As coronavirus restrictions decimate Guatemala’s economy, white flags fly in desperation
It’s noon in Villa Nueva, and the sun is shining la carretera al Pacifico.
Twenty-year-old Leidy stands on the narrow median strip of the highway with his two-year-old son Leiton waving a white flag during rush hour.
Desperate, dehydrated and exhausted, they hope that a passer-by will stop to save some change or donate staples like beans, oil and rice.
Like millions of Guatemalans, Leidy is out of work due to coronavirus lockdown restrictions and she is struggling to feed her family.
White flags, appearing en masse hung from residences or waved by roadsides across Guatemala, signify surrender to hunger.
For Leidy, appealing to the solidarity of passers-by is a last resort to put food on the table.
The ‘devastating’ informal economy collapse
Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei has ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses, closed public transport, restricted domestic travel and implemented strict stay-at-home orders to contain a coronavirus outbreak in mid-March.
The lockdown kept the infection rate relatively low – around 5,300 cases and 116 deaths – in the country with the weakest health system in Central America, but it caused the collapse of its precarious informal economy, in in which more than 70% of Guatemalans participate.
More than two months after the lockdown began, the economic impact on vulnerable low-wage workers has been “devastating,” said Iván Aguilar, Oxfam’s humanitarian program manager for Guatemala.
“Although restrictions on mobility and confinement have not been as drastic as in other countries, the fragility of the informal economy and the consequent reduction in consumption have dealt a devastating blow to those who depend on it.” , said Mr. Aguilar.
The government is mitigating some of the economic effects of the foreclosure by distributing food aid packages, administering “unconditional” cash transfers of 1,000 quetzales ($ 197) per month for three months for two million households and other measures .
However, while the initiatives support many people in need, accessing aid can be difficult and millions more require longer-term humanitarian and economic assistance.
“There is an urgent need for the government to adapt the process so that rural families in high food vulnerability who do not have a cell phone, Internet or electricity can access social protection and economic assistance programs,” he said. said Mr. Aguilar.
“Its a question of life or death”
Impoverished rural indigenous communities with some of the highest rates of chronic malnutrition in the world have been particularly affected by coronavirus-related restrictions, according to local NGOs.
The Konojel Community Center operates in San Marcos la Laguna, where about 70 percent of the city’s indigenous people are chronically malnourished and nearly half of the city’s households live on just $ 2 a day.
As lockdown restrictions wiped out the local tourism sector and the informal economy, Konojel suspended its nutrition programs targeting chronic child malnutrition in order to distribute food bags to the community’s most vulnerable families who were suddenly without. returned.
Konojel director Ingrid Paredes says that without their intervention, families “will simply starve to death”.
“Most of the indigenous households in San Marcos la Laguna were already unable to provide adequate nutrition to all family members, so without food delivery … families would be forced to make tough decisions about who gets fed. and who will do without.
“We fear that without our regular intervention, we will see the progress we have made in tackling malnutrition over the past nine years erode and our community will fall into starvation.
However, as economies plunge into recession and global unemployment rates hit record highs, Ms Paredes says it’s a tough time for NGOs like Konojel to raise the funds they need to help their communities.
“Thousands of organizations around the world are working with the same vigor to respond to crisis needs – there is a lack of funding at all levels and we are struggling to raise emergency funds to expand our capacity to feed the hungry in our village, ”she said. noted.
“It’s a matter of life and death in our community.”
Acute malnutrition ‘most dangerous white flag ‘
The increase in acute malnutrition among Guatemalans due to coronavirus restrictions is “the most dangerous ‘white flag’ being raised,” Aguilar said, “and one to which the government must pay special attention.”
Not only is the coronavirus pandemic exacerbating existing food insecurity, he said, but it is “taking it to areas that have not been so badly affected, such as marginal urban and peri-urban areas, and which will double or triple the number of people in need of food aid in 2020 “.
Meanwhile, Paredes pleads for the government to invest loans received from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank to ease the economic emergency in rural areas “almost always forgotten by the authorities.”
“In the meantime, the needs are great and we are working diligently alongside other partner organizations and individual volunteers to make sure our neighbors have enough to eat,” she said.