COVID-19 and Next Steps

My last blog post was filled with excitement and eagerness for our trip to Cochabamba and outlined all the things I hoped to accomplish while in country. It is with a saddened heart I say our trip was cancelled due to fears of COVID-19, the widespread virus leaving unprecedented destruction in its wake. Just four days prior our departure date, all Pitt affiliated spring break trips were cancelled. Needless to say, I faced deep disappointment and was upset and frustrated about getting the news so abruptly, but in hindsight I am grateful. For context, at the time, South America only had about three cases in Brazil, but it has rapidly spread across the globe in the past couple weeks. Despite this shocking news, the University of Pittsburgh is reimbursing all students for the program cost and still giving CEOLI the predetermined program fee meant to compensate them for allowing us to visit. Simply put, I am proud to go to a university that puts students and our overseas clients ahead of monetary benefit. 

Locations with confirmed COVID-19 cases as of 12:00 p.m. on March 24, 2020 (CDC)

One of the pillars of service-learning is reciprocity, or the idea that both parties must gain something of value. Our Global Service Learning course, in particular, fulfills this principle in a way where the students gain the experience of consulting with an international non-profit while simultaneously developing transferable skills for future opportunities and a deeper understanding of that particular country and culture. The clients, on the other hand, gain tangible deliverables that continue to be built upon over ten years developed by sets of fresh eyes from a United States university. However, as we know, our trip did not go as planned and we were unable to visit Cochabamba. Our inability to travel has caused ramifications for both the students and our client, CEOLI. 

Not travelling to Bolivia has a detrimental effect on our project deliverables. The purpose of spending a week abroad was to actively research and gather observations about CEOLI’s daily operations and how to seamlessly integrate our outcomes in the context of the organization. I am part of a subgroup on our team that focuses on the development of a Juice Stand that would serve CEOLI students’ families, the community, construction workers building a light rail outside the organization’s doors, and future commuters. Our goal was to survey possible consumers about what types of food to serve, explore the markets for supplies, and interview local food establishments about the industry in Bolivia. Overall, we wanted a deeper understanding about CEOLI and Bolivia. Without this context, both the quality and the quantity of our deliverables suffer which affects both parties. 

In addition to the effects on the project, the cancelled trip also means I cannot fulfill the personal goals I have outlined for myself. As a traveler, I was eager to navigate ambiguity in Bolivia and be forced outside of my comfort zone with cultural differences, language barriers, and lifestyle disparities. It’s an unfortunate and unprecedented situation, but we must learn to be flexible and adaptable especially in such a rapidly changing world. 

Throughout the course of the semester, we have discussed the importance of transferrable skills in the context of answering the question, “what are we taking away from this experience?” Transferrable skills, however, don’t typically include technical skills such as coding, but rather those referred to as “soft skills”. Two important transferrable skills are flexibility and adaptability. While in Bolivia, these would have been fostered from pushing through cultural differences, such as spending a considerable amount of time developing a relationship with our Bolivian counterparts before discussing business matters. Instead, these two skills were tested in our response to learning that the travel portion of the program was cancelled. After hearing the news, our instructors suggested that we stay in Pittsburgh until the Tuesday of our spring break to spend the Monday and Tuesday on video calls with our client. With full transparency, I was not as flexible nor adaptable as I would like to be. When our professors presented that option, I immediately was concerned about the additional four to five days on campus without other students and the difficult task of finding a way home to New Jersey in the middle of the week. Rather, the group collectively decided to sacrifice weekends and nights to spend additional time working on the project deliverables. 

As they say, everything is clearer in hindsight. Reflecting upon my reaction and my group’s reaction, it was rather difficult to be completely flexible and adaptable in our situation. In my case, I have been looking forward to this experience since the beginning of my freshman year after hearing raving testimonials from friends I respect and admire, so there has been a lot of build up to the travel portion. And in the case of the Bolivia group, we began the semester unsure about whether we can travel due to political unrest, then as the weeks continued we were assured there was no danger and we can travel, but then the trip was cancelled only a few days before departing. After riding a rollercoaster of go/no-go, I had little interest of staying additional days when I could be with family and friends. However, now having time to process the unforeseen change of plans and seeing how the past couple weeks unraveled, I wish I had reconsidered the original option of spending Monday and Tuesday on video calls.

Now, the rest of the semester will be conducted online, we gained an extra week of spring break so professors can redirect plans, and COVID-19 is widespread and growing. It will now be exponentially more difficult to conduct group work, nevertheless set up a video conference with CEOLI and other partners we would like to speak to in Bolivia. Knowing all this information and the gravity of the global landscape after-the-fact, spending an extra four measly days in Pittsburgh to contact our client does not seem as cumbersome as I once thought. As a result of our decision, we must face the possibility that we may have no contact with our counterparts in Bolivia for the remainder of the semester, making our deliverables even more difficult to complete. I suppose this acts as a lesson to remain more adaptable and to attempt to envision the bigger picture over the current hurdle. 

Despite the disappointment from the travel portion of the program being cancelled, COVID-19 has a far more devastating impact across the globe than our cancelled trip. The coronavirus is universally an unprecedented situation and a highly contagious virus, but it’s impact may have some differences in Bolivia and the United States. 

Over the course of the semester, my group and I have gotten well-acquainted with Bolivia, especially from our thorough preliminary research for our first presentation. Bolivia has a long history of political instability which, in turn, has resulted in poor infrastructure and a resentment towards government. Currently, Bolivia is ranked one of the poorest countries in South America, meaning it has limited disposable income and the limited power to gain access to capital through treasury bonds. In other words, they may have greater difficulties in relief efforts for its citizens. This translates into supplying hospitals with the equipment needed, testing citizens for the virus, and assisting local businesses that may need aid. The cost of these reparations are expensive. The U.S. has plans to inject trillions of dollars into the stock market and many companies are pushing to produce more ventilators to support breathing for those with severe symptoms of the virus. However, a nation like Bolivia may not have the funds to pay for such sudden and costly relief. 

As read from the Culture Smart book, many people in Bolivia have a resentment towards government which leads to disregarding law and higher authority. In fact, dodging taxes is viewed as admirable. A few days ago, the Bolivian government announced a nationwide 14-day total quarantine to curb the spread of COVID-19, leaving only essential businesses open. On one hand, citizens may not feel obliged to abide by the quarantine due to a disregard for higher authority. However, on the other hand, Bolivia is much more community and relationship oriented, whereas the United States is on the extreme end of individual oriented. The U.S. has been having a difficult time getting people, especially the youth, to follow orders to stay at home, likely caused by the culture of individualization. Bolivia, in contrast, may be more conscious of spreading the virus to the elderly and immunocompromised. 

The United States, furthermore, has largely shifted from the typical workplace to a work from home environment, but Bolivia’s job landscape is much different. Bolivia does not have large companies, and their economy is mainly comprised of raw meat, agriculture, and service. As the effects of the coronavirus has impacted workplaces, these industries don’t typically have the ability for employees to work from home. Overall, COVID-19 similarly affects people worldwide, but there are some impacts that affect nations differently. 

In terms of our project, my group and I continue to work hard to produce our deliverables, but the effect of the coronavirus significantly disrupts our project. With their total quarantine, the people we intended to speak with may not have access to stable internet connection in their home, and it is possible we may not directly converse with our counterparts in Cochabamba. Even after we provide our deliverables and recommendations to the client, CEOLI ultimately will likely have more pressing issues than the ones we have outlined, such as paying employees, generating short-term revenue, and getting students back in classes.

The past couple weeks have been a global rollercoaster with unprecedented challenges. I hope we are all doing our part in slowing the spread of the virus and staying healthy during this pandemic. And I suppose things rarely go as planned, so we must learn to be flexible and adaptable especially in trying times.