The pandemic has dramatically changed the life of Gladys Medina, a Bolivian activist deeply involved in the community. The amount of work has increased and she hasn’t enough time and therefore struggles. She thinks the lockdown and all the measures have a great impact on peoples’ emotional health.
Being a qualified solicitor in Bolivia, she arrived in London back in 1995, with a visitor visa after travelling to Germany to attend her brother’s wedding. She decided to stay to study English and was during that time (more than two years) that she met the person that today is her husband.
After finishing her studies, she went back to Bolivia for a year, but London was still in her mind and returned to England to do a postgraduate one year course at university, it was called Certificate in Applied Advice Work.
Since then 25 years have passed and she still lives and work in London as an advice worker. At the moment she works for Latin American Women’s Rights Service (Lawrs), providing advice in the EU settlement, and now in employment as well.
Gladys Medina, talked to The Prisma about the pandemic, her fears and worries, her job and how the Latin American community has dealt with the lockdown and its issues.
While you were studying in London, did you also have to work?
I had to work and it was a very difficult time because I wasn’t used to doing the jobs that immigrants do: cleaning private houses and being a waitress. My friends then, a Chilean couple, didn’t understand what I was doing in London when I could return to my country and work as a lawyer. My father is a solicitor too in Bolivia and was very angry with my decision of staying in London.
I studied law in Bolivia but in London I did jobs that I never did in Bolivia. But I wanted to have the experience and more than the language I really wanted to change my environment.
What impact has the pandemic had in your personal life?
It changed dramatically. Since the pandemic started and the government announced the lockdown measures, we are working from home. At the beginning I didn’t feel the effects of the lockdown because I was so busy, for instance, helping our service users to make the application for EU settlement, something which normally we can do in half an hour. Now sometimes an application takes up to hour and a half.
It has been challenging but it’s very draining as well, because you have other appointments and people are waiting for you and you’re still busy with a very simple application. Also I recently had to buy a keyboard because with my laptop I started feeling pain in my shoulders.
In terms of our service, there is an increase in domestic violence issues and dealing with those is very time consuming: it’s not just a simple application. I have to refer them to our solicitors that can see a potential case under their own right because they have suffered domestic violence. So we have to prepare ourselves to receive all that stress from our clients. All of this changed the level of support that we have to provide to our service users a lot.
How you have helped and supported the victims during the pandemic?
In our organization we have specialists in domestic abuse. My job is to do the referrals and deal with the immigration side of that. For example, if a non-European person is a victim of domestic violence and lives in this country as a dependent of any European (her husband or partner, for instance), if they don’t meet certain requirements, they might not be able to remain in the country. But if she/he has been a victim of domestic violence, she/he potentially can make an application as a victim of domestic abuse.
How do you perceive that the community is dealing with the pandemic?
As soon as the pandemic started there was an increase of clients that wanted to claim for benefits, one of them the Universal Credit. Lots of people didn’t know whether employers were doing the right thing, if they were eligible to get the furlough.
So, we have to deal with that increase in demand for information about employment rights and benefits rights. Many people were confused as well when the government announced that the landlords could not evict anyone for three months. And a lot of our service users thought they were exempt to pay rent for three months. That was not the case, so they were misinformed as well.
And still now it is very difficult, although the government implemented the furlough, the job retention scheme now is changing. Before employees were receiving 80% of their salary now that is changing to 70% and 60% and the employer should pay the other percentage.
But in some cases many users say that employers are dismissing them because they cannot afford to pay the other part of their salaries. So there is a constant change of needs and we can’t really cope with it.
You are an activist. How has the coronavirus changed and affected the way you do activism?
It has been a big change because I don’t have time to dedicate the same amount of time that I used to dedicate before, because my work has taken most of my time. So I’m just trying to participate if I have to write something. I can’t go to demonstrations or things like this. But now we have adapted to the new system, we started doing meetings by zoom.
What are the causes that you support?
At the moment I’m just involved with a Bolivian solidarity campaign which is a group that supports Bolivian activists and we’re trying to support people in general. We don’t believe that the government now is doing what they should do and there are so many problems with the Coronavirus. In all of Latin America the coronavirus has been like the door of the window to see other problems, like corruption.
I guess you have family members in Bolivia. What are your worries about the pandemic?
From the very beginning, when the European countries couldn’t control the Coronavirus, I was really afraid of what would happen in Latin America, especially in my country, where we don’t have a very good health system. In Bolivia, at the moment, they can’t control the coronavirus.
Has your family been affected?
No, fortunately none of my close family members have been affected but friends and relatives have passed away and that has been really sad. My cousin’s mother in law passed away because of the virus, and a very close friend from our childhood also passed away. It was really shocking. Another constant worry is my elderly father.
Have you been in contact with somebody who contracted the virus?
At the beginning of the pandemic, in March, I thought I had contracted the virus because one day I got home and I felt that I had a fever and I was coughing. I had to isolate myself. I live with my husband and we had a guest and both of them were at home. But now I don’t think it was the virus.
Some of my colleagues told us that they have contracted the virus. One of them is very young and she said that she was feeling pain in her lungs and couldn’t even talk properly because she was coughing a lot and thought she needed to go to hospital. She was really afraid because at that time everything was collapsing in this country.
How do you think the British government has dealt and is dealing right now with the pandemic?
They had the knowledge of the experience in Italy and China, so they could have prevented and worked before the problem started in this country, before things escalated. Their response was very late.
Also, there was a lot of confusion. For example, about when to wear a face covering. Now for instance we must do so in shops, supermarkets, public transport… But at the beginning the government said that masks didn’t do anything to prevent the virus. So mixed messages didn’t help us.
Do you think the British government protects the Latin American community in the UK?
I think there were no measures to protect people, to protect workers. That’s why, for example, so many [bus] drivers died, because they haven’t protected our community properly.
The Latin American community works in the cleaning sector.
We had reports of people complaining that they don’t have the implements to protect themselves.
People that continued to work should have been the first people that the government protected, but they haven’t done so.
They didn’t protect the workers from the NHS, so cleaners were likely the last workers they thought would need protection. Therefore I don’t think the government has protected the community as they should.