Strengthening our “defenses” with “my Mom´s Green thumb”
René Mendoza Vidaurre, Fabiola Zeledón and Esmelda Suazo with Anabel Cardoza, Glensis Carrasco, Selenia Cornejo, Adalis Orozco, Milson Cantarero and Jarithmar Gonzalez
COVID-19 is a cowardly virus that attacks the most vulnerable people whose immunological system is weak. Strengthening those “defenses” of people is imperative. This would be possible if each family had their own garden.
It seems simple. But it is not. Many times, aid organizations and governments have promoted gardens and farm diversification wanting families to “nourish themselves.” These projects last as long as the donation does. Why? How can families take up gardening? We write this article from our experience of wrestling with these questions in the communities.
Why have rural families quit planting gardens?
As the colonial and patriarchal capitalist institution of mono-cropping was imposed, backed by universities, credit, technical assistance and organizations established by external initiatives, crop diversity and biodiversity ended up cornered, and on the road to disappearing. The garden was swept up in that dynamic as well.
What is important with mono-cropping is money, that comes once a year with the harvest of that crop, and it is the man (husband or father) who is responsible for that monocrop in terms of markets for capital, the product itself, its agrochemicals and knowledge. Nothing is comparable to the monocrop: “I am not going to neglect my coffee by monitoring a squash plant”. Their rule is: “everything is bought with the coffee”, “our food is bought with the sugar cane money”. The women who used to work on diversified farms and were responsible for gardens, lost that space and were confined to the kitchen, while their menu of food said goodbye to soups and stews. At the same time, people ended up reproducing the idea of the elites: “There is no room for a garden”.
Seen in this way, it is funny to see governments and aid agencies promoting gardens, when they have backed mono-cropping over the last 200 years, as if peasant families did not have a memory. More than funny, we recognize their anti-peasant intentionality in their formula: they give away seeds of crops demanded by the market (carrots, lettuce, cabbage or tomatoes, mini-vegetables) as opposed to “weeds” (mint, oregano, rue, native garlic, medicinal plants) that are more for family and community consumption; they promote gardens in spaces separated from the home; done collectively, connected to a leader. All these elements are contrary to the peasant practice of gardens, which is why they are silently resisted by the peasantry.
In addition to deconstructing mono-cropping which undermines gardens, and the fact that its modern promoters follow ahistorical rules, we also identify beliefs and rules that are counter to peasant viability, but are reproduced by peasant people themselves. “I do not have room”, as if the garden required “additional space” to what is available. “With coffee I buy everything else”, when people live in debt for depending on one crop, and time and time again end up dividing up their land. “I am not a cow to be eating grasses”, rejecting vegetable foods that could strengthen their “defenses.”
How can women and their families recover their gardens?
Parallel to deconstructing, we dig into peasant memory. Our grandmothers and grandfathers still remember the gardens of their Mothers. What do they remember? They talk about “My Mom´s green thumb”. That is the garden, indigenous “chacra” in the Andean countries. This small area that exists along with the chickens, turkeys and pigs. What is this garden for? “To give flavor to food, aroma to drink, and medicine to the sick.” They were products that today, coming from the cities, are called “wild”: mint, rue, oregano, native garlic, chayote, squash, passion fruit, lemongrass, smilax, onions, peppers, chicory, wormseed, camphorweed, guava; many of them are used as medicine for parasites, treating fevers and anemia and hemorrhaging.
The more we dig into the memories of our grandmothers and grandfathers, the more practices emerge full of life. It was the women who mobilized the family labor force to take care of the garden. Plants like mint were on any tree trunk. Gardens were close to the house to grow under the eye of the women who cared for them from the kitchen. They were the product of family effort and neighborly exchanges; it was farming that was done by hand and using a mini-hoe. Its production, consumption and social relations were linked; the more diverse the garden a family had, the less debts they had, and less domestic violence was suffered in the home. Decisions were decentralized, women led the garden in a family where seed and fertilizer was obtained in the house itself and the community.
When we establish gardens, women leave their homes, walk around the yard, touch the plants, daughters and sons join in …and the husband. This practice clashes with that rule of “man as provider”, reduces pressure on men, helps the family increase their income, and return soups and stews to the menu, adds tea to the table and medicine to communities. Neighbors visit one another more, the exchange of products increases, their “defenses” are strengthened…
If the advantages are obvious, how can we recover and expand them?
If we recover our memory of “my Mom´s green thumb” and we light our interior fire to do gardens, the steps to follow are: obtain seed and plants, which in part are found dispersed in the community itself; the plants can include ginger, garlic, onions, cilantro, chicory, oregano, lemongrass, mint, peppers, tomatoes, celery, beets, cabbage, squash, cucumbers, rue, basil, wormseed, camphorweed, guava, smilax…
On establishing the gardens, people see different uses for it: “Before we were disorderly, chicory growing in the pastures, now with the garden it is more orderly, they are all in one place; previously we cleaned mangos on our pants, now we wash them with water.” Hygiene and the garden go hand in hand.
As we harvest, we can enjoy teas, soups, stews and salads, use them as medicine. This strengthens health, helps to appreciate what we have, and we are making ideas enter through the tongue. We recommend the book of Jaime Wheelock (1998, La comida Nicaraguense), it is a book that summarizes indigenous food, Spanish food, and the confluence of both.
Few rules are needed. Which ones? That women take on the leadership of the garden and that the entire family collaborate with the garden. That the cooperative, the community store, the school or the church offer seed or plants to be paid for by the harvest, following the principle of “help those who help themselves” (Law of talents, Matt 25). If a family prepares the soil, they are provided seed for 5 crops; if they plant those 5 crops, they are provided another 5. The evolution of each garden is observed by the family, and it is the leader, her daughter or son, who records the data on that evolution – by crop, behavior, health of the plant… The organization or institution that accompanies them, helps them to analyze that data and consequently to innovate in their gardens, diet and health.
To multiply gardens, organizations or institutions can create a prize for the best garden every 3 months. As the gardens become realities, they will catalyze new initiatives: people who want to set up nurseries, dry fruit and bananas, people who buy products to sell them in the neighboring communities, community stores that sell small amounts of seed (retail), community technical advisers; healers; community celebrations; product exchanges….
Are there risks that the gardens will not work?
Assuming that we overcome the anti-peasant practices that we identified in the projects, there are also risks in gardens worked by families. Chickens can dig up and eat the plants, pigs can have a party in the garden, some birds tend to call in their communities to wipe out gardens…In the face of this risk, each family takes measures: protecting the garden with barbed wire, using banana leaves to form a fence, placing a doll with a red rag to frighten off the birds, putting wire and cone on the pigs…The entire family observes each difficulty and achievement, innovates in intense discussions to overcome these difficulties, studying more and more their own data…
A second risk is that the men take control over the garden, the risk here is like with the projects that look for “the head of the family”, and where he is guided by custom that has become law: work with machete, some days of the month, imposition of “women in the kitchen and taking care of the children” and only work on crops to be sold. One measure that can be taken is to work every day in the garden, and over time attract the other members of the family, in this way the person who is in the house every day ends up assuming shared leadership. A second measure is that the youth discover how boring the mono-cropping system is, where you only have to weed, fertilize and harvest, while the garden is a space for intensive, fun group therapy, open to innovation based on recording and analyzing information, and it is very participatory. A third measure is being open to men also trying their hand at cooking; it is not just the fact that men want to experiment, women also have to encourage them to do so; on this topic the article of Sergio Ramírez is enlightening (“El diablo en la cocina”, in El Faro, https://elfaro.net/es/202002/columnas/24037/El-diablo-en-la-cocina.htm‘P) it captures the assumptions/beliefs that keep men from going into the kitchen.
Do the gardens have an impact on changes in rural organizations?
Organizations tend to dance to the music of mono-cropping. Their membership tends to be mostly male, their structure more hierarchical, dependent on the market as its patron. The peasant garden, not promoted by market forces, can help them to change, because of the diversity of the crops, the demand to innovate in small areas, and the fact that families do not go into debt. Organizations can reorganize themselves to process and sell surplus products from the garden, they can provide technical accompaniment services, they can decentralize their decisions, they can get closer to working by hand, hoe farming or garden farming.
Organizations, hand in hand with women, can change for the good of humanity. For example, a peasant community store should have “a peasant face”: selling products from outside and also peasant products, hanging a bunch of plantains and bananas in the window, selling cooked palm fruit, potted plants, cassava, bunches of peppermint, eggs, baked goods. More than just a business, vegetables, and a garden, behind those products is the recreation of indigenous and peasant culture.
Here is the beginning of one of the alternative paths to colonial and patriarchal capitalism. A peasant path, organized, de-centralized, and with organizations that respond to these realities, more democratic and closer to the people. “My Mom´s green thumb” is capable of mobilizing vivid determination.
The best ideas are not implemented due to the mental frameworks that we carry with us. Peter Senge (1990) in his book “The Fifth Discipline” points out: “we carry in our minds images, assumptions and stories” that block the application of proven experiments, big ideas and refined proposals.
Beliefs allied with the virus
In the face of COVID-19 there is scientific information disseminated by the World Health Organization (WHO), governments and social networks. But most people ignore it. Why? Our minds are full of beliefs that do not cede space to new information, like a bucket full of water, when we put more water in it, none of it goes in, it overflows. In the same way scientific recommendations do not get into our minds, they spill out.
What beliefs? A belief related to the destiny of individuals is probably the most damaging, which goes like this: “when it is your time, it is your time”, “everything has been written”. A drunk who drives a car, crashes and dies, then you hear people say, “it was his time”, and “God took him”; with this they justify his irresponsibility, along with his social background of getting drunk and having caused the accident. A second belief says ”there is no better doctor than God”, “chlorine bleach does not save, God does”. A third belief is “you go to the hospital to die”. These three beliefs fill human minds and control people; it is not God who controls them, and they are not the ones who are “sent.”
Consequently, people heard that one can be infected in crowds (meetings, demonstrations, religious celebrations, parties), but that information slips out of their minds. People get into crowds without protection, because their mind tells them, “when it is your time, it is your time”, “God protects me”. If someone tells them, “God protects you if you take care of yourself”, that person will say, “the devil is putting me to the test, for God nothing is impossible.” And if the person gets infected with COVID-19, they resist going to the health center because “you only leave there in a box”, the historic distrust in the State that has dispossessed them of their resources ends up condemning them.
The worst that these beliefs can do is that people get resigned and only watch the days and nights go by. If everything is already written, people are the puppets of some supernatural being, which is why there is no reason to improve or change, unless that change “is written from above.”
The first step to avoid the virus: free the mind from beliefs
We do not resign ourselves to the fact that these beliefs control us. How can we free ourselves from them? A first step is talking about them to understand them, and asking questions that allow us to reflect. The very act of reflecting is already a big contribution, because the biggest power of beliefs is preventing people from reflecting. “Believing is enough, thinking makes one sick”- beliefs whisper into the ears of people. How to reflect? Let us read this conversation:
-The best doctor is God – Juan tells us, while he cleans beans.
-If God protects those who believe in God, why are so many pastors, religious, and pious people dying of COVID-19? –we ask him
-Ahh, I am sure that they did not have faith in God, I do have faith–he responds, very sure of himself.
-I wonder. Is it not that God expects people to do their part, take care of themselves and save their loved one, improving their diet? –we insisted.
-Who knows… –he no longer seems so sure. He begins to question, reflect.
This step also requires people who work in the chain of aid organizations, or the chain of State institutions, to do self-study and discover their beliefs. One of their beliefs is “people are saved with donations and training.” Correspondingly, they want the “papers” (receipts, contracts) of those donations to be “supported”, that products like chlorine get to the leaders of an organization, or that there be a health center. It is a technocratic assumption, which assumes that THE leader is going to distribute the products, that families will pay attention to what they are told, and that whoever gets sick will go to the health center. Provoking reflection includes challenging our own beliefs.
The assumption in the first belief is that “The bibles says it.” The Bible does not say that. What it says is that people have “free will” (“everything that you can do, do it with all your strength”, Ecc 9:10) and that “he who sows inequity, will harvest inequity” (Prov 22:8). In other words, each person writes their own story according to the circumstances in which they find themselves, the group in which they move, and their values. The assumption in the beliefs of many organizations and institutions, including intellectuals, is that “they know” the problem and the solutions for people.
When beliefs get examined, they appear as the beliefs that they are, they lose their power and that aura of being “sacred truths”. Then they can be expelled, even though that be painful; that belief has nested itself in the mind of the individual, who on expelling it, will feel “orphaned” and “insecure.” Nevertheless, once we are able to challenge these and other beliefs, the mind will have space to process new information, ideas or proposals.
Second step: testing new ideas in horizontal spaces
Let us look at an example of how people, on freeing themselves from harmful beliefs, can apply new ideas with better results. Up until the end of the 1970s it was believed that “the more brutish the workers are, the better they perform”, so bosses and experts would direct the work from their offices, while a ton of workers implemented the ideas of the experts. This is how the Ford car industry worked in the United States. But the Japanese in the Toyota industry discovered that belief as the cause for making expensive and poor-quality vehicles, they expelled those beliefs and tested new ideas in a gradual way and produced better quality and cheaper vehicles. What ideas did they introduce? That the experts and the workers innovate together, as a team they were all experts; that the workers should propose how to improve each action that they carried out; decentralizing decisions. It was a revolutionary change that later was extended to other industries in the world, which was possible when people realized that they write their own history.
How can communities protect themselves? Reflection, we said, is the first step. Toyota teaches us that the environment (team, understanding that each person is an expert in their area, decentralization of decisions) favors the generation of new ideas, tells us to test and adjust changes gradually. A cooperative, association or a community store should facilitate these reflections and create these favorable conditions for producing ideas and applying them. The president, manager, donor, government or intellectual, should not act as if they were “gods” dominated by the fordist belief, that they already know the problems and the solutions for people, they should go to the homes of people and talk with them. How can we protect ourselves from COVID-19 and other viruses? The lowliest person can have responses, but a favorable environment is needed in their own homes and communities in order to produce and express them.
-Who isn´t afraid? Fear is the biggest enemy of reason. Think, Pipita, your love for others is stronger than anything…Besides, the rain is coming now!
The entire world is experiencing difficult days. People feel fear, impotence, the desire to cry. The only thing certain is uncertainty. Every person would like to support themselves with something, protect themselves under the shade of a tree. But there are almost no natural, supernatural nor social “trees” anymore. It is when that Nicaraguan phrase becomes even truer, “if you have your health, the rest doesn´t matter.” And health is like the rain, it does not fall from the sky with some prayers, it is something that is provided and strengthened with human actions. And who provides it? And how is it provided? Maybe “the love” that one feels for others provides it, maybe the love with which we were made in a passionate morning helps provide it. Maybe it is time to look farther ahead, because “the rain is coming now.”
In this article we reflect on this rural world, that thin strand between hygiene and the economy, between home, church, health center, and between individual and collective actions. To do this we list the facts or risks, we start to explain this “strand”, we look at how scientific recommendations help these different cultures revive – like plants which dry up become green again when the clouds release the first drops of water, and we point out the role of accompanying organizations. The importance of grassroots organizations in protecting their communities runs throughout the article, while the notion of community matures with the turning of each page.
1. Conditions that work for and against COVID-19
The situation with COVID-19 seems to be getting worse. The gap between the official information in any country and what is in the social networks is large, with which anxiety buzzes like a mosquito at night. In rural communities this concern is connected to the continuity of classes in school, religious celebrations in churches, and festive crowds, with or without quarantine. People think that through that “door” of the school, church or public transportation, the virus can get into their homes and pass through the community. What are the rural conditions that work for or against COVID-19?
Rural families have some advantages and some disadvantages in the face of the virus. The advantages are: the physical distance between people to avoid COVID-19 is facilitated by the low population density, and because a good number of families live on their own farms; the average age of the population is relatively young, which limits the effect of COVID-19, even though this advantage is evaporating because of poverty; living in areas with little air pollution; communities that have grassroots organizations with members and offices in the community itself, through which they access some information and some collective actions. The disadvantages are: if people are infected, it will be difficult for them to go to the health centers with the first symptoms and it will be difficult for them to stay at home, or prevent visits when rumors buzz along the footpaths of neighboring houses, all of which have the potential to infect more people; the quality of the health centers, in any country in Latin America, is less in the rural municipal capitals and is inexistent in rural communities.
Gatherings of people in schools and churches is the greatest risk; let us remember that in a church in Washington one member infected from between 52 to 60 members of the choir, 65 were infected in a Zumba class in South Korea, 80 people in a concert. Rural gatherings tend to happen in groups separated by the lack of connection between organizations. Cooperatives, schools, churches and party or governmental organizations (e.g. councils, mayor representatives) move in a “walled off” manner; each person in their own world, and under their own leadership. Churches move in their religious world and with their own leadership structure. Schools with their educational programs and with their own institutional leadership. Cooperatives focus on the economy with their own leadership structure. And so on. This separation means that the gatherings move separately, isolated, which is why people tend to behave in an opportunistic way: “let others spend on hygiene to prevent COVID-19”, “I don´t care, I don´t have children in school”, “I am going to church because God is protecting me, what better doctor than God?”
This separation is worse with external institutions. Markets are reduced to offering hygiene products, raising their prices because of increasing demand, and move by means of intermediation; States limit themselves to making an effort in health centers; aid organizations provide resources within the circles in which they move; and second tier organizations and NGOs expect to mediate resources. None of them tend to cross over “to the other side of the river”, in the sense of understanding how rural societies move, lack experience working at the community level with grassroots organizations. This limits our ability to understand rural population from their own perspectives, and limits the communities from understanding external organizations. We live in a world of one-eyed people that is attractive for any virus.
This separation or “fortress-effect” feeds the prevalence of beliefs. It is a universal truth that when there is less information and less articulate comprehension about certain habits, beliefs prevail. What beliefs? In peasant families: “If I believe in God, nothing is going to happen to me”, “lightening is not what kills you, it is just your time has come”; “long suffering people will resist any virus”; “I am not washing my hands because my hands are hot because of work”, “chloroquine and azithromycin get rid of the virus” (self-prescribing without evidence that it cures and without investigating its damaging effect on the heart; and according to the WHO seem to increase the risks and consequences of the disease). Beliefs in external institutions: “information confuses people”; “money makes the monkey dance”; “if the economy improves, all improves”; “give them alcohol and with that COVID-19 will not affect them”; “boil eucalyptus and cypress leaves”; “read the bible where it announces the end of the world”, “everyman for himself”. Doña Coronavirus laughs and is attracted by these beliefs!
We resist learning. We read about the 15 countries of the Asia-Pacific region, China, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the 10 member countries of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, as the region that has best dealt with COVID-19, a region that has 2 billion people of the 7.7 billion that exist in the world. How did they do it? With good public health: they closely observe the symptoms people have, if there are symptoms, they test them, if they are positive, they isolate them in their homes or in hospitals, and they do contact tracing. In other words, the more they diagnose, they more they know what to do, and thus save more lives. In contrast, national and international organizations tend not to do diagnoses to formulate and implement policies, except to appear to formally comply; our mentality of providentialism and resignation resists learning from rural populations, we do not seek to understand them, we believe that we already know them, that “the market knows more”. We are societies that seem to live like in the middle ages under the church with the inquisition, in those times “there was no reason to think, it was enough to believe”, when thinking was a sin and punished by death.
2. Hygiene in rural societies
What is it that we need to understand? We begin with some history, to then paint something about the rural reality and show the vein that we have to continue exploring.
There are several studies on diseases and the architecture of cities and homes, not much on rural spaces. Public health has contributed to the fact that the population lives longer, architecture has also done that. So closets were imposed instead of armoires, because they were anti-hygienic because they accumulated dust. In the last 150 years we know of great changes in the cities of London, Barcelona or Paris; in 1866 they cleaned up most of the river Thames in London, and that clean up saved most of the people of the city from the threat of cholera; in 1844 they redesigned the city of Barcelona, knocking down walls that contributed to the overcrowding, which made lack of hygiene worse and supported epidemics; also Paris was redesigned for health purposes. Other smaller changes also had large impacts: clean water and management of sewage to prevent malaria or yellow fever; in the face of the bubonic plague, that killed 12 million people between 1855 and 1959, they rebuilt homes with more concrete and metal to keep out the rats who carried that pestilence. In other words, the design of homes and cities for health purposes lengthened the lives of people.
Now with COVID-19 architecture is challenged to redesign homes. Even though architecture has not been able to respond to respiratory illnesses, COVID-19 can cause the redesign of the home, where the idea of what is private is reconceptualized, giving way to the home as a space for school, work, reflection and gymnasium.
Unfortunately, there are no studies about that same relationship between architecture and health for rural areas, at least none that I am aware of. In rural areas, hygiene has been in deficit for centuries, a situation that has been made even worse by the discrimination toward the rural world. This situation of hygiene is due in part to the fact that rural families every day are grappling with land, farming, agro-chemicals, small livestock, slaughtering or the fire in the kitchen, and they do it without having protective measures like gloves, boots or masks, partly because they are living with limited water or means of catching water, on large haciendas the patrons customarily do not provide protective equipment to their workers, and partly because they do not have access to information while beliefs lead them to not protect themselves.
This daily work of women with fire, or men with the land leads them to bathe less frequently. This is not necessarily, however, a lack of hygiene; in fact, many people during the winter in Europe and the Andean altiplano do not bathe very frequently. The difference is that peasant families think that after work a person should not touch water, it is an understanding about the combination of temperatures; so it is that after making tortillas they do not wash their hands, after weeding they do not bathe “because the body is hot”. Also the lack of water and minimal infrastructure has conditioned them to carry out certain practices; women gather dirty clothes to go to the river to wash them, they spend little water to wash dishes. Likewise, little access to information has an impact on daily life, for example, dishes are not washed with Clorox that could contain the salmonella bacteria, which tends to be found in food contaminated with animal feces. We mention these points to illustrate how difficult it could be the fact that, now with COVID-19, they have to wash their hands frequently and with soap, when customs and their natural (water) and economic conditions weigh in.
Most rural homes, particularly those of low-income people, have dirt floors and are closed structures with little ventilation. For example, it is known that Chagas disease, that “forgotten illness” because the pharmaceutical industries do not see it as profitable, mostly happens in homes with grass roofs and cracks in the clay walls where the insects that cause this disease tend to live. Peasant homes are a prolongation of the farm, or the reverse, for example corn is stored inside the home or above the hearth, while the cats deal with stalking the rats who are after the corn…
These rural practices became customs, and those customs, laws, which tend not to be seen by the eyes of State institutions, markets and international aid agencies. External actors, instead, tend to see agriculture or ecology as separate from hygiene in the home and family, and the economy as separate from health, education and religion. External actors, when they touch on the issue of hygiene, do so viewing the rural reality from the urban experience, and so any weed seems dirty to them, any home for them should be in towns or villages, any farm should be mono-cropped, and any insect should be fought with agro-chemicals. From the urban perspective it is hard to understand that a home on a farm probably is healthier than a city with an over-populated cattle industry, or chicken or turkey industry, which are true virus factories.
We need to scrutinize the relationship between hygiene and agriculture, home and farm and school and church to understand the culture of hygiene in rural populations, to then look at improvements and changes to be made. Without understanding, one cannot see, Rodrigo López told us, a peasant from Waslala. How true that is! Otherwise, how can we imagine that just using chlorox and alcohol is going to prevent COVID-19? Without understanding, how they can reflect on and change their habits coming from their own cultures and farming systems, any chlorox or alcohol that they are given runs the risk of ending up in the municipal markets, as has happened with the donation of tin roofing sheets, pure bred hogs, coffee roasters or grain silos. The community, that heterogeneous amalgam of disputed realities, is like a book, inside of which dance letters, pages and imagination, opened up only by the reading of those who love it, a reading which is like a person who shells a corncob sensing a hot tortilla with “”cuajada.
Our challenge is to rethink community spaces from a perspective in which health and economics are embedded in each other. Homes on farms with materials that protect them from rats and the insects that carry Chagas disease, and at the same time are ventilated spaces, and agro-forestry farms, in communities with spaces for food, reflection, social interaction, entertainment, open field school and collective actions. Communities with fresh air, revived, which end up being the “tree” to protect oneself from the virus. This is the vein to dig into.
3. It is the moment for organized rural societies
While we study, let us not lose the pulse on COVID-19. What should we do? If classes and/or religious celebrations continue, and if markets and States do not show they are effective, grassroots organizations (cooperatives, associations, parent-teacher committees, water committees…), located in the communities, must act to protect their communities. The effectiveness of these organized rural societies can be better if supported by organized global societies (international aid organizations).
How? These grassroots organizations must turn themselves into entities that inform, connect with schools and churches to accompany them to understand the problem and their prevention practices in the face of COVID-19, and look up while they deepen their roots.
3.1 Informing yourself and analyzing the information
Dry cough + sneezing + body aches + weakness + high fever + difficulty breathing = coronavirus
Source: Pathology Department, UCH London
In the first box are the elements to tell whether a person has coronavirus, flu, a cold or just air pollution. The scientific community reveals that a person with COVID-19 can show mild symptoms, and days later have other more serious symptoms. In other words, a person could have a cough and sneezing, and not have a high fever, which does not mean that they do not have COVID-19, in the days following the other symptoms may appear. Box 1 is a simple aid to differentiate, it does not assure you that you do not have COVID-19 with the first symptoms, but at the same time helps you to not get alarmed with the first symptoms, helps you to stay calm and discern; this is a big help in rural areas where it is difficult to go to a hospital.
COVID-19 is not just a new virus, but the scientific community still does not know much about it. Current evidence reveals that a little more than 40% of people with the virus were infected by people who did not have symptoms of COVID-19. This obviously makes prevention difficult, at the same time, knowing this helps us to get a grip on the problem and respond in the best way possible.
Box 2. Recommendations
1. Do not touch your face–because the virus enters through the mouth, nose and eyes
2. Wash your hands with soap – the virus is dissolved with 20 seconds of hand washing.
3. Maintain physical distancing (1.5 mts) from another person; avoid groups of people
4. If you do not feel well, stay home. The family can help you determine whether it is coronavirus (see box 1)
5. Avoid meetings in closed spaces without ventilation
6. Above all, think, think, and think–it is the most vital thing that we should practice.
Box 2 has information also based on studies. Grassroots organizations can disseminate it in their communities, but first they should read and analyze it: why shouldn´t you touch your face? Why should you wash your hands with soap? Why maintain a distance of 1.5 meters with other people? Why should you stay home when you have a cough, mucus and sneezing? The more we think about it, the more we understand it, the more we are going to put it into practice and tell other people. Talking through information allows us to think about reorganizing activities, for example, the measure of maintaining a physical distance of 1.5 meters can help so that in a religious celebration, a meeting in the cooperative, or a class in the school people take their seats maintaining that distancing, so that the meetings be for shorter periods of time or with frequent recesses, or so that the meetings might be better prepared in advance so that, like chickens, you go straight to the “grain.” Information that is thought through can save lives.
Grassroots organizations also should reflect on other contributions from scientists. Let us look at 3 contributions. The first, studies show that children under the age of 12 do not get infected much, compared to adults; in the cases when they are infected, they almost never get seriously sick, nor are they great transmitters of the virus, like they were in the case of the flu, because the amount of receptors that COVID-19 needs are less in children under the age of 12, and consequently the viral charge (in other words, the amount of the virus that they can gather) is much smaller. Statistics confirm this statement, minors under 12 are less than 0.2% of COVID-19 deaths.
Second, statistics how that men become more infected by COVID-19 than women, and they tend to suffer more from the virus than women who are affected. This is due to the fact that “the blood of men has higher concentrations of the converter enzyme of angiotensin II (ACE2) than the blood of women (…). This receptor is found on the surface of healthy cells, and helps coronavirus infect them” (see: https://www.iprofesional.com/actualidad/315900-coronavirus-por-que-hombres-se-contagian-mas-que-mujeres ). Active genes linked to the X chromosome provide women (XX) greater protection against coronavirus than men”. In addition, be it for the type work in which rural women are more involved, in general they have more hygienic habits than men, for example, they wash their hands more frequently, be it because they are washing dishes, clothing or for personal care. This indicate the importance of hand washing.
Third, studies also tell us that the use of masks is preventive, but they also warn us of the risk of reusing them, because they can become a means of infection, because the virus can remain for hours and even days in the masks. The masks are more for infected people, with or without symptoms, so they do not infect other people. Why the masks? Because they reduce the particles that come out of the mouth when a person breathes or talks. When should masks be used? They can use them in school during classes in closed classrooms with little ventilation, in relatively closed churches during celebrations, when it is not possible to maintain physical distancing, when the interaction lasts a certain length of time, in places with human crowding (banks, markets…). They should also be used when you travel to town, on returning home you should wash it, in this way the mask will be ready for a new outing or meeting. Countries that have overcome COVID-19 have used the masks as part of their strategies, which is why rural communities probably will have to introduce the use of masks as part of their culture of care, particularly for the moments we just pointed out.
3.2 Linking to and contacting schools and churches
It seems easy to connect to and assume that any organization or institution will be happy to be contacted. Nevertheless, churches, schools and party structures are not accustomed to coordinate with community organizations, except to “orient them” about what to do, and treat them as their dependents. Their worlds and leadership which we mentioned previously really carry weight, they are true walls to community coordination. How is a grassroots cooperative going to react if the pastor of a church tells them, “God is our doctor, we trust in God?” What is it going to say and do if the principal of a school tells them, “we can only receive support if it comes through the ministry of education”? What are they doing to do if a committee of a political party, the councils or mayor deputies say that “directions and projects only come from above?”. What can you say to the parent of a family who only believes in the patron of their hacienda? How difficult it is to be community and work for the community! There, where things get complicated, money will not even make monkeys dance.
In the midst of these worlds we have learned the following steps. First, discussing the information in figures 1 and 2 really empowers people, it is in-forming, and informing is forming. Information can be an antidote to despotic religious, political and economic leaders. Second, the cooperative or association should start from what it is and has; what do they have and who are they? Each member has, at least, a family member who is a student, believer of some religion and/or is member of a political party; they should talk with them, discuss the COVID-19 situation, and the information provided here. Third, members of the organs of the cooperatives, having now conversed at the grassroots level, visit the parent/teachers committee of the school, people with positions in the churches, (e.g. deacons, delegates of the word) and party members or government authorities, reflect with them and discuss the information. Finally, the board members of cooperatives communicate with the parent/teacher committee of the school and with deacons and delegates of the word. In other words, connect with the grassroots of different organizations and institutions, their intermediate leaders, to then connect with the leadership of the organizations and institutions. In these steps, it is not a matter of convincing anyone, but of listening, bringing together elements that help to understand, and once each person understands, they will be able to see and then act – it is like preparing the soil and planting a seed, then you have to let the seed germinate and struggle to grow.
Table. Cost of kit for 90 people (1 month; in US dollars)
Chlorox (cleaning equipment) (liters)
Hand towel (units)
Bar of soap (units)
Re-usable masks (units)
With these steps, each organization can supply itself with a kit of hygiene products to prevent COVID-19 (see table). Cooperatives have a social fund that they can use to acquire the kit, unless they have used it for other social agendas that they tend to have. Schools can, through the parent/teachers committees, gather resources to acquire the kit. If the cooperatives, with or without international support, can gather resources to support the schools and churches, it could make a difference, strengthening the bonds in the community, and the entire community would benefit. The more bonds there are, the more autonomous the community will be.
3.3 Looking forward
The sixth recommendation in Figure 2 is the most important reason for a grassroots organization rooted in the community to exist: think, think and think. Thinking is the most important element to resisting COVID-19. Thinking is looking forward and seeing beyond our noses. A cooperative is not a church nor a political party, its members are there voluntarily, they are not subordinated to anyone, they discuss and reach agreements in their assemblies, which is why they must examine their beliefs and fight with and against them. Individually they can believe or not in God, but they should not expect God to send them angels or saints to wash their hands for them, or put their masks on, just as they would not expect that he plant beans for them or remove botflies from their cattle; they can believe in their political leaders, but it is shameful to subordinate themselves to anyone. As cooperative members they have free will, their source of power is the assembly composed of the members themselves, and their reason for being is thinking, thinking and thinking in favor of their communities.
Part of this thinking is reflecting about COVID-19: How to protect their own community? If the State does not show up in a community, the cooperative must also take on that role. If the health system capacity is overcome, grassroots organizations should discuss how to help prevent the outbreak in their communities, and how to help people who might be affected by the virus. If in any country COVID-19 is being controlled, in all countries there are waves of outbreaks of the disease, so the cooperative should keep looking for those possible outbreaks. In Central America the urban waves of COVID-19 are still ongoing, which is why the rural waves that come later, can be lethal, not just for the reasons mentioned in this article, but because we are in the midst of the rainy season, which will make it more difficult for infected people to get to a health center or any support. If a community receives external support, the cooperative must be careful that that support not be counterproductive, because there can be support that displaces grassroots organizations, and when that donation ends the community´s own autonomy and their own efforts can be left eroded.
Cooperatives need to organize how a network of women can sew masks, how to make soap with lard, how to recover old ways of making alcohol in order to use on hands, how to recover natural medicine… Cooperatives need to think about connecting hygiene, economics, social and environmental elements, thinking about the food in the community beyond COVID-19, thinking about environmental sustainability with pure air and water, thinking, thinking, thinking.
4. Role of international organizations in living communities
Even though for multiple reasons most of the international aid organizations have withdrawn from Central America, there are still international organization that are supporting the region. There also is the fair-trade network, as well as local-global networks among national and international organizations, unions, churches, social banks and universities in the world. When there is the will, there is the way, as the saying goes. If each person feels a mission of service, we can deepen those relationships of collaboration and reactivate “dead” relationships, because “where there are ashes, there was fire.” Each person and organization can play an important role if in this COVID-19 context they realize the importance of working on the community level that is organizing: what good does it do to provide individualized credit or training, as neoliberalism does, promoting mono-cropping, environmental degradation and the erosion of communities? The current situation wakes us up: people who organize and follow rules agreed upon in their assemblies, instead of gurus or chiefs who see themselves as the law, are those who really energize their communities, sustainable farming systems and contribute to social and environmental equity. Communities save communities.
Within this framework, what role do aid organizations have? Traditional donations, involving donating and awaiting reports invented by organizations “confined” to the cities, can be counterproductive, particularly if they displace the efforts of the communities themselves, which in the long term would undermine communities. Aid organizations need to connect with counterparts who really are working with grassroots organizations that meet the following criteria: they are democratic, redistribute their surplus, are transparent with their information and are rooted in their communities or specific micro-territories. This type of organization will persist in the communities, while other external organizations, or those with disperse membership, will continue treating the communities like their lovers, showing up from time to time and leaving. Forming alliances with grassroots organizations so that a donation might provide an initial push, for example, with what is indicated in the table, supporting wash basins in schools with access to water, or working on agro-forestry systems that would protect water sources, where grassroots organizations might accompany their communities, and that their national partners might accompany them in the communities themselves, being careful, but overcoming fear, is the network which need to be built now and always. The dilemma is not whether to leave your urban home or a rural farm; it is how we strengthen internal community assets, how we can take advantage of this “momentum” that exists in global awareness as an effect of COVID-19 to see the importance of communities. In this way, external financing to build a community response would decisively help the community deal with the virus and its new outbreaks, and help in the long term to democratize the community itself.
5. By way of conclusion
In this article we showed the risks of COVID-19, we have begun a reflection on the relationship between hygiene, the economy and social factors, we described the strength of communities if they build lasting connections, we have emphasized the role of grassroots organizations to reflect on their values and principles in light of what is happening in their communities, and generate ways to cooperate in the prevention of COVID-19, and to innovate in ways of accompanying their communities in the midst of the uncertainty. We showed that, through these short term measures, and starting from an analysis of the processes which we are experiencing, it is possible to look forward to the medium and long term: to improve, correct, and generate habits of hygiene connecting home, farm and nature, and home, school, health center and community building.
The impact of what we are proposing, nevertheless, will be seen above all on more structural issues. For example, an exponential increase is coming of people in extreme poverty, the goal of eliminating extreme global poverty for 2030 is going to be only left on paper. The crisis for rich families of the world is how to have less desert options in their dinner, while for our communities the crisis means that they might miss a meal or face empty plates, becoming vulnerable again to any disease. This article and the previous one on basic grains aim at preventing those impacts.
The current situation also provides us with opportunities, because “behind every adversity there is an opportunity”. What opportunity? Mitigation of climate change which, in the case of rural communities, means water, land with life, biodiversity; it is the moment to rethink farming systems and intensify more sustainable forms and farming systems that stop the loss of nutrients in food because of the decreasing quality of the soil. It is the time for communities, never before has the importance been so clear of investing in communities who organize and embrace a culture of care; now is the hour for life, amen.
To look at these structural issues we must understand that it is not the economy that solves health care, it is not a matter of knowing whether the chicken or the egg is first, now the economy is public health and community health; and health, the economy, social and environmental reality are like a mountain slope, if you are on the higher part it looks different than seeing it from below, if you are on the very top, it looks different from one side than from the other, but it is the same slope, the same mountain slope.
“Think, Pipita, your love for others is stronger than anything else…Besides, the rain is coming!”
 It is likely that air pollution facilitates the virus and makes its impact worse, which in part would explain why countries in Europe have had high mortality, measured by the indicator of “over-deaths” or “over-mortality” (number of deaths above the average deaths from previous years) as an effect of COVID-19.
 Many people even with clear signs of having been infected, decide not to go to the health centers or hospitals. Why? “They say the hospitals have no room”, “I don´t want to die intubated”, “I want my family to wake me” and “we want to now where he is going to be buried to be able to go to pray for him”. The express burials frighten the population.
 L. Engelmann, J. Henderson and Ch. Lynteris (eds), 2018, Plague and the City. Londron: Routledge. They study the relationship between plagues and measures to fight plagues and cities from the middle ages up to the modern era; they also include cities like Buenos Aires.
 Inspired in these realities and by actions of Dr. Mazza and his team, in 1995 they filmed the movie Casas de Fuego. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6yWNBytu3U The movie illustrates the relationship between disease-insects, homes (shacks) and social inequality, the wealthy class is against homes being rebuilt, because “they are not concerned” about the millions of poor people.
The movie Casas de Fuego (footnote No. 5) illustrates the duality science/faith and committed science/academic science. The priest is opposed to science benefitting the most impoverished and affected communities; for him “faith and science are fighting over the same people”; a Manichean dilemma that smacks of the middle ages and that did a lot of damage to humanity. Also in this movie, that captures a good part of that experience, the University blocks the mission of Dr. Mazza and his team; fortunately Dr. Mazza and his team persist, their commitment is worth more than restrictive science, a commitment that nevertheless, they paid for with their lives, caused by the Chagas disease itself.
 If there are other organizations in the community, like alcoholics anonymous, water or road committees, the same is done as with the schools and churches.
 Note that traditional organizations tend to do just the opposite: the meet first and only with the leadership of the organizations, and then send technicians to “train” (in other words, convince).
 If some national or international organization wants to provide support under this spirit, they can contact the Coserpross cooperative (http://coserpross.org/es/home/) in Nicaragua, the Comal Network in Honduras (http://www.redcomal.org.hn/). Coserpross and the Comal Network accompany dozens of grassroots organizations in the region, synthesize verified information to provide to the grassroots organizations, and move about in those same territories. There are also organizations like Aldea Global and ADDAC that we mentioned in footnote 5; their uniqueness is that their network is present in dozens of communities.
 What would happen if a bee stayed in its hive? It could live as long as the food that it stored lasted, the honey that it produced, and then? We must understand that we, flowers, bees and humans, are all one network. The bee leaves its hive and goes from flower to flower, pollinizes, does it at the risk of losing themselves and of losing their lives. So is the network. So are we accompaniers, taking on the corresponding measures (use of mask and frequent hand washing), we should not “pass by on the other side” like the priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we should be inspired by people like Chagas and Mazza did and their teams in Brazil and Argentine that the movie Casas de Fuego portrays.
*an earlier version of this article was published here on March 27th. This more extended version was published in the May 2020 edition of ENVIO, no. 466. We reproduce the text here at the request of the author.
Viruses multiply when humanity provides the conditions. Deforestation, the agricultural model and factory farming, breaking up public health systems, even individualism, and so many other features of the development model imposed on the world by neoliberal capitalism, facilitate the appearance of viruses such as COVID-19. A firewall is a swath of land left uncultivated to keep forest fires from spreading to crops. What firewalls will stop the coronavirus and those that come after?
by René Mendoza Vidaurre / Inti Gabriel Mendoza Estrada
“ Coronita, little crown, how hungry you are!” SARS tells COVID-19. SARS (CoV-1)—which caused the 2002-3 epidemic affecting 26 countries and feasting on only 8,000 people but with 774 fatalities—is closely related to COVID-19, the coronavirus causing the current pandemic affecting 210 countries and over 3.7 million people with 257,000 dead so far… and counting by the minute.
“Hungry, little brother? Not me… Seven hundred years ago our great-great-grandmother, the Black Death, wiped out a third of humanity.”
“And how many do you plan to take with you…?”
“Only a few!… But it’s the humans themselves who are calling me from hither and yon…”
“And how do they do that…?”
“They destroy the soils and fill them with poisons, they destroy the forests to make roads, they fatten those they call animals with chemicals and then eat them… And with all that they do, what do they expect from me…?”
that attracts plagues
Over the years we have learned that unhealthy conditions cause problems when demographic growth, social deterioration and environmental degradation are combined. People’s wellbeing depends on their being healthy in mind and body, living in a healthy social community and in a sustainable environment.
Researchers of plagues that have decimated humanity at various times in history show that viruses, bacteria, fungi, bacilli, all pathogenic germs, multiply when they find the right conditions that humanity has created for them, consciously or unconsciously.
When the rust blight hit Central America, the coffee plantations were weak, overcrowded and in “tired” soils, largely thanks to mono-cropping, a system that had even permeated the agricultural cooperatives. These conditions attracted the parasitic rust fungus and it devastated the coffee plantations. It hit Nicaragua harder, Honduras a little less, and even less the other countries in the region, as I wrote in “Who’s responsible for the coffee rust plague and what can be done?” (envío, March 2013).
William H. McNeill, in his interesting book Plagues and Peoples, studied dozens of plagues that have devastated humanity over the centuries and explains how the Black Death, which arrived in Europe in the 14th century, created a crisis affecting all aspects of the feudal system as half the European population died, creating a scarcity of labor, and the institutions supporting feudalism lost prestige.
Neoliberal capitalism was
the incubator for COVID-19
Neoliberal capitalism—led by the world elites and strengthened by the rest of humanity’s passivity or powerlessness—has damaged the social, health and natural conditions of every country in the world, propitiating the spread of all kinds of plagues.
A similar view has been expressed in various ways by others. In a report published in Brazil by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Roberta Zandonai states that the coronavirus pandemic “reflects environmental degradation.”
The Argentinian illustrator and journalist Marina Aizen wrote in 2016 that epidemics “are nothing other than the result of the annihilation of ecosystems—mostly tropical—razed to plant industrial-scale mono-crops. They are also the result of handling and trafficking in wildlife which, in many cases, is in danger of extinction.” She explained how more deforestation results in more explosions of viral diseases, and more mono-cropping and agribusinesses result in more epidemics.
Robert Wallace, a biologist who has studied a century of pandemics, argues that the capitalist production model (mono-cropping and industrialized fattening of animals), which mixes pesticides, transgenic foods, antibiotics and antivirals at the expense of natural ecology generates increasingly more dangerous pathogens for humanity.
Wallace believes that COVID-19 is related to these production methods. The corporations and companies behind this agri-food system and the industrial breeding of animals for human food are so powerful that they govern those who say they rule our countries.
Bayer, Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF and Corteva are in the transgenic business while Cargill, Bunge, ADM and others are in the animal feed business.
Where markets rule
State authority has been reduced throughout the world in the last 40 years and market forces such as these agri-business corporations have taken over world governance, even education and health systems, which have to a large extent been privatized.
The markets imposed strict fiscal discipline on the States—reducing spending, increasing interest rates and eroding social rights—in order to attract foreign investment. The result: global big capital moved its companies to countries where the working class receives low wages and has no unions or laws to protect it.
According to the Gimbe Foundation, in the last 10 years Italy has lost 70,000 hospital beds; 359 hospital wards have been closed and many small hospitals have been converted to other purposes or abandoned as a result of the reduction in social spending.
In Spain, unions report that between January and February of this year, in full coronavirus expansion, 18,320 healthcare workers were laid off, similar to what happened in 2013, a year of adjustment policies and cutbacks. These policies turned health into a commodity subject to the laws of the market, dominated by the corporations.
Making matters worse, healthcare systems in Latin America tend to be bureaucratic, urban, racist and non-preventive. People who go to a health center with a serious illness are very frequently given an appointment several months later. Furthermore, the rural population in multiethnic countries rightly resists going to what they see as mono-cultural systems.
It was capitalist greed
Was it bats, pangolins, a Wuhan seafood market or a virus created in a Chinese laboratory? Whatever the answer, the causes are found in capitalist voracity. For more than a century, capitalist “culture” has misled us into individualism: into taking advantage of others, having no interest in collective collaboration, making us live under the rule of “I am, if I destroy you.” It has led companies to the principle of “the more resources I control, the more I dominate you.” It has driven us to consumerism at the cost of debt. As they said in a rural Central American community, “When the price for coffee was good, we bought a motorbike or a car, even though we didn’t need it and only used it once a week.” Put more succinctly, the causes lie in greed.
Capitalist ambition has contaminated humanity, nature, ecosystems, the planet. Throughout the world, it has induced diabetes, obesity, hypertension and more in the human population. It has paved the way for plagues to multiply and affect us. This is the factory for COVID-19 and the other future pandemics the scientific community is warning us about.
does make distinctions
It is said, without much reflection, that COVID-19 makes no racial, social or national distinctions… only differentiates by age, in that it affects children less and the elderly more.
By simply looking at the data on victims, however, we realize that it does make distinctions: it targets the most vulnerable, especially those most affected by capitalism.
It has affected more men than women and much more those living in overcrowded cities, especially in the poor neighborhoods of big cities such as Guayaquil in Ecuador; more of the African-American and Latino populations in the US; and more of those over 70 years of age…
The Spanish writer and activist Clara Valverde says in her book The necro-politics of neoliberalism (2015) that neoliberalism applies necro-politics: it leaves those people who aren’t profitable for capitalism to die, those who neither produce nor consume, or, as this graffiti puts it: Under the dictatorship they killed us, now they just leave us to die.
The expansion of COVID-19 in Latin America could be especially lethal for its indigenous peoples. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA: https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenous-peoples-es/areas-de-trabajo/salud.html), over half of indigenous people older than 35 suffer from type 2 diabetes, one of the preconditions worsening vulnerability to COVID-19 .
There’s a palpable difference in the life expectancy of indigenous peoples and other peoples. In Guatemala they live 13 years less, in Panama 10, in Mexico 6, in Nepal 20, in Australia 20, in Canada 17, and in New Zealand 11.
COVID-19 could be brutal to them, which would also affect the forests, because where there are forests there are indigenous peoples: it’s their habitat. Despite this, it’s notable that the word indigenous doesn’t even appear in the repeated statements by governments about the pandemic.
COVID-19 among those above
and those below… way below
This differentiation between the effects of COVID-19 on the health and economy of certain sectors and others, of certain places and others, leads us to the award-winning Korean film Parasites (2019). We can imagine or guess that the pandemic’s effects would be very different in the poor and resourceful family that lives cramped up in the basement and the very rich family that lives in a huge and practically vacant house with all the comforts.
For example, the rain in Parasites, which the son of the rich couple perceives as a diversion, a relief from the heat and even motive for a party the next day, is a veritable tragedy for the poor family, which loses the little it has because their basement and those of their neighbors get flooded.
The same is true for COVID-19. For the elites of the world, who live “above,” the problem is one of health, and the compulsory quarantine is a huge nuisance that interrupts their lifestyle. For the millions who live “below” and survive hand to mouth in the cities and the countryside, the problem is also one of health but of everything else too. Whether to die from the virus or from hunger is the dilemma facing those millions who live in the planet’s “basement.”
different responsibilities and visions
This differentiation is also expressed in the awareness of the different generations that today coexist on the planet. In Europe there’s a debate about COVID-19 and climate change between the current generation and that of the “baby boomers,” those born after World War II between 1946 and 1964.
To some extent, climate change is the result of actions taken by the baby boomer generation, after their parents made the effort to build a welfare state following the Great Depression of 1929 and then the disasters of World War II.
Venture capitalist Bruce Gibney accuses US baby boomers of looting the country’s economy by cutting taxes for the richest and ignoring climate change, thus ruining previous generations’ legacy of large infrastructure and leading to bankruptcy, which the current generation now has to pay for. Today, while COVID-19 more cruelly attacks third-age people—the baby boomers of yesteryear—the current generation is fighting to protect them and themselves.
In Latin America, the older generations born after 1930 accelerated the expansion of the agricultural frontier as demand for meat grew in the US. Those in the large cities, seeing how forests were being replaced by pasture for cattle, resisted capitalist agribusiness, faced military dictatorships and passed on a deep distrust of the depredating State to generations that followed.
That generation of over-60s, who assured their children’s education without themselves having studied, is now under attack by COVID-19. Today’s generation, while sometimes falling into consumerism and religious or ideological fundamentalism, advocates non-authoritarian societies, defend sustainable agriculture as part of their past, worry about climate change and, far from questioning their grandparents, fight, like their peers in the US, to protect them and themselves.
Home quarantine for everyone?
During the worst years of the Black Death (1347-1353), rich Europeans went to their country homes, while the poor remained terrified and overcrowded in the cities, where they were kept isolated and under surveillance. Today, fear is spread on Facebook, Twitter, the social networks… and people must stay at home, in lockdown, while borders are closed and health systems are overwhelmed.
The compulsory quarantine project assumes that home is a safe and harmonious place and that everyone has a house, which isn’t usually the reality of the cities’ poor neighborhoods and rural communities.
Mandatory confinement assumes that every family has savings or daily income, which isn’t the case for most families in many countries, as they depend on the informal economy and live in rented accommodations. The political class should take a public bus and get off at the last stop where the subterranean city begins… There they should reflect on social and economic policies that could make a difference in the lives of these, the majority of the population.
More than strengthening health systems and providing truthful information about the pandemic, some governments seem interested in taking advantage of it to increase authoritarianism and validate questionable measures. It shouldn’t be forgotten that following the emergency from the 9/11 attacks, the US government effectively legalized torture as a method to combat terrorism.
In the United States, Trump’s government isn’t so much interested in saving the poorest from COVID-19. It is far more interested in saving the large companies that helped create conditions that incubate the plague and, at the same time, threaten Venezuela, where big US and Chinese companies contributed to the conditions that generated COVID-19.
In Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, Bolsonaro’s government is responding to the pandemic with religious fundamentalism and dismissing science’s inputs to stop its spread. The greatest risk is that if those who incubated COVID-19 and will incubate future plagues present themselves as the bearers of solutions, whether directly or mediated by authoritarian governments. We would then be on the verge of a new plundering of public assets, humanity’s common and natural assets.
Brutal austerity imposed by big capital
Big capital is lying in wait behind today’s fears and the authoritarianism of both governments and the market. In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), the Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein explains how big capital has taken advantage of natural and social disasters in the last 30 years to dismantle what remains of the welfare State in order to impose the neoliberal model.
Now, with the advent of the pandemic caused by COVID-19, and in a virtual meeting from her home, Klein reflects that we do need to stay home and one of the reasons is because our leaders didn’t heed the warning signs and imposed brutal economic austerity on the public health system, cutting it back to the bare bones and leaving it unable to cope with this kind of situation… After the 2008 financial crisis, Southern Europe was ground zero for the most sadistic austerity policies. Is it surprising that, despite having to provide public medical care, their hospitals are so badly equipped to deal with this crisis?
Naomi Klein also reminds us that the capitalist system has always been willing to sacrifice life on a massive scale for profit.
The first victim is the truth
Today, big capital could be calculating how to frighten our societies in order to divert our attention from neoliberalism’s nefarious effects, which attract the pandemic and lay the groundwork for wealth accumulation through dispossessing lands and resources; making States invest public resources to improve public health systems that are later privatized at ridiculous prices; promoting laws that reduce or exempt the wealthy from taxes; eliminating laws that limit the extraction of natural resources; and imposing and steamrolling investment projects in indigenous territories, always under the principle that the rich are “development’s driving force.”
In revealing the lies with which the United States made war on Iraq, Julian Assange said: “The first victim of war is the truth.” It’s possible that truth is also the first victim of the “war” against COVID-19.
Where’s the “invisible hand” today?
In Latin America today, there’s disinformation, fear, pastors and priests who repeat that the pandemic is a sign of the “end of days” and propose prayers as a spiritual shield. They have done this for centuries and in the face of every disaster… although it’s also true that we are dusting off science and venerating virologists, reluctantly in Trump’s case and clumsily in Bolsonaro’s.
There’s also some civic awareness in our countries, questioning the powerful laws of the world market and the state institutions that have yielded to those laws for many years and imposed the normality of the capitalist system on us. COVID-19 is laying bare today’s world: without leadership or world coordination. It is showing us that the neoliberal emperor has no clothes. Can anyone tell us where the market’s “invisible hand” is coordinating actions against this pandemic?
Perhaps it’s behind the philanthropists who are distributing food in Europe and the US to prevent looting for food, just as USAID did in Central America in 2001, when coffee prices plummeted. It took food to big coffee plantations to keep hungry workers from going out to the highways to demand help from drivers. We’re waking up to the idea that the “developed” countries are really not so developed.
A new awareness
for post COVID-19
Awareness is also growing in this other “underdeveloped” world that COVID-19 can be tackled with coordinated human action: hygiene, solidarity, responsibility, physical distancing, rapid virus-detection testing, scientific information backed by virtual technology…
In Latin America, as in the rest of the world, we are in transition that goes beyond COVID-19: the virus arrived in a context of economic conflict between the US and China over global markets and natural resources, with Europe scarcely out of the Brexit crisis and Latin America divided and constantly besieged by the greed of big capital.
Despite the uncertain economic future and the possibility of an economic depression similar to that of 1929, and with equally uncertain expressions about ongoing climate change, now is the time for our societies—as represented by their different cooperatives, associations, social companies, community organizations, diverse social movements, etc.—along with the very weakened capitalist reformist forces to emerge strengthened. Will the link between the different community organizations and social movements and the capitalist reformist forces (politicians, certain international cooperation agencies, some international organizations) have real potential to alter post COVID-19 trends? It could be. It is this awareness that we are gradually awakening to, like the sun that humanity and all other living things arise to every morning.
The firewall of an
Faced with the crisis of institutional legitimacy and with big capital “lying in wait,” socially legitimate organizations and institutions, including the churches, could make a difference to their members and their communities by providing truthful health information and preaching responsibility and calm through example.
In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari states that humans have the advantage of being able to share information across borders. Korea can advise us on how to deal with COVID-19, something viruses can’t do with each other. Local organizations are the first firewall against the coronavirus in the work of sharing information. Harari says that a motivated and well-informed population is usually much more powerful and effective than an ignorant one under surveillance.
By mobilizing their communities, local organizations and institutions can build a firewall against the coronavirus and future epidemics. The vaccine is a short-term technical solution, exclusively for this virus, not for other, imminent pandemics. If the world continues looking only in one direction like a blinkered horse, responding only technically to COVID-19, we will be left midway.
We must mobilize as an informed public so the responses governments give to the coronavirus don’t facilitate big capital accumulating wealth through dispossession, as happened in the 2008 financial crisis. In that case substantial resources from society were given to the financial system despite it having generated the real estate bubble and causing a world food crisis. Or, as has happened on so many other occasions, when capitalism was resuscitated again and again, stripping societies of their assets: land, water, trees, minerals, public assets, etc.
…of a mobilized public…
In addition to preventing vaccines being handled as commodities, we can’t allow capitalism to continue producing the current immoral black hole of inequality where 1% of the population appropriates 80% of the planet’s wealth and continues intensifying the terrible climate change that is the factory for COVID-19 and those that will follow.
As a mobilized public we must promote fairer tax systems, demanding more taxes from big capital, the driving force behind the neoliberal development model. We must further demand that those taxes be used to improve the capacity of public health systems in every country; that health and education be outside the laws of the market; that health also be accessible to impoverished families; that health systems be multicultural; and that governments strive to save lives regardless of any utilitarian calculation about the economic consequences of doing so.
…and of mindful and
We must also create another firewall of interconnected localities to respond to the causes generating plagues and putting Planet Earth at risk.
We must reflect in an organized way on how social inequality and environmental deterioration favored the arrival of this virus and on how to increase cooperation between communities; expand small production practices, diversified production systems that respect the environment, urban gardens and allotments… Reflect on the urgency of making dietary changes, choosing products that come from sustainable agriculture and breed free range fowl and cattle.
We must promote critical thinking and not repeat traditional religious or other beliefs: “Only God can save us,” “Private always works better,” “Only the rich give us work,” “More agrochemicals mean more food,”… Now is the time for those who are below to organize and make themselves felt, so that those in the “basement” and those on the “first floor” (peasantry, indigenous peoples, laborers…), those who maintain the structure of humanity, are recognized and protected from “savage capitalism.”
It’s the time of small-scale production, which usually maintains most of the population in every country but lacks social security and is the markets’ victim from the weighing stations to the credit they receive from money-lenders, to the prices their produce is valued at. It’s time to build societies that care for our common home, for people and the many ways they organize.
“We’re in a better
position than in 2008″
Naomi Klein says the Earth’s habitability is being sacrificed to our profound ecological crisis, to climate change. We must think what kind of response we’re going to demand. It will have to be based on the principles of a truly regenerative economy, based on care and repair…
She says the good news is that we’re in a better position than in 2008 and 2009. During these years we’ve worked hard in social movements to create platforms of people… She says she’s hopeful because of the ways people are collaborating in the pandemic. It’s ironic: we’ve never been so physically distant and perhaps it’s because of that distance we are so determined to reach out to each other.
The firewall of democratic organizations
The fourth firewall is associative organizations and local institutions working at being democratic, at improving their social fund’s policies—social redistribution of their surpluses—so as to tackle pandemics, organize information backed by technology and be transparent with their members.
We must learn to organize information using cutting-edge technology and at the same time prevent governments from using it to subordinate societies. Organizations in specific zones must learn to coordinate with each other about health, food and climate change challenges, so as to practice participatory and representative democracy and not obedience and an authoritarian mentality, which the Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han says Asian cultures have used to deal with COVID-19.
With the redistribution of surplus, transparency of information, inclusion of women and men of all ages, and different organizations coordinating, we will be able to stop the conflagration of plagues and of savage capitalism and the elites who, with virtual technology, are trying to subordinate societies, with a mere click.
We need a change that
changes the future
In the midst of the current uncertainty and insecurity due to the pandemic and its unpredictable economic, social and political consequences, including whether the US hegemony will be replaced by China or by multipolarity, the only certainty in our societies should be, as Franz Hinkelammert said: I am if you are.
Staying home and in the communities stops the virus in the short term and helps nature regenerate, but we need more than that: a long-term and far-reaching change that changes the future.
It’s time for associative organizations and other institutions to take over leadership of the communities, promoting these four firewalls in the communities to reinvent our societies and their institutions: giving truthful information, preventing capitalism from strengthening itself with the pandemic, reversing the conditions that create viruses by building different futures, and being coherent—democratic, transparent and equitable.
Let’s avoid going back to pre-COVID-19 normality; let’s allow capitalism to die so other futures can be born. The virus won’t defeat capitalism; no virus will make revolution. But as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek says, COVID-19 carries an ideological virus, “the virus of thinking about an alternative society, a society beyond the nation-State, a society that actualizes itself in the form of solidarity and global cooperation.”
It’s we human beings who must rethink and hatch new futures, against the totalitarian vigilance that countries will try to import from China.
These four firewalls are possible if instead of nationalist isolation we express global solidarity in many ways. Working together for solutions will make our differences small by comparison.
Let’s not be ruled by the fear of death. Fear is a more damaging emotion in times of crisis because it creates hysteria and paralyzes action. Yes, COVID-19 is an adversity, but as Benjamin Franklin said: Out of adversity comes opportunity.
Let’s try to see behind the adversity and envision various alternative futures to neoliberalism. They will be possible if, in addition to “I am if you are,” we adopt another principle: “We are if the communities where we live are.”
René Mendoza Vidaurre is a researcher who collaborates with the Minnesota-based Winds of Peace Foundation and accompanies rural organizations of Central America. His son, Inti Gabriel Mendoza Estrada, is a student at Austria’s Graz University of Technology.
Good morning, friends from international aid agencies,
Out of the friendship that I have with a good number of you, I write you this letter from a Central America immersed in an unfavorable context imposed by COVID-19, like most of the countries in the world.
Surely you are rethinking your 2020 agenda and your post CIVID-19 agenda, due to the fact that your budgets will tend to drop, because the economy is deteriorating and governments are adjusting their budgets to the issue of health, and because COVID-19 is leaving us a new institutional context, strengthened States, markets-elites weakened and a new perspective on climate change, while our societies are slowly awakening.
COVID-19 is revealing the “emperor has no clothes” (story written by Hans Christian Andersen, in 1837): “disaster capitalism” for decades privatized public goods like the health care system, has dispossessed indigenous peoples and peasant families of their lands, and has appropriated natural common goods (wood, minerals, water, oil…); a plunder possible thanks to the hierarchical, authoritarian and patriarchal structures of our own societies. This is the fertile soil for COVID-19 to multiply like sunflowers or soy beans on long plantations. COVID-10 is affecting the entire world, but affects more vulnerable people, the elderly, the Afro-american and Hispanic populations in the United States, because they are an impoverished and low paid population. It is a virus that is transmitted not just by coughing, but through normal breathing. Even without touching them, the virus is squeezing the working class, and diminishing the three meals of families in the informal economy. Even though the mortality affects more men, women who deal daily with family meals and human health suffer the daily stress more than any other social group, and are those most affected by gender violence. Impoverished people from the rural area who distrust the State from centuries ago, will prefer to die in their homes than go to the health centers. The cry of the earth and the cry of impoverished people is heard more severely in the universe.
It is important to connect the short-term urgencies with the long term needs. In the short term, it is important that they be based on facts like the effects of the virus that I just mentioned, and prevent big capital from imposing their economic logic on human life – that people go back to work sacrificing human lives. In the long term we must recognize that COVID-19 has to do with the impact of capitalism that has eroded our society and our common home, planet earth – which commonly is repeated as climate change. This is the fertile soil for COVID-19 and other diseases that scientists predict will come. It is our duty to keep big capital from wanting to ignore the current reality and return us to the “normality” prior to COVID-19. We need to change not for a while, but forever.
There is a saying that “behind every adversity is an opportunity”. The world is awakening, there is the opportunity. Humanity is realizing that the first floor that sustains the edifice of humanity are the indigenous and peasant families who produce food and protect nature, above all when these families are organized into different associative forms in their own communities, led by principles of social and environmental justice. It is not nefarious agro-business, the mono-cropping system, industrial animal raising or extractivism led by market justice the path for preventing diseases and dealing with climate change. This is the opportune moment to work with these families who are organizing, particularly because of their ecological knowledge and traditional practices.
International aid organizations should think about quick ways to capture alternative resources, and/or adjust their resources to the opportunities that would lead us to build societies with social and environmental justice. Thinking about more effective ways to work with grassroots organizations (associations, cooperatives, social enterprises, community organizations, social movements) that move about in the communities themselves, not so much with NGOs (or second tier organizations), that are confined – for safety – to their homes and cities. We should think about mechanisms that would ensure work at the grassroots level in order to expand sustainable production. Because the worst is not COVID-19, what is worse are the conditions that incubated COVID-19, and what is coming after it. And it is this alliance among community organizations and some international aid organizations more committed to social and environmental justice that can change for the good these post COVID-19 tendencies.