Strange Days

My partner, Fernanda, just left with Tazio. Tazio is the dog we adopted this spring, when we had hardly been in quarantine for two weeks. We got him to keep us company during the mandatory shutdown that President Iván Duque decreed to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in Colombia. The idea is that once all of this is over and life returns to normal – that is, if normalcy ever returns – Tazio stays with us as part of our family. Fernanda just left with him because they are going to operate on his umbilical hernia. Unless they operate, any abrupt movement he makes could cause his guts to spill right out of his navel. It’s definitely urgent, definitely essential. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t risk the streets. We wouldn’t risk exposure to coronavirus.

Fernanda left wearing an N95 respirator from 3M that she bought before most people were taking Covid-19 seriously (she’s cautious like that). Nor did she leave without stowing a bottle of hand sanitizer in her handbag, as if it were one of those miniature weapons a spy might conceal in a secret pocket. She called a taxi. “Everything’s going to be OK,” I told her as she stepped out.

Photograph by Gaby Stein (public domain)

I would have gone with her if I could have. I would have liked to be the one to leave Tazio at the vet’s, but in doing so I would have risked being fined 900,000 pesos – about 250 US dollars – by the police. Claudia López, Bogotá’s mayor, recently issued a bizarre new restriction which, in these strange days, does make some sense: on even calendar days, only women are allowed out to run errands – to the bank, the doctor, the supermarket, or the ATM – while on odd days it’s the men’s turn. Only in cases of extreme urgency, or for a few specific activities like walking dogs, can men leave the house on “women’s days” and vice versa. Gender categories, said López, should help make the job easier for the police to enforce stay-at-home orders.

Not surprisingly, this particular ordinance received plenty of criticism. How are you going to determine if a man out of the house on an even calendar day really had no other choice? Most people consider it a pretty makeshift measure. They’re probably right. I mean, aren’t all the measures being taken against Covid-19 more or less improvised? Which government was actually prepared for a pandemic? China, maybe. Or North Korea. I don’t know. Colombia, at any rate, certainly was not. Like most Latin American nations, Colombia has a fragile economy and its social problems, even on a good day, are impossible to ignore. With the pandemic thrown in on top, all these issues – particularly the poverty – just got worse.

Two Worlds

Fernanda is back from dropping off Tazio at the vet. She looks downhearted, sort of breathless, too, and sweaty from wearing the facemask. The vet is a good way from our house, especially if you have to walk it. She describes the scene in the street outside: numerous home deliveries arriving. Taxis everywhere. Men out, too, though it’s an even day of the month. And people without facemasks. Without the slightest measure of personal protection. “It’s so strange to go out,” she says. “Kind of scares me. There’s so many people who aren’t taking the shutdown seriously.”

Big apartment buildings and residential complexes loom over makeshift houses banged together from brick and tin.

Fernanda and I live in Chapinero, one of twenty sectors that make up the capital district of Bogotá. It’s a nice neighborhood, less chaotic than most of the city, somewhat hipster. It’s expensive, at least for our writers’ budget, but very well located. In a metropolis the size of Bogotá, location is everything. Chapinero is also one of the few areas in this city where some residents have the luxury of working from home – and thus the option of actually abiding by quarantine rules. In fact, Fernanda has a Zoom meeting to attend right now. She gets up, still distraught about Tazio, and heads to her office space in our bedroom. I work in the dining room.

Shouts from outside bring me to the window. Kids are playing in the street below my building, in total disregard of the shutdown: under no circumstances are minors allowed out of doors. These kids are from the next neighborhood over, which is actually part of mine: Juan XXIII. But the two streets look like totally different neighborhoods – one poor, the other upper middle class. My building is situated right on the border between these two realities. This would probably sound strange in other countries where rich and poor tend to live far apart from each other, but it’s actually pretty common in most Colombian cities. Big apartment buildings and residential complexes loom over makeshift houses banged together from brick and tin. Gated communities lie adjacent to unplanned urban sprawl, neighborhoods whose occupants are mostly internal refugees, people from the country who came to the city fleeing violence and intimidation at the hands of guerrilla forces, paramilitary groups, drug traffickers, and the army.

The view from my window, as a result, offers a panorama of what’s going on in Colombia. In the affluent sector the authority of the state is tangible. Police are everywhere. People respect stay-at-home orders and many of them are able to keep working remotely. In the poor sector, though, where government presence has been glaringly absent, the picture is very different. Street life continues as always. I can watch their soccer games on the court they painted onto the asphalt, and see them drinking beer on the sidewalk, music at top volume.

Work brings them out, too, as most of them – housecleaners, janitors, street vendors, store clerks – simply can’t move their jobs to a screen. Long before the pandemic, job insecurity was their daily fare. Construction and domestic workers, for example, are mostly uninsured. Social benefits, pensions, retirement savings, and medical insurance are luxuries many Colombians have never enjoyed. Many who receive cash salaries instead of a paycheck don’t even have a bank account. Now, with their sources of income evaporated, people break quarantine to go out job-hunting. Others have received subsidies from the federal and local governments, but the aid never tops $100. Government-issued rations usually include rice, tuna, a bottle of oil, detergent, some fruit and vegetables. It doesn’t go very far, certainly not far enough for a long period of unemployed quarantine. This fact, on top of the absence of state authority in remote and impoverished localities, is the main obstacle to total shutdown in Colombia.

Middle-Class Woes

This crisis endangers not only the poor, or the very poor or the super-poor – in Colombia even poverty is stratified – nor does it affect only the rich or the very rich or the super-rich, who, incidentally, have received government subsidies for their businesses. The virus is spreading silently through all of society, and the country simply doesn’t have enough tests and infrastructure to accurately measure the levels of contagion, isolate new outbreaks, and monitor the real scope of the pandemic.

Fernanda emerges from our room, her expression concerned. “What’s up?” I ask her as she pulls out a chair. She works at the Universidad de los Andes, the wealthiest and one of the most prominent universities in the country. Today, she tells me, she heard the institution is considering cutting salaries by up to 10 percent for full-time tenured professors, or suspending them altogether if things get worse. So far, there has been no suspension of rent or mortgage payments, emergency measures that would make a big difference for middle-class citizens like us.

The virtual windows we find ourselves in front of have proven to be walls as much as windows, unable to bring us the world and the people we’ve been separated from.

The virtual windows we find ourselves in front of – Skype and Zoom and such – have proven to be walls as much as windows, unable to bring us the world and the people we’ve been separated from. My addiction to social media is worse than ever. It’s like a nervous tic now: every two or three minutes I grab my phone and search for news on the pandemic. Or I look at pictures. Or videos. Anything. Just now, one Colombian journalist on Twitter was questioning our concepts of liberty and confinement. She doesn’t understand why people are complaining about staying inside. “What do they think freedom is?” she tweeted. “What do they think being at home even means?”

But the problem isn’t staying home. The problem is not being able to go out. It’s totally different if you choose to work from home, as some of us were already doing in the pre-pandemic days. The freedom to choose the where and what and when of daily life: that’s what makes us feel free. But in this new normal, we are at the mercy of others’ decisions. And we comply because we believe them when they tell us that if we take precautions and shut ourselves in, things will get better sooner. In this context, we become prisoners in our own houses, in theory a person’s space of greatest freedom. And we do not know which judge will finally order our release, or when that day might come.

Reality Check

“The Covid-19 outbreak in the Villavicencio prison has now reached 657 active cases, counting both inmates and guards.” I’m reading El Tiempo, one of the nation’s leading papers. Jolted out of my privileged grumbling, I suddenly remember that there were people deprived of their liberty long before any Covid-19. Villavicencio is a small city about 3 hours from Bogotá, the biggest metropolis in the region known as Llanos Orientales, whose plains stretch to the Venezuelan border. As of May 5, the Villavicencio prison is at 197 percent capacity: designed to house 874 inmates, it currently holds 1,773. That’s another normal in Colombia: gross overcrowding of penal institutions. It happens in Villavicencio and most of the larger prisons. With Covid-19, it was the perfect storm: once the virus got inside, it swept through the population like wildfire.

The novel coronavirus has thrown into relief the same injustices that have always existed all over Colombia.

The area in Colombia with the highest number of cases is the capital, Bogotá. The city of Cali is in second place. Then comes the Villavicencio prison, just as if it were another city, registering more cases than 23 Colombian departments. Here, too, the nation is exposed, its social problems laid bare. The novel coronavirus has thrown into relief the same injustices that have always existed all over Colombia. What about departments like Amazonía or Chocó, for example, which don’t even have intensive care units, not to mention sufficient medical personnel to respond to a serious outbreak? During the colonial era it was measles that swept through the territory, taking a significant number of the indigenous population with it. Many people worry now about a second ethnocide in these regions, whose large black and indigenous communities have never been a priority for the national government, not once in two hundred years of history.

It’s three in the afternoon when my phone rings. Fernanda is in the doorway instantly. “Hello. How did he do?” I give Fernanda a silent thumbs up: good news. “Awesome, thanks so much. What time can we come pick him up?” Tazio just got out of surgery and is starting to come out of anesthesia. “You can go get him at six,” I tell Fernanda, hanging up. She smiles and disappears back to her desk. For us, it won’t be long until this period of confinement is over. Just a few weeks and we’ll be able to take Tazio to the park, let him walk on the grass, and introduce him to the big world he’s never known. How reassuring it will be to see Tazio, his little paws in the grass, chewing on something other than the hands stretched out to caress him. He’ll be fully vaccinated against the pathogens that plague our world.

If only the same would be true for the humans of Bogotá, this city of two realities.

Translated from Spanish by Shannon Hinkey