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Bolivia found itself fighting Covid-19 during a period of political turmoil. The interim government, formed in November 2019 after Evo Morales was forced to resign as President after disputed elections the previous month, was characterised by authoritarian responses to both protests (at least 22 civilians were killed and 192 injured by the military shortly after the interim government took office in what became known as the massacres of Sacaba and Senkata[1]) and the corona virus. The repressive nature of the government, under President Jeanine Añez, and its apparent eagerness to use Covid-19 as a pretext to support a continual postponement of the election, led the deposed President Evo Morales to declare publicly on numerous occasions from Buenos Aires that Bolivia was confronting two pandemics at once: dictatorship and corona virus[2]. The greatest immediate challenge that incoming president, Luis Arce (of the Movement Toward Socialism or MAS, the party of Evo Morales), elected on 20 October 2020, will face is reconstructing an economy devastated by Covid-19 and the consequent response to it.

The first case of corona virus was reported in Bolivia on 10 March. The interim government’s response was to close national borders and declare a national health emergency through Supreme Decree 4196, imposing a national quarantine from the 22 March, initially planned to last for a fortnight[3]. This was later extended until 31 May[4] when measures to control the virus were relaxed.  During the period of strict quarantine, only one member of a household was allowed to leave the house per day, and only on particular days of the week, according to the final digit of their identity card (i.e. if it ended on 1 or 2 they could go outside on Monday, 3 or 4 on Tuesday, etc., with nobody allowed to leave the house at the weekend). The strict quarantine measures were enforced by military street patrols and fines (1000 bolivianos [around £110] if one were caught outside on non-permitted days, and 2000 bolivianos if caught driving). Cultural activities adapted to the quarantine: market day in the town of Charazani in Bautista Saavedra province in the department of La Paz, where I conduct my own fieldwork research, was moved from Sunday to Friday to abide by the regulations.

Probably the first ethnographic research published on the corona virus crisis in Bolivia is ‘Una cuarentena individual para una sociedad colectiva: La Llegada y despacho del Khapaj Niño Coronavirus a Bolivia’ by La Paz-based anthropologists Pedro Pachaguaya Yujra and Claudia Terrazas Sosa[5] (published online in June 2020). Pachaguaya and Terrazas interpret the measures imposed by the interim government as emphasising individual responsibility and ignoring or sidelining established systems of indigenous community organisation. They argue that government communication concerning the virus, rather than informing, sought to strike terror into the general population, with indigenous Aymara government minister Rafael Quispe referring publicly to the corona virus in Aymara as a Ñankha Usu (a malignant life-destroying illness, for which there is treatment but no cure). A highlight of an approach which suggested that it was ‘irresponsible people’ who carry the virus was a press conference by the Minister for Public Works, Iván Arias, who used Avengers superhero toys to illustrate the situation in the department of La Paz, with Thanos playing the part of the virus, and the Avengers portraying the responsible actions of each individual citizen (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZP5tez0W_c). This presumably seemed like a good idea at the time.

However, Pachaguaya and Terraza’s ethnographic investigation, conducted with respondents across the country through Facebook and Whatsapp, conveys another narrative in which communal groups organised autonomously to combat both the virus and the possible effects of isolation, and rather than regard the virus with fear, as they were encouraged to by the government, respondents reported engaging with the virus with offerings through the ethics of reciprocity as they would with any powerful outsider entering the community. Their respondents drew on local memory of previous epidemics to understand how to interpret the illness. Their respondents from the community of Marka Tapacarí Cóndor Apacheta in the department of Oruro told them the virus was being referred to locally in Quechua as Khapaj Niño, Khapaj to refer to something or someone powerful, such as the King of Spain (Spaniards having also brought illness), and Niño because the phenomenon of el Niño had also caused problems within the community. They encouraged Khapaj Niño Covid as a foreign illness to leave through burning communal offerings, alongside which they chewed coca, made prayers, and spoke about food they should eat, including medicinal plants. An informant from a community in the department of La Paz told them that the illness had been designated a mallku (usually a term for a powerful authority, as well as being the literal Aymara name for condor), as they remembered their grandparents having previously designated illnesses. Their grandparents had told them to receive the mallku well and not to be afraid, in order to avoid harm coming to them. Pachaguaya and Terraza therefore concluded that Covid-19 was not regarded as a Ñankha that completely destroys, as Rafael Quispe had signalled, but a powerful visitor that should be received with offerings, and that to avoid it causing great damage it should be greeted with respect rather than fear.

In the rural municipality of Charazani, friends in several indigenous communities indicated to me that during the period of strict lockdown there was widespread fear that many people could become sick, however, by October, they felt that either the virus had never arrived or they had not experienced it as anything more than a cold or flu. They had attempted to prevent the virus firstly through the use of medicinal plants which grew locally, such as eucalyptus and others. Secondly, they had made collective offerings to ask the virus not to enter their communities. This included representatives of communities in the municipality climbing the highest mountain in the local region, Isqani (understood as the most powerful ancestral deity locally), three times between April and June to despachar the virus (‘to ritually dispatch’ the virus by sending it on its way with offerings).

Ritual offerings to the virus were not confined to rural areas. A friend in the city of Cochabamba told me that after she and her mother had both contracted covid-19, she had left an offering of flowers and sweets to despatch Covid-19. My friend had discovered that she had the virus after paying 300 bolivianos for a test. Given that the average monthly salary in Bolivia is only 3,620 bolivianos (£400)[6], the test alone would account for nearly 10% of most people’s monthly salaries, and the cost of contracting or preventing covid-19 multiplies when one takes into account other expenses. At the height of worries about her mother’s health the family (who are not well off, by any means) had felt the need to spend over 6000 bolivianos (around £660) on an oxygen tank, and like other families found they were forced to pay twice or three times the usual price for medicinal plants such as eucalyptus and ginger.

Figure 1 An offering for the Khapaj Niño Covid in the city of Cochabamba

The state in Bolivia attempted to prevent the spread of covid-19 through a strict quarantine, but beyond this largely left its citizens to their own devices. Given that Bolivia has the world’s largest informal economy[7], despite the government introducing a one-off payment of 500 bolivianos (around £55) per family[8], quarantine forced people living from hand to mouth into dire economic straits[9], leading by mid-May to workers unions in the city of El Alto collectively to call for people to be allowed back to work to sustain themselves (see Pachaguaya and Terrazas 2020: 18). In order to alleviate the stress of economically-challenged families, autonomous solidarity arrangements sprang up nationwide, including from people living in rural areas towards those in cities. Pachaguaya and Terrazas note meat worker and peasant unions donating meat and fruit in the city of El Alto, 20,000 tons of bread donated by the Association of Breadmakers in the department of Cochabamba, and lorry loads of fruit, fish and other foodstuff leaving the tropical coca-growing region of Chapare to be donated in five separate departments in April. Across the country Ollas Comúnes (collectively-run community canteens to serve the needy) also sprang up, with social media key in publicising food collection, despite organisers facing persecution and possible arrest.

As Pachaguaya and Terrazas (2020: 28) conclude, ‘knowing these other narratives concerning the pandemic allows us to glimpse a vision of the epidemic that is not apocalyptic but assumes that the virus is part of life cycles and proposes to treat it not with fear but with respect’. Various sectors of Bolivian society have combatted the epidemic not through social isolation, but using systems of communal government and/or autonomous organising, based in solidarity and cultural understandings of illness.

[1] http://hrp.law.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Black-November-English-Final_Accessible.pdf, accessed 4 November 2020.

[2] See for example, https://revistacitrica.com/evo-morales-en-bolivia-tenemos-dos-pandemias-la-dictadura-y-el-coronavirus.html, accessed 2 November 2020

[3] https://www.noticiasfides.com/nacional/sociedad/gobierno-anuncia-cuarentena-total-por-14-dias-desde-las-cero-horas-del-domingo-22-403963?__cf_chl_jschl_tk__=9d312aafaf863906ae147a7e5692856a11529a00-1604488956-0-Afb87BL33goyKMeRt46D0G_VdWlO6ZKUV5C839RZEAs-fspcE_ep88Jj9MpTD0bLgfFyvpd5I5EbkmuIJTmqzDTImhTBed8FEzXBfWGKH96XSFzc35F3J6n04dedIQhgOsl_jvjlFKpnFs6HcOxK3hzPo7iZ_iO1JsKxYlaTn2JMHeiJq0k0TLTea6-LJTi-8MOYTYPNlZIKSqAosWNw9JuyMOoMpSNaAdBBqcEGqsOEDnkuLZNtLkypj8YiO_N5FPPD9oanIkkBi3PXIqcZe9XrBEQznNkml72wTRoIBgyWmx-nP2bkXKJ0k4xICK11Yn2QINBVI9nWh1xWHoTuO6aSv5zdMU6qeSI_QS8pClHkudSfJQw2VegGCn5UDjvVCRdfI1_tKPz7wCuSDz0vdT5dUXmBasoM3QPmvE3s1lRY, accessed 4 November 2020.

[4] https://as.com/diarioas/2020/05/26/actualidad/1590519554_892407.html, accessed 2 November 2020

[5] https://indigenascovid19.red/archivos/12875, accessed 3 November 2020

[6] https://www.bolivia.com/actualidad/economia/bolivia-uno-de-los-paises-con-sueldo-mas-alto-sudamerica-278394#:~:text=La%20lista%2C%20publicada%20por%20picodi,equivalente%20a%20unos%203620%20bolivianos., accessed 3 November 2020.

[7] https://financialtribune.com/articles/world-economy/81033/imf-bolivia-has-world-s-largest-informal-economy, accessed 3 November 2020.

[8] https://www.opinion.com.bo/articulo/pais/gobierno-dispone-mas-bs-1000-millones-pago-canasta-familiar-bono-familia/20200401005455759496.html, accessed 3 November 2020.

[9] https://www.lostiempos.com/actualidad/cochabamba/20200329/tiempo-covid-19-cuarentena-tiempo-miseria-hambre-olvido, accessed 3 November 2020.

 

Bolivia under Covid-19: the interim government and autonomous responses, by Jonathan Alderman