Kiswara Portugal Suárez was shocked when she discovered that in some cases, the La Paz city government’s coronavirus food donations consisted of small bottles of Coca Cola, a pack of biscuits, chocolates, a kilo of sugar and bubblegum. This is something she has seen with her own eyes as part of the Peps-LP volunteer group (Personas Encerradas pero Solidarias – La Paz), who have been helping people in need in the twin cities of La Paz and El Alto since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Bolivia in March.
Fellow Peps volunteer Alejandra Guzmán Narváez concurs. “Many of the food hampers were absolutely miserly and honestly, how much does a kilo of sugar or rice and a bottle of oil cost?” says Alejandra. “In reality, the minimum that we distribute to the families we help far exceeds what was in those hampers in terms of products and quantity – and we don’t have a state budget.”
What’s worse, despite personally investigating, both women remain unclear on the local government’s exact distribution criteria. Kiswara calls it “cold”, as 15 of the 20 families who were contacting her daily for support at the peak of strict lockdown measures had not received food hampers. In the city of El Alto, they were told to wait, but nothing ever came. In the city of La Paz, there was no clarity as to why some families received supplies while others didn’t.
Kiswara says she has seen this mediocrity in local city governments across Bolivia, while assistance from the now replaced transitional federal government was also inaccessible and insufficient. At the beginning of strict quarantine regulations towards the end of March, ex-interim president Jeanine Áñez announced a 400bs monthly bonus for families and 500bs for unemployed individuals between 18-60 years of age, which could be collected at banks and financial institutions. Upon announcing this assistance, Áñez said that her government saw Bolivia as a big family “where no-one is left without help”, but many people never even had a chance of receiving it. Alejandra and Kiswara tick them off – elderly people and people who only speak a native language who lack any type of support, as well as people without the correct documentation or who do not even appear on State lists at all.
“It was completely absurd to think that they would be able to access this, that elderly people would line up outside banks at 3 in the morning during a lockdown,” says Alejandra. “The way this economic support was managed made it impossible for it to be received by the most vulnerable people.”
This is in a country with the world’s highest informal economy, in other words, a large percentage of the population has to work daily to survive – something complicated by a variety of quarantine restrictions this year.
“Looking at the actual reality of the pandemic and each family, that they give you 400bs – it’s not enough for anything,” says Kiswara.
Peps-LP was born in the looming shadow of the pandemic, out of concern for what would happen to those people who have to survive on a day-to-day basis. A call was put out over social media to join the volunteer group and people took it to heart, offering their houses as collection points for donations, as well as their time to distribute what they received to people in need. Peps’ plan has always been to provide healthy alimentation, which explains Alejandra and Kiswara’s reaction to government food donations as well as their disbelief at some companies, who wanted to donate chocolates and sweets as a publicity stunt.
“It became uncomfortable putting sweets, chocolates and chewing gum in a family food hamper when you knew that family hadn’t had food in a week,” says Alejandra.
Yet, the support Peps has provided goes beyond food donations. So far, the group has helped over 200 families as well as around 20 individual cases, for whom they run campaigns on social media to help find employment as well as financial assistance for health problems, supplies, and clothes among other things. The majority of cases are single mothers with more than two children, often babies and young children who are extremely dependent. On top of this, many live in precarious conditions and have an enormous amount of additional needs. At some point, these women have to leave their children by themselves to go out and look for work just to try to make ends meet.
“They are realities that go beyond the help that a volunteer group can provide,” says Alejandra. “We’ve had cases where I’ve delivered supplies personally and when I saw where they lived I thought ‘God, the fact they have food isn’t going to change much.’”
Alejandra and Kiswara have numerous stories like this – the single mother in El Alto with five kids and terminal cancer that Peps has been able to help with donations, but not solve the problem of who will eventually care for her children, in the absence of any other relatives. The deaf-mute family, also in El Alto, whose youngest child of 6 years is the only one who can speak and hear. As the young girl understandably had trouble describing exactly where she lived, delivering supplies was almost a mission impossible for the Peps volunteer who went door to door for 3 hours at the height of the pandemic’s first wave trying to find the house. When the volunteer finally arrived, the child recounted that her family hadn’t been paid when they went to the bank to collect their government assistance. What’s more, they had been treated badly and pushed around.
“These are desperate scenes, stressful situations that you don’t know how to fix – how do you resolve the lives of five children?” says Kiswara.
Yet, one bright point has been the support of the local community, the sense of communal well-being that the pandemic has generated. There are also numerous stories of enormous empathy and solidarity being shown by everyday, normal people – acts of generosity that characterize this “simply incredible” response, says Kiswara.
While restrictions have gradually relaxed in Bolivia, people’s needs have not. Alejandra and Kiswara simply state that as long as people need Peps, then Peps will exist, but with fewer donations and current wait times of up to a month in some cases, the women say direct financial assistance is the most effective way to help people as quickly as possible. Kiswara stresses that donations are completely transparent and no money is retained by the group, as can be seen on their Facebook page where they post how donations are distributed on a case by case basis.
- If you want to make a donation or communicate with Peps-LP, you can do so via their Facebook page. Each campaign post includes details on how to make a donation, while you can also write directly to the group in English or Spanish for more information.