How coronavirus is affecting Bolivia

15 June 2020

Hands On Altiplano

As part of CAFOD’s Hands On Altiplano project, Vladimir and Maria were supported to sow vegetables, make organic pesticides and fertilisers, build a greenhouse, install irrigation, breed guinea pigs, construct terracing and understand good nutrition.

Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America, with nearly half of the population living below the poverty line.

Poor rural families who depend on farming can live harvest to harvest and are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition.

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Now, small-scale farmers in remote areas and vulnerable families living in cities are dealing with the challenges of surviving both coronavirus and the lockdown. Nikki Evans, CAFOD’s Programme Officer for Bolivia, tells us how our experts and volunteers on the ground are reaching families vulnerable to hunger and coronavirus.

What was the situation in Bolivia before coronavirus hit?

In the Andean mountains farmers are struggling to grow food in a changing climate, from poor quality soil. Families are often unable to grow enough varied food for a good diet. As a result, many people, particularly children, are malnourished.

Family members are sometimes forced to leave to find work when failed rains and sudden hailstorms destroy entire harvests. But once living in cities, it can also be very difficult for these migrants to find regular or secure work.

Remote communities can be days away from hospitals and visiting them can also be dangerous for indigenous people, who can lack resistance to many common diseases.

How has the government responded to coronavirus?

Borders were quickly closed and the government enforced very strict quarantine measures.

Whilst the spread of the disease in some areas has been slow, the strict measures have caused great hardship. In some places these measures have begun to be relaxed, but other regions have extended lockdown until the end of June.

In response to the spread of dangerous and misleading advice about coronavirus, the government outlawed the spreading of false information, but this law has been criticised for closing down freedom of speech.

The coronavirus arrived in Bolivia following months of civil unrest. Despite the quarantine, there have been protests in cities against lockdown measures and calling for new elections.

What challenges are there to surviving lockdown and fighting coronavirus?

For the most vulnerable, the main problems in Bolivia are access to food, hygiene products and healthcare. The hospitals don’t have enough ventilators or PPE and some cannot manage isolation needs properly.

"Rural families in remote areas are producing vegetables thanks to CAFOD support but cannot travel to markets to sell them."

Nikki Evans, CAFOD’s Programme Officer for Bolivia

Rural families in remote areas are producing vegetables thanks to CAFOD support but cannot travel to markets to sell them. Without access to the markets or the money they would have earned, they cannot buy other essentials such as soap, flour, oil or meat.

Many of their relatives who had migrated to cities to find casual work are now locked down and are unable to earn money to buy food.

Coronavirus has also reached overcrowded prisons and they are being managed by staff without PPE.

How has CAFOD responded to coronavirus in Bolivia?

We have worked in Bolivia for 20 years, supporting remote communities. With your donations, we have given an emergency grant to the local Church to get food, soap and PPE to prisoners and people living on the streets in cities.

Our network of local experts are broadcasting accurate health and prevention information in local languages to vulnerable communities. And once schools go back, they will provide materials to educate children on the importance of learning safely, which they can share with their parents.

In remote areas, we are supporting the experienced staff and volunteers of local organisations working quickly to:

  • Kit out a key health clinic in Vitichi with the vital supplies they are lacking and build an isolation area for waiting patients.
  • Provide food, seeds, soap and PPE to remote communities in Curva, which is a 10-hour drive from La Paz, near the Peruvian border.
  • Train remote farmers in Ancoraimes, a highland community about four hours from La Paz, to safely sell the food they’ve grown to city dwellers desperate to buy their vegetables.

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What gives you hope?

Several things have given me much hope since the crisis hit Bolivia.

The director of Caritas Bolivia’s national office, when she heard that food had not reached some prisons in the Amazon for three days, used her own savings to get provisions to them.

"Whenever the news of the day brings a sense of gloom, solidarity within the CAFOD family fills me with hope."

Nikki Evans

I’ve had updates from the remote communities you help to support, that families have been able to keep eating healthily because of the food they’ve been able to grow. It gives me hope knowing that these families have the skills and resources they need to see them through these tough times.

The concern for our work from supporters in England and Wales also gives me a huge boost. Whenever the news of the day brings a sense of gloom, solidarity within the CAFOD family fills me with hope.

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