31 de octubre de 2020
Hispanic World

Venezuelans helping Venezuelans: Aid networks mitigating Covid-19 crisis

By Gonzalo Dominguez Loeda

By Gonzalo Dominguez Loeda

Caracas, Sep 10 (efe-epa).- Blanca, Angel and Ali wait nervously for Monday to roll around. They are elderly and live alone in Caracas, which is beset by the coronavirus pandemic and the country's ongoing economic, political and social crisis, but - at the beginning of the week - they welcome neighborhood volunteers who deliver lunches for the coming five days to them, provide limited health attention regarding the virus and, most important these days, a little company.

"The situation is terrible. We receive a pension of about 400,000 bolivares that, according to the exchange rate, comes to about $1.30 per month. What can a person do with $1.30 per month?" Blanca, 81, asks drying her tears at the door of her home.

She has worked her entire life but 2020 is the worst year she's ever faced. On top of tyhe devastating economic crisis in which Venezuela is mired, there's the social crisis. Four of her children have left the country along with eight of her grandchildren.

In this tremendously vulnerable situation, the pandemic - which hits the elderly especially hard - has forced people to resort to extreme measures in a country where the health care system has collapsed and going to the hospital is scarier than the actual disease.

And if you get infected with the virus? "They'll bury me," Blanca responds with a dignity and clarity that is unsettling.

Her situation is not unique and Venezuelans know it. The five million citizens who have abandoned the country seeking a better future elsewhere know it and so do the people who have remained and are fighting day in and day out to get by. Among this latter group, the vital need to help one another has taken hold, with a focus on aiding the most vulnerable as the only solution to the crisis, the pandemic and the exodus.

That is the case for journalist Veronica Gomez, who one day called up a friend and told him that she wanted to help out the elderly living alone and afraid of the pandemic.

"I don't want to go to the nursing homes. I want to go to the homes of the grandparents who don't have their kids here, who had to leave the country," Gomez recalls that she told her friend.

Thus was born the Buen Vecino (Good Neighbor) plan, a handful of people who know that the aid they can give to people living in the same building is the only thing many folks in Venezuela have to count on now that their personal and family networks have broken down due to emigration.

"We've been growing and today we're delivering 1,000 meals per week to 200 elderly people. Those people have been changing and so we're delivering to about 1,000 people in a month," said Gomez, who heads a group of 13 volunteers who ply Caracas providing meals and other aid, sometimes in their vehicles and sometimes on bicycles, due to the scarcity of gasoline.

The majority of those who receive the aid are retirees between 70 and 80 whose children live abroad and who are "on their own at home," but the network also delivers meals to some younger people.

"We'd arrive five months ago and they were impeccable ... Now, their clothing is too large, they don't shave, or they don't tuck their shirt in because they're sad. They're at home, under quarantine for a long time, they're alone. They don't speak with anyone, and the biggest job the Buen Vecino plan has is not food but providing company," she said.

Far from the Buen Vecino headquarters, in a seemingly different Caracas, Angelo Rangel has been working for years in his Las Palmas neighborhood, in the El Cementerio district, one of the most residential areas of the Venezuelan capital and to which the police have blocked access.

Rangel has reoriented his efforts. Seemingly immune to the discouragement that permeates the streets of Las Palmas, he focuses on making his neighborhood a better place and recently he has been trying to give a hand to the health care workers, who lack even the most basic equipment and supplies to protect themselves from the virus.

"About a month ago ... (the project) arose from the need we all know about: there are not enough medical supplies," he said.

At an improvised workshop and with the help of five other volunteers, Rangel now fashions by hand assorted protective facial shields that workers can wear to protect them from other people's coughs and sneezes. These are basic items for those who are on the front lines of working to beat the virus.

The social networks are the basis from which Rangel and Gomez operate. They provide the glue that helps bond people together with a solidarity that makes Venezuela a little bit better country amid the crisis.

"It's uncomfortable because we're showing a reality that shouldn't be happening. We should have a government that guarantees this ... I want to be a drop in the ocean" to help improve things for people, said Rangel.


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