequity, there is a sense that we are going to move forward as a country.
And in the midst of this situation of impotence, being so far away from home in the pandemic, we have had a warm reception and solidarity that have made us feel at home. Our little community of neighbors, friends and fellow Harvard Fellows have adopted us and cared for us as members of their community—in addition to all the calls and messages from friends and family at a distance. We have received flowers, soups, greetings, books, calls and messages. Across the garden fence, we have performed with neighbors an exchange of wines for desserts, clay and tools to work on ceramics in a distance class, newspapers and magazines with information from Latin America and Colombia, reading them beforehand to be able to discuss what’s going on in our country and how the pandemic is being experienced in that part of the world.
Thus, with all this back and forth, with the impotence of being far from home and with the anxieties that surround us, I keep on thinking that this year gave us the possibility of happiness, living each and every day intensively because we knew it would end, seeking silence, looking inward, valuing like never before our conversations and time with the family, in spite of the great uncertainty because we do not know when we can go back to Colombia and how our lives will change. We have learned to have very long conversations, listening and being listened to, wagering that this pandemic will leave us lessons as individuals and as a society to inhabit this planet in a different way. I have the conviction that much more cooperation and real compassion in these moments can generate the changes that the world needs.
Juana García Duque is 2019-2020 Santo Domingo Visiting Scholar at DRCLAS y Associate Professor at the Business School of the Universidad de los Andes, Colombia. Her research activity in international development includes: (i) the role of international cooperation and private sector in peacebuilding process and the study of (ii) internationalization and emerging economies.