By Klarem Valoyes and Alfonso Fernandez
Bogota/Washington, May 29 (efe-epa).- White flags in Guatemala. Red rags in Colombia. Looting in Venezuelan supermarkets. The crisis unleashed by the coronavirus-triggered lockdowns in Latin America and the Caribbean has caused a resurgence of hunger that threatens to ignite a new wave of social protests in the region, where tens of millions of people were living in extreme poverty prior to the pandemic.
“We’re all enduring hardships first-hand,” Angel Mendez, a social leader in Ciudad Bolivar, a low-income neighborhood on the Colombian capital’s south side that is home to 700,000 inhabitants, tells Efe. “Most of us were working every day and the savings we had have already run out.”
Hungry and anxiety-ridden while waiting in vain for promised government food aid and subsidies to reach their homes, many poor Bogota residents have violated stay-at-home orders and taken to the streets to denounce their current conditions and warn that if Covid-19 doesn’t kill them hunger will.
Their cry for help can be heard in the cacophonous sound of clanging pots and pans, a form of protest that has made a comeback in Colombia’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.
When hunger pangs strike, Bogota’s least privileged go door to door in hopes that a charitable stranger might be willing to offer them a handout in the form of food or money.
One of these individuals is Sandra Patricia Hurtado, a resident of Ciudad Bolivar who painted the situation in the starkest of terms.
“We’re like skinny cows. We don’t even have the strength to walk,” she says. “We’re dying, not from the virus but from hunger. We haven’t seen anything they promised us, we’re going hungry.”
Around 42.5 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean were suffering from hunger before the coronavirus crisis exacerbated the region’s extreme poverty.
Since the stay-at-home orders were imposed, many people have had no choice but to ask for handouts and rely on state aid and private donations, although that assistance has been insufficient to cover their basic needs.
According to the Bogota-based non-governmental organization “Accion contra el Hambre” (Action against Hunger), around 30 million more Latin Americans will fall below the poverty line as a result of the pandemic.
CRY OF HUNGER
But the biggest concern is that the cries for help heard thus far are signaling a brewing storm on the horizon.
In the words of Argentine writer Martin Caparros, author of the non-fiction book “El Hambre” (Hunger), the “most elemental thing a person can utter is, ‘I’m hungry, I need food.’ And they do this because they need some type of aid, not as political rhetoric but to see if a neighbor, or some entity, can give them something.”
“It’s already a very urgent situation. And there’s no reason why it won’t keep getting worse over time,” he tells Efe, noting that in the case of Argentina, the number of people who have sought out this type of assistance has grown in just two months from 8 million to 11 million.
Although former Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva warned a few weeks ago that the pandemic had caused the “nightmare of hunger” to return to Latin America, the coronavirus crisis has revealed that it was always lurking just beneath the surface.
This was evident just weeks into the nationwide lockdown in Colombia, where trucks delivering food to the most vulnerable were looted in Ciudad Bolivar and thousands of families hung red rags out of their windows to signal their need for food and other aid.
Similar scenes have played out elsewhere in underprivileged areas of other parts of Latin America: in Guatemala, along the Colombian-Venezuelan border, in neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and in low-income sectors of Lima.
Like the virus, hunger knows no borders.
“It’s only been two months, but the effects are already devastating,” says Jesus Quintana, the managing director for the Americas for an alliance between Rome-based research-for-development organization Bioversity International and the Cali, Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).