This article was originally written for my email newsletter
March 2020: Corona in Colombia
I´m here at the Rainbow Crystal Land , a community on a 15 ha piece of land in the mountains of southern Colombia. Everyone who shares the vision of living in unity with nature and in conscious community is welcome here. There are no leaders and no fixed rules, only so-called basic agreements such as non-violence, respect and no hiarchies.
When I arrive here in November 2019 there are about 15 people who have come together here. Some people do their own thing, but most of them cook their meals together in the community kitchen and spend time together. I set up a comfortable camp to meet my need for privacy and time for myself. Especially after half a year with the boat caravan on the Amazon, I urgently need a place to rest and process.
Here my decision grows how to go on. After eight years this journey should come to an end. It is time to return to my roots and to let my life flow into a different direction. My plan is to fly to Madrid in April and cycle back to Germany from there. But of course it comes different.
15th March 2020: I´m on the weekly shopping mission in town for the community, which has grown to 80 people due to a gathering. At the market I enjoy a delicious hot chocolate and the for this region famous yuca bread while I check my mobile phone, because there is also good internet in town. First news of the Corona virus spill over the screen. Flights are really cheap, especially to Spain. I can’t imagine that there could be a complete flight stop and I almost book a flight.
20th March: Only a few days later the Colombian government closes all air and land borders, no one can enter or leave the country and a strict curfew is placed on the whole country. All foreigners in town get registered by the police and put under forced quarantine for two weeks in hostels and hotels. Rumours are spreading that all foreigners would be deported to their home countries. The hospitals would have already announced that they will only treat Colombians. Reports of hostility of some locals against the gringos, the travellers who brought the virus into the country, are making the rounds. It is difficult to get reliable information, there is limited mobile phone reception in the community and the internet is usually too slow for websites.
These are turbulent days of uncertainty and speculation. The mental virus of fear has already arrived and is spread by some people. How long will the food last for so many people? When can we go shopping again? Will there be anything to buy at all?
What if the virus gets here? With virtually no hygiene measures and much physical contact including holding hands before eating? Where do we make a quarantine camp for the infected? How many people will die? Should we officially close the community? What if the police comes? Or the guerrillas? Or the paramilitaries? Or other gangs of robbers? What will happen in a country with complicated power structures and a long history of violence and armed conflict? And with a large number of people who cannot afford to stockpile supplies or to not to work because of a curfew?
Some people seriously believe that this is the beginning of the end, the next big step into a totalitarian, totally top-down controlled society. Or that it is the long awaited and at the same time feared system collapse and that we are falling into a dark post-virus-apocalypse-world where everyone is fighting for his own survival. But even the more level-headed think that it is a good idea to stock up on food and buy building materials while they still can. But they also reassure and admonish not to give in to fears and rather act out of trust and love. They dispel the rumours and provide tangible information.
So it turns out that we can still go to town for shopping, even if only on certain days and only a few people. Even a visit of the police, which some have long feared, provides reassurance. There is no threat of eviction and even expired residence permits do not interest anyone. Apart from the fact that no one can leave or arrive in the community, the living conditions don´t change much.
But what happens to a group of people who are suddenly stuck in a place that many of them actually just wanted to leave to continue their journey?
Welcome to the restriction-free group quarantine
In this difficult situation, the group is growing closer together. The Colombians organize the purchases of the others who cannot enter the city, trade relations with the neighbors are deepened, the community building projects receive a considerable increase in support and in record time a new garden is created and planted with fast growing potatoes.
Fears of food shortages have led to not only the community stockpile being well stocked, but also many people cooking in their own camps and generously sharing their food with those who have no money to buy their own food. Knowledge about healthy eating is shared and recipes for natural remedies are exchanged. One day of the week is declared “Dia de Sanacion“, a day of healing, where only raw food is served and workshops and activities on various topics are offered.
Even the more anxious people (like me) who avoided hugs for a while and keept distance to people with a cold, give it up when it becomes clear that the virus is symptom-free or mild in the majority of people and is more of a threat to the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions. Here are just a handful over 40.
Actually a pretty good place for times like these. Here are all the conditions to grow food and to live independently and close to nature. And the Corona Crisis has given the importance of this vision even more significance.
What is it like outside of the Rainbow Crystal Land Bubble?
April 20th : I haven´t been to town for five weeks. First they said that foreigners were not allowed to go out, then the same rules should apply to them as to Colombians. Only one person of the nuclear family is allowed to leave the house on a certain weekday to go shopping. Only grocery stores and pharmacies are open, the market too. There, hand washing and mouth protection is compulsory, the police checks the entrances. The last number of the cedula, the colombian photo identification, determines on which day of the week one is allowed to leave the house. It is quiet in town, hardly any people on the streets and in the shops, really pleasant. Only the fear of some people can be felt, who keep their distance and bawl at you when your tapa boca slips under your nose. I use the opportunity of better internet and inform myself. There are hardly other topics than Corona on the news pages. Numbers determine the reporting. Death figures, death rates, case numbers, spreading speeds, counters that are constantly rising, numbers that are getting bigger and bigger, more and more threatening. Numbers that have to be reduced, deaths that have to be avoided and lives that have to be saved. Finally a crisis against which there are clear and effective measures. That can be brought under control, that can be fought, that can be defeated. A pleasant change for the media and politicians who must be tired of the everlasting climate crisis. And also a good opportunity to try out the totalitarian possibilities of the so-called democratic states. Massive restrictions on the freedom of movement and assembly, forced quarantine and medical treatment, compulsory mouth protection, use of mobile phone position data for movement tracking, etc..
Will all these measures be lifted again? Or at least be kept in the back hand to be reactivated quickly if necessary, as many of the anti-terror measures after September 11th? Or is Corona even the new terror? Where people are made scared and then they are ready to give away their freedom.
All in the name of saving lives. The lives of the old and weak who are especially vulnerable. Very commendable indeed! And the measures seem to be having an effect, the deprivation of freedom for a few weeks seems justified to save the lives. But what is the price of these rescue measures?
For one thing, there is the psychological damage done by the quarantine. What about people who are already socially isolated and have not had any direct contact for weeks? No physical contact with others? The loneliness crisis of our society will probably increase. Depressions due to financial existential crises or increased loneliness will probably increase, as well as suicide rates, just like the use of crisis hotlines already reported by several countries.Isn’t isolation and separation exactly the opposite of what we need in this world? Shouldn’t we actually hug everyone before we interact? To connect on the human level and to be able to lead the following interaction more with the heart?
But much more direct and visible are the economic consequences of the lockdowns. Not all the people affected are privileged to stockup on toilet paper, to work from home or to receive direct support from the state. Here in Colombia, the urban population consists largely of informal workers who work on the streets and earn their rent and food from day to day. For all of them it is a catastrophe to be locked up in the cities under often cramped living conditions and without food. The promised aid money and food deliveries of the government for the poor are seeping away in corrupt channels and often doesn´t arrive at all or only with a great delay. Many people have no choice but to go out on the streets to look for an income opportunity or food. In the poor areas of the cities people hang red clothes out of the window as a sign that they have no food. There are estimates that poverty in Colombia will rise to the levels of 20 years ago. Worldwide, the economic outlook is also rather bleak and the number of people in existential need will increase, especially in the countries of the global south.
The crisis as an opportunity for change
The Corona crisis reveals the fundamental weaknesses of the world’s dominant economic system, not only the global inequalities but also the dependence of companies on sales and steady revenues to cover expenses. There are no reserves and now governments are helping with multi-billion dollar rescue packages, while some companies are still paying dividends to shareholders. Also the more and more privatized health care systems, which force hospitals to work profit-oriented instead of putting the health of the people and best possible care in the foreground, are not prepared for such a crisis. Here in South America even less so than in Europe. In Colombia, doctors are resisting the government’s rule of obligation to work for medical peronal ,because there is not enough protective medical clothing available. Of course, the test capacities and number of intensive care beds are much smaller than in Western countries, which also have completely different possibilities to buy the now so important resources (protective masks, respirators, laboratory chemicals) on the world market.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to invest in a healthy lifestyle in the long term where risk factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity are avoided in the first place?
And to create an awareness where death is not seen as defeat and avoidable at all costs, but as part of life and something unavoidable. This is not to say that intensive care beds and life-prolonging measures have no meaning, but I will say it pragmatically: Life always ends with death. Mortality rate 100 percent! And especially old people die. This taboo subject of death and the avoidance of it at all costs characterizes a society that don´t want to deal with itself and the finiteness of life.
Personally, I would rather live a fulfilled life and when my time comes, let go and die, surrounded by my loved ones instead of being wired up in an intensive care unit and kept alive by machines, surrounded by doctors in protective suits. Not a pretty picture for me.
And how many lives will be saved by these measures? How many years of life? I don’t want to judge whose life is more valuable or even say that all the efforts are a bad thing, but if such far-reaching restrictions in global coordination and the mobilization of huge sums of money are possible, one could also tackle other avoidable deaths.
For example those of the people who drown in the Mediterranean every year, partly because of Germany’s policy as well. How about a little international solidarity for these lost human lives in search of a better life for themselves and their families? Or serious efforts to eliminate the causes of their escape? Why is there actually no up-to-date counter of children dying of hunger worldwide on the news pages? It would stand at 3.5 million by the end of a year, not to speak of the 800 million who go hungry. Is it not possible to take some measures for that? When already more than enough food for all people is produced. Couldn’t we distribute it better? What would it cost? How many years of life would be saved?
It’s also a chance to seriously tackle climate change, to flatten the temperature curve, because this crisis is much bigger and more threatening for mankind and runs the risk of being forgotten. Climate change happens more slowly, often invisibly and is much more complex. But the measures that would have to be taken if we were to listen to the scientists in the climate crisis, cannot be reconciled with an economy based on perpetual growth and consumption-oriented lifestyles. Now would be the opportunity to do things fundamentally differently. But it seems that much remains the same. Politicians are bailing out fossil fuel car and airline industries, and the Eurobonds for weaker countries are loans at preferential terms. Transferred to the community here at Crystalland, this would mean that we would buy a diesel generator instead of solar panels and that my neighbour, from whom I borrow ten bananas because I cannot go shopping, would tell me: “Sure, no problem. This time you only have to give me back eleven instead of twelve.”
The necessary changes towards a fairer and greener life for all can of course be made on a personal level. Here at Rainbow Crystal Land, people come together to try something new instead of repeating old mistakes. To create new ways of life and to go different ways. But this is not always easy, especially with so many people who would like to leave if they could.
6th June: After two and a half months of lockdown the group dynamics have shifted. The sense of community is missing, also because there are two different parts of the land which are five minutes apart. Not all people want to be here, many came just for the Gathering. Not all people want to live in community according to the Rainbow principles and groups have formed. The community kitchen is deserted and no one organizes a shopping mission for everyone. There is a lack of communication and people who are willing to take responsibility. Unpleasant things happen, things disappear and there is conflict, and also the land feels the pressure of so many people. The neighbours complain about drum noise and the consequences of collecting firewood in their forest. The Guarda Indigena is setting up a roadblock near the community because some people are not respecting the quarantine regulations. Here you are only allowed out one day a week, depending on the last digit of your ID number. The police is also angry about the quarantine breakers and new arrivals in times of absolute travel bans. Not everything is always nice and this social experiment goes through different phases with always new challenges, with or without the Corona crisis.
Here in Colombia the peak of the infections has not been reached yet and the quarantine has just been extended until the end of June. But in reality all shops are open again and almost all sectors of the economy are allowed to work.
The health emergency has been extended until 31. August, and with it the closure of borders and international air connections. The situation with the humanitarian rescue flights is complicated and instead of the German summer I am now trapped in the Colombian rainy season. So I have made myself comfortable here and cannot complain, but three months can be quite long if you wait for something. In my case for a possibility to return to Germany.