Monica Rivero could not turn a blind eye to the red flags hanging from windows and doors in the poorest parts of her native Colombia.
“I quickly learned what they meant,” said Rivero, BMSc’16, MSc’18. “It was their cry out for help. Red flags meant their family was hungry. Suddenly, they were everywhere. It was heartbreaking and eye opening.”
Today, Rivero is leading an effort to alleviate some of the hunger and see those flags lowered one at a time.
Through crowd-sourced donations, the Red Flag Project works with local organizations to buy and deliver groceries to families throughout the city. Rivero estimates a family can be supplied a month’s worth of food for $25.
Project coordinators are working with a number of local partners, including food suppliers who significantly reduced prices; churches, community members and neighbourhood councils who identified recipient families; as well as the national Navy Reserve and Medellin Police Department who help deliver food to dangerous or hard-to-reach areas.
“It’s a tremendous team effort,” said Rivero, a course coordinator and lecturer in embryology and histology at the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine in Sint Maarten.
Following the first cases of COVID-19 in Colombia, the federal government quickly announced a nationwide lockdown. This caused widespread panic among millions of families living in extreme poverty.
With almost 20 per cent of the Colombian population living in poverty – and more than 30 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product made up of informal labour, such as street vendors – tens of thousands have had zero income for weeks.
Rivero, who arrived in London when she was 10, admits she has struggled seeing the plight of those in her home country.
“Honestly, I just remember feeling so guilty. While I childishly complained about having to cook my own food, there were thousands of families just a few miles away who were begging for a meal,” she said. “The red flags made it impossible to ignore what was happening. It was a devastating sight. Every time I saw a red flag, I could see a family suffering from hunger in isolation – it was as if I was sitting at their table.”
While the Colombian government promised aid to those forced to stay home, the system has been overwhelmed as the need long ago surpassed any ability to provide.
While protests have sprung up across the country, Rivero knows the international reaction needs to be one of action.
“There’s no room for anger right now,” Rivero said. “We often excuse our inaction in situations like this by placing all the responsibility on the government and, ultimately, end up feeling angry when they don’t deliver according to our expectations. But the reality is, despite of what our government does or doesn’t do, there’s always something each of us can contribute.
“It’s easy to distance ourselves – physically and mentally – and ignore the unseen victims of this global crisis. We need to come together as humans and stand in solidarity with those in need, recognizing the outcome of this pandemic is in our hands.”