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COVID-19 worsens already difficult situation for older refugees in Latin America


COVID-19 worsens already difficult situation for older refugees in Latin America

A new study shows that the coronavirus pandemic has made it even harder for older refugees and other forcibly displaced people to feed themselves and keep a roof over their heads.
26 May 2021

When he was younger, Agapito Escobar relied on all sorts of creative solutions to make ends meet. A farmer and fruit vendor back in his native Colombia, he also made and sold his own bread and even panned for gold after he was forced to seek asylum in neighbouring Ecuador nearly two decades ago.

But Agapito is now 64, and he can no longer manage the hard physical labour he used to rely on to eke out a living. This, combined with the difficulties refugees often face trying to access the job market, as well as the added financial strain brought on by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, means that Agapito and his 79-year-old partner, Wilma, are slipping into destitution.

“There are days when we only eat breakfast… and in the afternoon, we just drink a glass of water,” he said, adding that they have been forced to rely on candlelight since their electricity was cut off due to lack of payment.

With much of Latin America still in the throes of a devastating second wave of the virus, COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions have wiped out the one source of income the couple still had – Wilma’s sporadic work as a midwife, assisting local women with complicated deliveries.

“There are days when we only eat breakfast.”

Situations like that of Agapito and Wilma are not unusual. A survey carried out in five Latin American countries by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and HelpAge International, an umbrella group of organizations serving older people, suggests the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening the circumstances of displaced people in this vulnerable group, making it even harder for them to meet their most basic needs.

“Older persons in forced displacement have long encountered neglect and insufficient protection,” said José Samaniego, Director of UNHCR’s Regional Bureau for the Americas, which helped carry out the survey in Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras and Peru. “Their full inclusion in national responses to the pandemic is key in order to safeguard their dignity and rights.”

Agapito chats with a UNHCR Field Assistant about the struggles he faces amid the pandemic.
Agapito chats with a UNHCR Field Assistant about the struggles he faces amid the pandemic.

Some 64 per cent of those surveyed reported having had no steady source of income before the pandemic, which has hit Latin America disproportionately hard. But COVID-19 further compounded their economic woes, leaving half of those who had had jobs in the Andean region unemployed, while one-third of formerly employed respondents in Honduras and El Salvador were left jobless amid pandemic lockdowns. The same pattern held for nutrition. One in four respondents said they were already having to skip meals before the pandemic, but 41 per cent of those surveyed reported having to further cut their daily food intake over the past year.

The pandemic has also taken a toll on the ability of older refugees and migrants to receive the health care they need. Forty-two per cent of respondents said they were not receiving treatment for prior health conditions. Coronavirus has also taken a toll on older people’s mental health, with just 26 per cent of respondents reporting being in daily contact with family members – which has, in turn, led to a significant spike in feelings of isolation and loneliness.

“It’s like being a prisoner.”

Raúl*, a 69-year-old subsistence farmer from El Salvador who was forced to flee his home some years ago due to death threats from local gang members, said he has suffered from the effects of stay-at-home orders.

“It’s harmed us both physically and in terms of our morale,” said Raúl, who lives with his wife, their daughter and a grandchild in a small farming community on the other side of the country from the home they were forced to leave. “Being cooped up inside for such a long time is really hard, especially for older people like us. … Not being able to go out freely makes us suffer, it stresses us out and gives us headaches.”

“It’s like being a prisoner,” said Raúl, adding he has not received treatment for his high blood pressure and asthma since the start of the pandemic.

COVID-19 had an even more dire effect on Yomaira González, a 62-year-old from Venezuela who decamped to the Colombian border city of Riohacha along with her husband, daughter and five grandchildren. Their hopes of finding steady work failed to materialize, and with the daughter’s sale of candies on the street as their only source of income, the family had no choice but to take shelter in the city's stadium, sleeping all together on a single mattress squeezed into a sort of utility closet. When her daughter fell ill with coronavirus, Yomaira, her husband and the kids not only lost their sole source of income but also had to sleep in one of the stadium’s stairwells, in a bid to avoid contagion.

“Ever since my daughter fell ill, I’ve been so sad,” said Yomaira, who has lost 12 kilos since the start of the pandemic. “Sometime when I close my eyes, I hope not to open them ever again.”

Reinaldo Bottoni, a 69-year-old who fled his native Venezuela, alone and on foot, just weeks before the pandemic reached South America in March, 2020, was fortunate to have found a spot in a shelter in the Peruvian capital, Lima, just before strict lockdown measures went into effect there.

“In principle, I was supposed to stay two weeks,” he said of the Scalabrini House shelter, where he has spent the past 15 months. Reinaldo considers himself extremely lucky – he calls the shelter a “five-star hotel without a pool” – and tries to pull his weight by volunteering in the kitchen and helping out with other tasks. Still, he sorely misses being able to work.

“I would do whatever kind of work in exchange for a bed and a daily meal,” he says, adding, “but there’s no way to work now.”

*Name changed for protection reasons.