By Monserrat Sepúlveda, Santiago, Chile
This coronavirus pandemic seems to be showing all of us just how vulnerable people are. Here at home in Chile, I think about one person in particular: Anita. She works as a housekeeper and there is so much about her I wish you knew. We could have a 6-hour zoom chat just to talk about her extraordinary life and it wouldn’t be enough. But there are three things ,in particular, you should definitely know about Anita.
The first thing is that Anita will continue talking to you even if you are gone from the room. I’ve tested it many times. Some weeks ago, Anita was talking to me about the price of sugar in her neighborhood store. I left the room for at least fifteen minutes and when I came back, lo and behold, she was still talking as if I had never left.
The second thing you should know is that she’s 75 years old so if she tells you she wants to watch her novela, you better run and buy her a TV. Mind you, she won’t like it if it’s a flat modern TV, no sire. You will need to get her an old heavy TV with five buttons and no remote.
The third thing you should know about Anita is that no one, during the 59 years she’s worked as a housekeeper, made sure she signed a contract. She has always worked informally so Anita has no retirement savings and almost no safety net except for the $110 USD a month she receives from the government. She simply cannot afford to retire or take time off when she is sick. She also cannot stay at home for her own safety during this COVID-19 pandemic and will insist on going to work.
That is who I worry about the most these days. I bet we all have an Anita in our lives; someone who is in such a difficult situation, they might have to expose themselves to the virus even though they know that’s a big risk to take. Perhaps, in your life that person is you. If so, please know that I and many others are thinking of you and sending all our love.
In Chile, people like my friend Anita have very few options. Many of our elderly receive the $100 USD minimum pension that Anita does, which isn’t enough, so they are dependent on their work to make it through the month. In this scenario, our government is distributing $65 USD as relief funds to the most vulnerable 60% of the population but that amount won’t last for very long at all. In any case, because of a loophole in the law, Anita won’t be receiving those funds.
I spoke to Anita some days ago. I want you to know that so far she is doing well and, in spite of everything, she is still as joyful and talkative as ever. She was was worried though about three of her friends who are also in their 70s. They recently lost their jobs and had to move in together to save some money. As a result, a homeless family moved into one of their empty homes. Her friend cannot afford to hire a lawyer so she’s resigned herself to losing her home. Anita accompanied her friend back to the house to see if she could get some of her things back. The family that is now living there was very apologetic. They knew that what they had done was not ok but, what option did they have? With two kids and a baby on the way that was the only option they had in the midst of a pandemic. They handed Anita’s friend her family photos through the window.
Anita told me she feels lucky because her employer insisted she stay at home while continuing to pay her wages. Her friends did not have that option. She owns the property where she lives, and has the support of her family. Although she worries that her daughter, who has had to continue going to work, might infect her, she knows that it’s a necessary risk if they want to continue providing Anita’s grandchildren with a good life.
Now more than even we need to remember that in these times of need people like Anita will need extra support. We cannot abandon each other when we need it the most and there are too many people who need that extra help. For now, the best we can all do is stay at home so that Anita may soon go back to work to provide for her family, watch her novela in the old giant TV and talk to you endlessly into the night.