Lockdowns leave poor Latin Americans with impossible choice: stay home or feed families

Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro, Uki Goñi in Buenos Aires, Cindy Jiménez Becerra in La Paz, Lexi Parra in Caracas, Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá, and David Agren in Mexico City
Photograph: Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images

Leaders across Latin America have ordered their citizens indoors as they struggle to tame the coronavirus.

But for Liliana Pérez, an Argentinian single mother of six, staying at home is a pipe dream.

“My fear isn’t becoming infected. My fear is my children going hungry,” said Pérez, a 43-year-old volunteer from Villa Soldati, a pocket of extreme poverty in Buenos Aires, who is delivering hot meals to older people out of a baby’s pram.

More than 1,500 miles away, Rio de Janeiro’s 6.7 million residents – 20% of whom live in redbrick favelas – also have instructions to hunker down.

But each day Marcos de Oliveira rises before dawn in the Vila Aliança community and heads out to keep his household afloat.

The Villa 31 emergency village in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 14 April. Photograph: Getty Images

“It’s not just any old cold. It’s an illness we still don’t properly understand and I can see it’s getting worse in Brazil,” Oliveira, a 45-year-old metalworker, said of Covid-19, which has now claimed nearly 2,500 Brazilian lives.

“But unfortunately people have to work – we’ve got to make a living.”

Across Latin America and the Caribbean – where an estimated 113 million people live in low-income barrios, favelas or villas – families are struggling to adapt to coronavirus lockdowns or social isolation orders because of more immediate financial imperatives.

“People are more worried about being able to feed their families than they are about the coronavirus,” said Pérez, one of more than three million people who live in Argentina’s densely populated villas.

Related: 'We're abandoned to our own fate': coronavirus menaces Brazil's favelas

In recent days, as some governments have announced aid packages to help their poorest citizens stay home, there have been reports of containment measures fraying in places such as Venezuela’s Petare and Brazil’s Rocinha, two of Latin America’s largest communities.

“There’s an avalanche of people here in the streets,” José Martins, a leader in Rocinha, told local media. “I think 60% to 70% of shops have re-opened.”

Residents of Ciudad Bolivar place red flags on the facades of their houses to signal need, south of Bogota, Colombia, on 17 April. Photograph: Carlos Ortega/EPA

César Sanabria, an organizer in Buenos Aires’ Villa 31 community, said the situation there was similar and cited cramped living conditions as one explanation.

“We’re trying to keep safe but it’s very difficult when a whole family
lives in only 16 square metres,” said Sanabria, who runs a radio station in the 45,000-strong settlement beside Buenos Aires’ exclusive Recoleta neighbourhood.

“We’re not really isolating,” he admitted. “You still see a lot of people on the streets.”

Lockdown does seem to be working in some areas – albeit with dramatic consequences for already struggling residents.

In Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, residents of deprived neighbourhoods have tied red rags to their windows to signal that those inside are going hungry. Riot police last week clashed with residents in Ciudad Bolívar, a sprawling mountainside neighbourhood, who were demanding food supplies promised by the president, Iván Duque.

“I’ve got no money and nothing to eat,” complained María Ticona, 44, a mother of five from Villa Copacabana, a deprived corner of El Alto, a high-altitude city above Bolivia’s de facto capital, La Paz.

Before the lockdown – which is being strictly enforced by Bolivian troops – Ticona sold bread and scraped together perhaps $4 a day. That income has evaporated. “My kids haven’t eaten properly since the quarantine began,” she complained.

A military policeman uses a loudspeaker to tell people to go home during a total lockdown in El Alto, Bolivia, on 3 April. Photograph: Aizar Raldes/AFP via Getty Images

Nancy Ramos, a 44-year-old resident of El Valle, a working-class community in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, said the streets around her home were largely quiet – even if part of the credit lay with local gangsters waging a turf war in a time of coronavirus.

“By 7pm, the neighborhood looks like a cemetery. There’s nobody around,” said Ramos, a carpark manager who was still having to work.

“I’d say the first two weeks, people were stressed out about the quarantine – nervous of getting the virus,” she added. “Now, we have a new shock: staying safe while the little gang boys run around.”

Tepito – a hardscrabble barrio in central Mexico City that houses a bustling street market – is also subdued. “Eighty per cent of businesses are closed,” said Mario Puga, a local historian and activist.

Residents of Rio’s 1,000-odd favelas say they are finding hibernating harder.

Related: Paraguayans go hungry as coronavirus lockdown ravages livelihoods

“When I got home tonight there were loads of people in the street chatting. Kids playing hide and seek and football,” said Oliveira. “It’s alarming.”

Social isolation also appeared to be sagging in nearby neighbourhoods, albeit for different reasons. “This morning when I was on my way to work … the bus passed a petrol station and it was packed... cars all over the place, lots of people there boozing. It was like they were throwing a rave in the petrol station,” Oliveira joked.

Ivan França Jr, an epidemiologist from the University of São Paulo’s faculty of public health, said that for isolation orders to work they had to be accompanied by economic aid.

“Social distancing can’t just be: ‘Don’t leave your homes,’” he said. “This is a very elitist and middle-class mindset.”

Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was born into privation and won acclaim for his poverty relief work, said governments needed to do more to help the poor cope. “People will stay at home if they’re given the means to stay at home,” Lula told the Guardian.

Regional governments say they are moving to offer such support.

People from El Valle de Caracas parish queue for eight hours to buy a cylinder of butane gas during the second week of the national quarantine in Caracas, Venezuela, in late March. Photograph: Getty Images

More than 45 million Brazilians will reportedly receive an emergency stipend of 600 reais (£91, $113) – although the president, Jair Bolsonaro, has warned such support cannot go on “eternally”.

Related: Peru: riot police block highway as people attempt to flee amid lockdown

In Bolivia, where more than 80% of the labour force works in the informal sector, the interim president, Jeanine Áñez, has announced a 500 boliviano (£58, $73) benefit. “What we want is for not a single citizen to be left without help or income,” Áñez said last week.

But there and across the region, some of Latin America’s neediest citizens say that is too little, too late.

Before coronavirus, María Angélica García, a 40-year-old from El Altowith Parkinson’s disease, fed her five children and bought her medicines by begging at the Ceja street market with a cardboard sign.

With the Bolivian bazaar now deserted and locals stranded at home she was penniless and hungry.

“I hope this coronavirus situation sorts itself out,” García said. “I can’t believe what has happened.”