REFLECTIONS ABOUT VOLUNTEERING DURING LOCKDOWN IN COLOMBIA

Finja Koester

The Corona time has been, and continues to be, a truly moved time for me, in every sense of the word. Not only was I evacuated twice, one of these evacuations sending me on a 22-hour long car drive through the country, from winding roads up the Andes or along sugar cane and coffee cultivations, but also mentally was this time a constant up and down.

Around 6 weeks ago, we were approached by our sending organization. Under the likely scenario that borders and flight traffic would soon close, we were faced with the first major decision. “Should I stay or should I go?”. A big and also very personal decision that required lots of pondering, pragmatism, and foresight.

In the end, I decided to stay. The decision was taken in a time when the corona virus was already raging in European countries, with Europe declared to be the epicentre of the crisis. With some reasonably realistic foreshadowing though, I could make out that the crisis would hit equally hard here. Maybe even harder, taking into consideration the poorer health systems, the greater poverty, and the lack of a social support system by the State.

Yet, it was exactly this reason that also convinced me to stay. In Europe, I would likely be sitting on a couch, spending time with my family in the spring weather. However, being deployed with a humanitarian organisation as EU Aid Volunteer in Colombia, I felt I had the chance to contribute helping some of the most vulnerable people hit by the crisis and its severe consequences. What came in the weeks to follow, turned out to be an interesting and challenging period of time, not only for me, but the entire team at work. Adapting to working from home, reformulating activities, being unable to go visit the rural communities, yet wanting to help them, proves to be a challenge.

Tumaco, my home town on the Pacific Coast for the time of deployment, is a place characterized by high levels of poverty, violence, and inequality. In this sense, they already had enough battles to fight even before the pandemic hit. In a place where many people’s livelihood depends on the little income they make out on the street and where the health system is so collapsed already that it does not dispose of a single respirator, the Corona crisis painfully and unscrupulously revealed these problems.

Though many locals at first underestimated the crisis, reassuring me that “it is too hot in Tumaco” for the virus to arrive, they would soon be proven wrong with the confirmation of the first case. Being suddenly faced with the reality of the virus, that before seemed very far away in isolated and tucked-away Tumaco, locals, social leaders, and politicians alike are facing a tough choice: saving lives or livelihoods. Without a doubt, an outbreak of the Covid-19 virus in the poorer quarters of Tumaco would be a disaster, given the lack of sanitary systems, the density of the wooden houses, and many residents’ absence of medical insurance.

Yet, many people depend on going out onto the streets to make their living and care for their families, thus the strict confinement orders sent by the government in Bogotá provoke that these people suffer from hunger.

This scenario results in a dangerous trade-off that I myself do not have an answer to. I can only hope that, creative as the Tumaqueños are in finding innovative ways of generating income, they will also manage to cope with this crisis, acting responsibly while balancing and minimizing the consequences as much as possible.

Certainly humanitarian organisations and NGOs, such as my sending organisation Alianza por la Solidaridad, will play a crucial part in mitigating the negative effects of the crisis and protecting the most poor and vulnerable. And something just as certain is, that I will, despite being far away distance-wise, keep giving my best to support these efforts in every possible way. Because solidarity is more important than ever in these difficult times.