By Magdalena Zegarra Chiappori, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Survival. Perhaps the word carries more weight today than ever. We are all engaged in this exercise of collective survival. Many of us have found ourselves forced to become accustomed to the unwelcome novelty of the burden of extreme uncertainty. And it is only now that we can understand what it means to live in vulnerability. We now found ourselves in a time when people across the world are clinging—with or without hope—to life. And while many of us have experienced this vulnerability for the first time in our personal history, there are those who have lived a lifetime of mere survival. Ideas of survival shape how the older adults with whom I did fieldwork in a dilapidated long-stay care residence in Lima, Peru, are battling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Aging in Peru
In Peru today, there are more than three million seven hundred thousand people aged 60 years and over. Because the rapid aging of the population is a new phenomenon in the country, concern for the elderly is also a relatively new facet of the national government’s agenda, and so their efforts to offer appropriate services to this age group remain markedly deficient.
In Peru, people are aging in greater numbers and living longer, but the conditions under which this is happening remain extremely precarious. The inequalities inherent in global neoliberalism result in a distribution of social risk so those without family support, financial security and physical autonomy end up being the most vulnerable in Peruvian society. The long-stay residence where I did my fieldwork receives many people in such circumstances. Very often, however, offering them appropriate care comes with enormous challenges, due to the continuing inadequacy of public policies, poor budgetary distribution, and administrative corruption.
Many older adults have lived heartrending lives amid realities that have deprived them of the possibility of affection, the right to care and hope for the future. Their life trajectories reflect the countless circumstances which led to them finding themselves on the margins of society. But that is not the end of the story.
In the wake of so many failures, these men and women are survivors. Today, they stand firm in a society in which, as individuals, they mean very little. Regardless, these men and women continue to weave their actions in a world in which their struggle for affection, their desire to endure, and their goal of being acknowledged as morally valued individuals, speak to a human desire which, to this day, I have been unable to adequately express in words. Their struggle is a struggle for existence in a broken world. And their vitality pushes them on towards a life surrounded by wellbeing, security and affection, beyond the vulnerability they may be experiencing in the present.
Isaías tells me that the mist has reached the corridors of the main pavilion. Everything is still quiet, he says. It’s early. Some of the residents are making their way down to the dining room for breakfast. Isaías prefers to stay in his room until there are fewer people in the dining hall and risk of contagion is reduced. Getting up every day with loneliness stalking the foot of the bed has never been easy for Isaías. At 67, he says his loneliness is his own responsibility because he left his family many years ago. For several months now, he has lived in this shelter, and the institution has a category for people who arrive in the condition in which he arrived: destitute. Here he has found a refuge from the street, the possibility, as he once told me, of not dying “like a stray dog”.
Isaías is not afraid that coronavirus may be shadowing his footsteps. “If it has to be, it will be. I just want a painless death. I have already suffered enough”, he told me one day when we spoke via WhatsApp. I am no longer surprised by such statements: after two years of ethnographic research, I can understand why many people at the shelter are not afraid of death. For some, death means the only way out from a life not worth living without affection. Others, however, see things differently. As staunch believers, they see the end of life as the beginning of a new time, a time of hope and inextinguishable eternity. And there are others for whom death is merely a change in the temporal realm, a new way of inhabiting the universe no longer as physical bodies, but as “true spirits”. I have never managed to understand fully this enigma, but I understand that today all those beliefs concerning life and death, affection and solitude, eternity and God, fulfil a primordial role among the shelter’s residents: they sustain them in the midst of uncertainty, opening up to them the possibility of clinging to something that gives them security when the world beyond the doors of the institution is crumbling. They have always been survivors, perhaps never more so than now.
Marina is afraid. When we talk on the phone, her voice trembles. “We are abandoned in this place, it’s all falling apart and we’ve been forgotten. This is a ship adrift, nobody brings order. It’s ‘every man for himself.’”
Marina’s voice on the phone remains shaky. She has decided to stay in her room, sewing and keeping herself company with the many stuffed animals that lie on her bed. She doesn’t want to see anyone, but she does want to sew. Age has affected Marina’s eyesight, and she can only recognize the people around her from their voices. She has told me many times in the past that these days she lives in the shadows. But sewing calms her, despite her fears. She tells me on the phone: “What would I do if I didn’t sew? I can’t even see, but I do it by touch. I feel good, I feel useful. This is my life, child. In this room, with the world falling apart, sewing, I feel alive”.
At night, Marina calls me again. She tells me that she goes to bed afraid, hoping that tomorrow will bring her some hope. It doesn’t matter how imperceptible that hope might be. She says that any hope would comfort her, and help her get through another day. One more day sewing is one day less.
Edinson has been in the shelter for more than half his life. He started working when he was very young. Before long he was promoted, and before he really noticed, he had become established at the shelter. For Edinson, life at the shelter is like being a fish in water.
In May, after not hearing from him in months, I was able to contact him. I asked him how things were going:
“We are afraid of catching it. The institution is no longer providing us with protective gear. The only preventive measure being taken is hand washing. The residents have not been given masks, gloves, or alcohol. I have been trying to get some, but I have not been able to give those things to them all. We feel really overwhelmed.”
People like Edinson do their work with courage, despite the fact that their jobs are not well paid. Although they work long and exhausting shifts, some only make around 200 US dollars a month. During the pandemic, Edinson and other caregivers are experiencing unprecedented stress. Without the material resources to protect themselves from the virus and with the responsibility of ensuring the well-being of people who are often ill or dependent, Edinson and many of his colleagues do not feel that the institution, society, and the state value their work. In the current context, many caregivers are risking their lives in order to provide comfort to others. A vocation, certainly. Such a sense of vocation, however, ought to be acknowledged not only socially, with applause at nightfall, but also financially, through decent salaries that would enable these caregivers to escape from the twin dynamics of social vulnerability and job insecurity.
Isaías’s, Marina’s, and Edinson’s stories explore the fractures, complexities and subtleties of daily survival in a coronavirus context marked by precarious care, institutional neglect, and affective deprivation. Older adults —and the people who dedicate themselves to care for them in return for a meagre salary— strive to exist despite the unfathomable uncertainty in which their lives, now blighted by COVID-19, unfold. These stories demonstrate that, even in a society defined by inescapable obstacles, one can continue to face adversity and engage in subtle tactics in order to bring greater meaning to the world we inhabit. Beyond the economic vulnerability, stigma or social inequities these people experience, their testimonies reveal that, even in old age and in the context of a global pandemic, one can continue to cling to life. Today, more than ever, Marina, Isaías and Edinson are survivors and their lives must be worthy of having a place in our fractured society.
Magdalena Zegarra Chiappori is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her work is located at the intersections of old age, care, and precarity. This piece was made possible by financial assistance from The Ruth Landes Memorial Research Fund, a programme of The Reed Foundation. With the support of the Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Fellowship, she will be able to finish writing her dissertation on the elderly urban poor who live institutionalized in Lima, Peru.
This post is the latest post in The Age of COVID-19 series, conceived and co-edited by Celeste Pang, Cristina Douglas, Janelle Taylor, and Narelle Warren. Please send your contribution to Narelle.Warren@monash.edu
All contributions in this series will also be published by Somatosphere