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Bogotá: How an extranjera compares

Encountering the Colombian capital beyond the pink and blue colonial-style walls of her temporary home has shown Sofie Sommer Lang how different the lots of near neighbours can be; but she has quiet ambition for her urban acquaintances, beyond the virus.

Photo by Sofie Sommer Lang

"Los extranjeros traen el virus” (the foreigners bring the virus), a man whispered when I passed him yesterday on my way home from the supermarket. The man’s name is Jorge, he sells books from a blanket on the sidewalk in La Candelaria, the scenic colonial part of the metropol Bogotá, Colombia. I’ve passed Jorge every day the last two months I’ve been living here as an exchange student, greeting him, but, this is written with shame, as I never buy any of his books.

His comment actually surprised me: I’ve spent two months trying to become part of the everyday life of the busy, polluted, poor, friendly, chaotic, beautiful, ugly, rich, cultured, labyrinthine city that is Bogotá. Not as a Colombian, because I’m well aware that I’m not, but at least not as una extranjera. Not completely, anyways, and definitely not a contagious one.

Actually, somehow Jorge was right: A lot of the — at the moment 93 — Colombian Covid-cases have been ‘imported’, meaning brought with Colombians or foreigners arriving together with their infections. Where the infection numbers are bad in my home country Denmark, just over a 1000 persons, especially for a small country with 5.5m inhabitants, the social and sanitary infrastructure is well-developed and basically strong. And even though Colombia is now a much more stable country than just a couple of years ago, it’s a country of the so-called ‘Global South’ with less of an economic, social and sanitary infrastructure than, let’s say, Denmark. Here, the scenario of 1000 infected would look completely different.

Photo by Sofie Sommer Lang

And while we, the foreigners, and the Colombians with the possibility of traveling are the ones bringing the virus into the country, we’re not the ones who would suffer most from an infection. I, for instance, have health insurance through my Colombian university that would give access to a good hospital in the case that I were be infected (hopefully not!), and so has my Colombian flatmate — the woman who owns the house I live in — and her 5-year-old son. We would be fine.

But just three blocks East of our house, further up one of the mountains surrounding the city, in the neighbourhood of Egipto, the situation is different. I’ve never been, because I’ve been told you shouldn’t go on your own as a blue-eyed and pale Danish girl; Egipto is poor and was for many years known as one of the most violent parts of the city. And even though this social situation might slowly be changing, that doesn’t mean that the access to an efficient healthcare has changed, or that the health and immune systems of the inhabitants of Egipto, living rough lives, have changed.

Or, for instance, imagine Jorge, the bookseller on the street, in the case that he were infected. I don’t think that he would be fine either.

The unfairness of survival is a constant unfairness — meaning survival depending on access to healthcare or food or water, access to basic resources — is a global and historic unfairness, not at all particular to Colombia, that the Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 tried to eradicate, but until now hasn’t succeeded in changing.

I would hope that the pandemic would make us, a global community, rethink the way the world is constructed; what is important, what is not; the systemic imbalances and unfairnesses. The luck of some countries, the misfortune of others.

Photo by Sofie Sommer Lang

But this, I know, is an unrealistic hope, so for now I hope that the Colombian government’s measures against the spreading of the Coronavirus will work effectively; that the closing down of the maritime and terrestrial borders, the curfew of selected cities, the airport checks that so far have been inefficient, and the four days of ‘simulated quarantine’ in Bogotá starting at midnight this Friday, I hope that all these measures will knock down the spread of the virus.

But this too might even be too big a hope.

So principally, I hope that Jorge and all of the Colombians will get through this crisis together. And that even though I’m an extranjera, I’m doing the best I can, and that is indeed very little, as it is for everyone, to help us, us being the collective of human bodies of Bogotá and Colombia and South America and ultimately the Globe, get through as unhurt as possible.

More modestly, I hope that there will be more beers left in the stores tomorrow, so that we can have our quarantine party in our pink and blue colonial style house this weekend. So that we won’t go crazy, 10 people living together.

And of course I hope to see Jorge again when the quarantine is over, so I can greet him, and that he’ll recognize me; and so, that I can finally buy one of his books.

This story was shared by Sofie Sommer Lang, a Danish master student in Comparative Literature, currently living in Bogotá, Colombia.

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