Bolivia’s battles: Facing democratic instability and inequality amidst a global pandemic
Considered to be the poorest country in South America after Venezuela, it was imperative that Bolivia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic be efficient in order to avoid a rapid spread of the virus, which would have dangerous impacts on the most vulnerable. Bolivia also happens to be at a critical point in its history, where these coming months will determine the democratic state of the country. In November of 2019, Janine Áñez (then second-vice president of the senate) stepped in as interim president of the country after Evo Morales and other senior officials resigned from power following nation-wide protests in response to a controversial election.
Her time in power was intended to bring stability to the country, with the central mission of organizing new elections. These were scheduled to occur on May 3rd, but were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Áñez government has become increasingly controversial in the public’s eye, as increased militarism, cases of corruption, and persecution against opposition have increased the country’s desire to hold new elections. This pandemic has allowed the Áñez government to hold onto their power longer in order to manage this public health emergency. This article will break down the current public health situation in Bolivia, as well as the societal implications of this pandemic and how its heightened existing inequality and democratic instability.
Bolivia was one of the first countries in Latin America to take measures against COVID-19 by enforcing a national quarantine on March 22nd. This decision followed the closure of land borders to all but Bolivian nationals on March 19th and then a full closure on March 25th. These early steps allowed Bolivia to sustain a low and manageable number of cases in the first month, but an easing of restrictions has contributed to an alarming recent rise in cases. The country is now nearing an “explosive pandemic,” according to Virgilio Prieto, the chief epidemiologist of the Ministry of Health.
COVID-19 cases have been largely focused on the Eastern departments of Bolivia, where as of July 22nd Santa Cruz accounts for 30,887 out of the 62,357 cases. The disparity of cases between the Bolivian departments may be attributed to the vast difference in altitude, as some international researchers have noticed possible links between living in high altitude and lowered chances of coronavirus infection. However, there has now been an increase in cases in the higher-altitude Western departments, which has consequently caused a collapse in hospitals and the funerary sector in the department of Cochabamba.
This rise in cases after an almost three month quarantine has been attributed to a general relaxation of social distancing measures, both by local governments and by residents breaking public health suggestions. The pressure to relax lockdown measures and even disregard them all together has mostly been attributed to large portions of society facing a need to return to work in order to support themselves and their families.
The mandated lockdowns around the country severely limited all activities except for grocery stores and markets, which harmed citizens who rely on other sources of income that can not be done remotely. According to the IMF, Bolivia has the world’s largest informal economy, making up 62.3% of the country’s GDP. The restrictions that have been put in place to decrease the spread of COVID-19 severely harmed this informal way of working and a staggering number of Bolivian citizens have had their livelihoods disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
In order to support these citizens, the Bolivian government has created the Family Bond, which gives 500 bolivianos (72 USD) per child for Bolivians who have school children enrolled in public or private institutions. Additionally, the Family Basket will give 400 bolivianos (57 USD) to disabled citizens and expecting mothers who don’t have health insurance while the Universal Bond will give 500 bolivianos to all those who are over the age of 18. These new stipends were introduced to help mitigate the effects of this pandemic on more vulnerable citizens, but there have already been reports that some Bolivians have had trouble getting these stipends. This delay could have grave effects on the livelihoods of those who rely on the stipends to sustain them during this time.
Large-scale protests have started to arise as different parts of Bolivian society have demands that range from increased government protections, a rejection of quarantine measures, or asking that they be allowed to return to work. One such example were the protests that occurred on June 16th, where artists and workers went out into the streets to demand that the Ministry of Culture be reinstated after the Áñez government defunded the ministry to save costs in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
This was seen as a controversial move because the establishment and presence of the Ministry of Culture was seen as a symbolic way for Bolivia to represent the culture of its indigenous people, which make up about 48% of the population, but have been historically discriminated against and excluded from government and positions of power. According to Cochabamba assembly member Estela Rivera, it is estimated that about 100,000 artists and musicians have lost their jobs, which would have been helped by a socio-cultural fund that was being put together by the ministry.
“There is no money, we know that the spread of the infection is serious right now, but what can we do?” – Silvia Aguilar, representative of the Association of Embroiders of Folk Art
A Collapse in Essential Sectors
In the past few weeks, Bolivia’s attention has shifted to the collapsing hospital and funerary sectors, which have been especially worrying in the department of Cochabamba. News platforms have been sharing stories of coffins being left in the streets as family members are unsure what to do due to a massive delay in burials. Additionally, the director of the Cochabamba Departmental Health Service, Yerxin Mamani, said that there “are at least 60 dead in various hospitals that have not yet been removed to be buried or cremated.” The cases of people dying of coronavirus in the streets of Cochabamba and patients being turned away from hospitals in La Paz demonstrate the severity of the current situation.
General reopening measures have led to an increase in cases, but so has a worrying pattern of people breaking social distancing guidelines. There have been many cases of people in markets that don’t wear masks or gloves when either working or purchasing goods. When public transportation was once again made available, there were social distancing measures that asked for people to sit six feet apart, but these were also often disregarded and many vehicles were filled.
This increase in cases has not been the only factor that has contributed to the collapse of parts of the healthcare sector. Many healthcare workers complain that their needs have been repeatedly ignored by the government since the beginning of the pandemic. Healthcare workers in La Paz and Cochabamba have reported that they have not been given proper personal protective equipment. During a protest in La Paz, workers from the Obrero Hospital shared that they “have to buy masks and gloves with their own money and with four months into the pandemic have not gotten any biosafety clothing.”
This lack of protection has led to several cases of healthcare workers becoming infected with COVID-19, which has severely limited hospital’s ability to respond to the pandemic. In a protest in Cochabamba, Adalid Gutiérrez said, “We [healthcare workers] are in mourning due to the death of two of our colleagues in Cochabamba and the more than 100 colleagues that have tested positive, which is damaging our health care centers. The personnel that have stayed are redoubling their efforts.”
The stream of grievances coming from healthcare workers throughout this pandemic has shed light onto the government’s failure to effectively plan for and distribute appropriate medical equipment across the country. Another major concern regarding the competency of the Áñez government has been a corruption scandal that has unfolded during the course of this pandemic. On May 20th, then-minister of Health Marcelo Navajas was arrested on corruption charges for over spending about $2.5 million in a $4.8 million contract to obtain 170 ventilators from a Spanish company, which were later discovered to be faulty.
These ventilators were also found to not be fit for serving COVID-19 patients, as they were not made for intensive care. Navajas was fired and replaced by Eidy Roca, and two other directors in the health ministry were fired as well. It has also been discovered that a February 7th resolution by the Ministry of Economy removing the requirement that public entities register their spending with the System of State Contracts (Sicoes) under disaster or emergency circumstances allowed the details of the purchase of these ventilators to not be published in the Sicoes. The passage of this resolution occurred before the pandemic, but its effects highlight the accusations against the Bolivian government regarding a lack of transparency and the mishandling of COVID-19 preparedness.
The constant protests that have been occurring around the country have also signaled a general disapproval of the Áñez government and demands that elections occur as soon as possible. The MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) party’s majority in the Bolivian Senate, along with other presidential candidates, have pushed for elections to take place on September 6th after they were postponed in May. Áñez initially fought against this new date, citing coronavirus concerns, as Bolivia is expected to reach its peak in August. After significant political pressure, Áñez went on to enact a law that establishes elections in September, which restarted the campaign cycle for presidential hopefuls.
While much of the country agrees that elections must happen quickly to protect Bolivia’s democracy, it is also true that these elections will create a dangerous environment for a spread of COVID-19. Voting is mandatory in Bolivia, which means that citizens will be obligated to go out to the polls on election day and face a risk of infection. It is imperative that the government establish strong voting day protocols that prioritize public health concerns in order to avoid further overwhelming Bolivia’s ability to respond to this pandemic.
Featured Image: Bolivia registers a 7% mortality rate from Covid-19 one month after the first positive case, photo credit: Noticias Fides.
Sofia Munoz | Scripps College
Sofia is a rising junior at Scripps College pursuing a major in Politics with a concentration in International Relations and a minor in Foreign Languages. Raised in Silver Spring, MD, a suburb of Washington, D.C., she is the daughter of two Bolivian immigrants. Her interest in Latin American politics stems from her connection to her family’s culture and her experience living in Brazil. She is interested in exploring the different sides of international development work and looking at the ways local people and organizations impact their communities. As a Latin American correspondent, Sofia is excited to delve into the unique stories and passion that fuels the work being done to address inequality, human rights, and community development.