On Being a Community Leader in Times of Pandemic
Under the double threat of forced quarantine and the daily struggle for survival, barrios in Caracas suddenly become harsher for those trying to help.
Photo: Caracas Mi Convive.
The constant visits, the listening, and the genuine affection for the people you work with are a key part of Caracas Mi Convive, a social movement that focuses on violence prevention initiatives at working-class neighborhoods with high homicide rates, through community organization and strengthening local leadership.
But how can you possibly reach and work hand-in-hand with those in dire need for help with the recently imposed quarantine and social distancing measures?
Just a few weeks ago, for example, we inaugurated two basketball courts with the help of locals in La Vega and in Nuevo Horizonte, in the deepest part of Catia, western Caracas. Hundreds of people showed up to celebrate the complete renovation of the La Vega basketball court, with an artistic design and new rules for the peaceful coexistence of the community. In Nuevo Horizonte, the reduced available space made the neighbors improvise and find a basketball hoop donation through a network of sports trainers organized by one of our team members.
Sanitary recommendations say that you need to keep social distance and wash your hands regularly, but many folks in La Vega can’t afford that luxury.
Now the scenario has dramatically changed. The acts of solidarity and trust-building mean staying at home. Our community leaders have to listen from a distance how the residents of impoverished neighborhoods, people they work side-by-side and care about, are exposing themselves to contagion because they need to go out for income. The community leader from Chapellín, a barrio in eastern Caracas, told me that one of his neighbors must go to the La Guaira port, about an hour away from Caracas, to sell coffee because she can’t feed her family otherwise. A barber in his building went downstairs to see if someone was looking for a haircut. Mototaxis wait for passengers on corners, like the whole COVID-19 thing just doesn’t exist.
In La Vega, people need to violate the quarantine to look for water. Sanitary recommendations say that you need to keep social distance and wash your hands regularly, but many folks in La Vega can’t afford that luxury and some are also looking for ways to get cash, despite the well-known warnings. A La Vega community leader told me that “people are saying that you either die from the virus or from hunger.”
Improvised popular markets of Catia and El Valle are overcrowded, as they are any other day. In these neighborhoods, people don’t respect social distancing because merchants need to sell and families need to eat. Even after state security forces militarized those streets a few days ago, people are still going out.
Police cars patrol Nuevo Horizonte every 15 minutes with speakers saying that you need to stay at home and the use of surgical masks is mandatory. The chavista CLAP subsidy box hasn’t arrived at this community for more than 20 days and in Cota 905, a nearby slum, there’s the rumor of armed gangs enforcing the quarantine with firearms.
The strategies and tools we use every day are discouraged because they could spread the COVID-19, so we must adjust.
Even though our job description says that violence prevention is our focus, we see that as the means to our goal of developing a network of local leaders who can articulate the necessary resources and stakeholders for the most pressing issues in their surroundings. Yet it’s hard for a team who dedicates every day to work closely with these communities to hear about our people stuck between a rock and a hard place. The strategies and tools we use every day are discouraged because they could spread the COVID-19, so we must adjust.
From reading Primo Levi’s writings, I learned that human solidarity is a quality that appears even in the hardest of contexts. These days I experienced that firsthand, listening to the stories some of the local leaders told me.
Carlos, from El Valle, designed a school homework and teaching schedule for the kids of his community, based on his experience tutoring his nine-year-old son. Saray, from El Cementerio, told me that she helped to equally distribute the water between their neighbors so everyone could wash their hands. Jorge, from Artigas, told me that he was going to use a speaker to inform the community about the importance of social distancing from his house balcony, even when he had to go to an emergency dentist appointment two days ago. Douglas, from Chapellín, collected donations for a family whose house burned a few days ago (and actually delivered them!).
I don’t know for how long the COVID-19 emergency will last and how it’s going to transform our lives and the way Caracas Mi Convive works; what I can say is that I’m learning to build a coherent strategy from the testimony of local leaders, the ones whose vocation is to serve others.
Their solidarity transcends the barriers of quarantine.
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