A Mile-Long Line for Free Food in Geneva, One of World’s Richest Cities

The Swiss city is best known for bankers, watchmakers and U.N. officials. But the virus has forced thousands from Geneva’s underclass to line up for hours for food aid.

Patrick Kingsley, an international correspondent, and Laetitia Vancon, a photojournalist, are driving more than 3,700 miles to explore the reopening of the European continent after coronavirus lockdowns. Read all their dispatches.

By 4 a.m., more than 100 people stood waiting in the darkness outside the ice-hockey stadium.

By 7 a.m., the line stretched for more than a mile, heading north to the river, then west down the riverbank, then all around a sports center parking lot, then past the squash courts, the boxing club, the theater, under the Pont de Saint-Georges, before doubling back up a riverside corniche.

By early afternoon last Saturday, nearly 3,000 residents of Geneva, one of the world’s richest cities, had filtered through the stadium to receive a food parcel worth about $25. Some carried babies. Some were in wheelchairs. Some had waited for more than six hours.

In medical terms, Geneva has not been as gripped by the coronavirus crisis as other areas of Western Europe. In the city and its surrounding suburbs, fewer than 300 residents have died in a population of half a million.

But in economic terms the crisis has been ruinous for Geneva’s underclass — the undocumented and underpaid workers often forgotten about in a city better known for its bankers, watchmakers and U.N. officials.

Thousands of people working in the shadows of the Swiss economy lost their jobs overnight in March, as hotels, restaurants and families fired their undocumented cleaners and maids in response to a lockdown enforced by the central Swiss government.

Unable to draw on state support, most were then forced to rely on charity to survive. Ultimately, that demand led volunteers and city officials to set up a weekly food bank at the ice-hockey stadium near the river.

“If you wanted to pictogram Geneva, what would you put?” said Laura Cotton, a Swiss-British hospital decorator who volunteers at the stadium. “Money, money, money. And, OK — cheese and chocolate.”

The coronavirus infection rate has plummeted in Geneva in recent weeks, allowing the authorities to markedly ease social distancing restrictions.

Sukhee Shinendorj, a 38-year-old from Mongolia, was already living on the cusp of poverty even before coronavirus reached Switzerland. He earned about $1,600 a month as a restaurant cleaner — barely enough to feed his two children in expensive Geneva.

Then in March the restaurant where he worked shut, prompting his boss to fire him. Now Mr. Shinendorj fears losing his apartment, and relies on the stadium handouts for food.

On Saturday, he woke up at 1 a.m., and walked two miles to the stadium to try and beat the line. But there were already several people waiting.

Behind him in the darkness, a giant Rolex logo shone from the watchmaker’s headquarters across the street.

The scenes at the stadium have been jarring for some Genevans, forced for the first time to recognize profound social inequalities they previously ignored or dismissed.

Geneva is home to several arms of the United Nations, including the World Health Organization, the International Organization for Migration and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. But the ethos of those institutions has not been entirely embedded within the city at large.

While Swiss citizens and businesses received financial support during the lockdown from the authorities, undocumented foreign workers were left to fend for themselves.

Even foreigners with official work permits were wary of applying for state help, fearful that it would make it harder for them to renew their permits in the future. Others said they were simply unaware of the possibility.

Nubiany Rocha, a pregnant Brazilian nanny, arrived at the stadium at 5 a.m., pushing her 8-month-old daughter’s carriage. Ms. Rocha had a valid work permit until 2022, she said, but didn’t know that might make her eligible for state aid.

A group of seasoned activists first spotted Geneva’s need for the food aid. In late March, campaigners from Caravane De Solidarité, a group originally founded in response to the 2015 refugee crisis, began handing out food in the street.

But that led to the arrest of one of the group’s leaders, for flouting social distancing regulations.

After a public backlash, the city authorities stepped in, permitting several groups to distribute food from several disused schools. But as the lines outside the schools kept lengthening, it was clear a bigger venue was needed.

So in early May, city officials allowed the volunteers to base themselves at the Patinoire des Vernets, an ice rink just outside the city center.

The international aid group Doctors Without Borders has joined the effort, bringing its expertise from countless war zones to help manage the operation.

“It’s very strange,” said Dr. Roberta Petrucci, a medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, who lives nearby.

“I never thought I’d see this a few hundred meters from where I live,” said Dr. Petrucci, who is more accustomed to working in crises in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Congo and Liberia.

The worsening impact of the economic collapse on the city’s poor is illustrated by the number of food parcels given away at the stadium last Saturday — 300 more than the previous week.

At a nearby homeless shelter, set up by city authorities at the start of the crisis, staff members said they initially welcomed people who had already been living in the streets. But now they are sheltering a new kind of visitor: People who’ve lost their homes as a result of the economic side-effects of the pandemic.

States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.

Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.

The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.

Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.

Numbers are still small — only about 20 people fall into this category, or 10 percent of the residents at the shelter. But most of them arrived in the last two weeks.

The stadium handouts also tell a more hopeful story about the city, said Charlemagne Hernandez, a co-founder of Caravane De Solidarité.

The vast operation, which relies almost entirely on volunteers and donations, is the product of decades of activism in the city, which has created a more tolerant culture than in other Swiss cantons, Mr. Hernandez said.

On a Friday evening, the donors to the food bank included some of the city’s wealthiest residents, who brought their donations to the stadium in the trunks of their Porsches, Teslas and Mercedes.

“It has something to do with the humanitarian tradition in Geneva,” Mr. Hernandez said. “That’s what we do better than any other Swiss city.”

As he left the stadium, shortly after 8 a.m., Mr. Shinendorj, the Mongolian cleaner, had a bag of food, but still no job.

He said he planned to spend the next 12 hours walking through the city, going door to door to ask for work.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/30/world/europe/geneva-coronavirus-reopening.html

World news – A Mile-Long Line for Free Food in Geneva, One of World’s Richest Cities

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