Letter from Cochabamba

Bolivia
Health

Letter from Cochabamba

It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m cycling to a fundraiser fair. I’m worried about finding it: the address is a nondescript corner in the suburbs, and Bolivians are not in the habit of putting up signs for anything. It turns out my concern is unfounded.

I had been envisaging a quiet affair in a community hall. When I get there, I find half of the road has been closed for several blocks. There is a stage, pounding music, and several hundred people.

This is a kermesse, a solidarity fair raising money for my friend Jose Luis’s best friend, Pablo. A serious motorbike accident has left him in intensive care, and his family have been landed with an enormous medical bill.

The event is heaving when I arrive. Stands are selling typical Cochabamban and Bolivian dishes: peanut soup, lapping (flank steak with broad beans and corn) and milanesa (fried, breaded meat or chicken with rice and salad), as well as the local beer, Taquiña. Dancers in bright green outfits and feathered hats dance t’inkus to the song T’una Papita by legendary folk band, Kjarkas. The queues for food tickets reach right across the fair.

I am blown away by the turnout, an example of the solidarity that is my favourite thing about Bolivia. Someone tells me that 800 plates of food were cooked for the occasion. Many people here don’t even know Pablo, but they have shown up because they know his family and friends, or heard about it through their neighbourhood association.

Families stroll about snacking on sweets, and the atmosphere reminds me of fetes in my village in England, but there is a haunting twist. Posters either side of the stage and t-shirts worn by the organisers bear photos of Pablo’s face and words of support: ‘Don’t give up now, Pablo!’

A lady with a collecting tin comes round. Taped to the side is a portrait of him: an attractive, confident-looking guy with a well-kept haircut and a strong jaw. Next to it is a grainy photo of him lying in a hospital bed, his face swollen, pale except for the bruises. I don’t even know him, but the sight makes me go cold inside.

In Bolivia, death always seems to be a little closer than at home. Tabloids print grotesque images of the victims of grizzly crimes every day. Bolivian life expectancy is 70 years, over 10 years younger than my native Britain’s 81, according to WHO data.

Heartening as it is to see the outpouring of support for Pablo, I am dismayed that this is necessary at all. The right to life must be the most basic right a human can have, yet the cost of the medical care required just for him to stay alive means his family need the support of an entire community.

Stories such as this are common in Bolivia: other friends had to sell their house and live in a makeshift home of tarpaulins and wooden fencing when one of their brothers got leukaemia. Watching the news with my colleague some weeks ago, an impassioned appeal was broadcast for a single mother with an agonizing medical condition in her leg. She was filmed, sobbing in pain, asking for support from anyone who was watching. ‘In Bolivia, if you don’t have money, you die,’ my colleague said.

I watch the packed tables, the snaking queues, the dancers, all in support of one man. As the US government moves to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the British NHS, which provides free healthcare, faces chronic funding shortages, I imagine how many Bolivian lives would be transformed if healthcare were free or comprehensive insurance affordable. To me, the idea that accident or illness could throw you into destitution is probably the most chilling aspect of life in a country where such a safety net doesn’t exist.

A few days after the kermesse, I found out that Pablo didn’t make it. Now, not only are his family grieving, they are also faced with huge medical costs. I am sure that if Bolivia had free or easily affordable healthcare, any attempt to remove such provisions would be met with riots. More developed countries shouldn’t lose sight of that – anything else is an injustice.

Amy Booth is a freelance journalist and circus instructor living in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

mag cover This article is from the July 2017 issue of New Internationalist. You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial now »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop