Bogotá's Cacophony Is Hushed by Virus as Congested Streets Empty Out - Press "Enter" to skip to content

Bogotá’s Cacophony Is Hushed by Virus as Congested Streets Empty Out

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The typical Bogotá morning starts at dawn and quickly becomes an eight million-person roar.

There is the whoosh-squoosh of the juice vendor squashing her oranges on the corner, the growl of a hundred motorbikes, the wheeze of a thousand lumbering buses.

There are the salesmen barking on their bullhorns, the protesters shouting in the plaza, the drum squads and the never-ending honks and squeals of what has been called the most congested city in the world.

But after Mayor Claudia López declared Colombia’s sprawling, mountainous, mural-covered capital under quarantine and ordered people to stay at home, something else arrived.

Or if total silence eluded certain corners, there was at least a new soundscape, a refitted rhythm for an extraordinary time.

Instead of the thunder of motors climbing into the hills, there was the scrape of plates in the neighbor’s kitchen. The clink of wind chimes. The gush of a sink. The occasional ominous scream of an ambulance. Two people making love. Tina Turner on someone’s speakers, with amateur vocal accompaniment.

“What’s love got to do with it?”

Outside, at night, leaves crinkled under the feet of a few solitary dog walkers. Footsteps echoed like boots after a snowfall.

Like the rest of Latin America, people here for weeks had been watching at a relatively safe distance as the rest of the world convulsed amid the onslaught of the new coronavirus.

But now the region is bracing to feel its full impact. Bogotá’s lockdown began on March 20. Colombia on Sunday said it had more than 700 cases, with at least 10 deaths. Cases in neighboring Ecuador now near 2,000, and in Brazil, top 4,000.

With millions of people in Latin America working in the informal sector, with no guaranteed wages and no benefits, there is widespread acknowledgment that many here do not have the means to survive weeks under lockdown. And there is deep fear across the region that the associated economic and social disruption could far outlast the virus itself.

As residents of Bogotá tried to digest that reality, the hush unnerved some of its more noise-hardened citizens, the strange emptiness a suggestion that something sinister was on its way.

“Makes me anxious,” said Juan León, 50, a gas station attendant coming off a night shift at the pumps. He’d spent the overnight hours alone, fearful of a robbery.

Others found comfort in the quiet, a welcome stillness ahead of a coming attack.

“Silence in itself does not exist,” said Enmanuel Rivero, 25, a violinist in a black jacket standing with his dog, Dante, in the La Soledad neighborhood on a recent night.

Mr. Rivero pointed out the rustle of the trees, “the soft whisper of the breeze.”

“You hear the call of nature,” he said. The city’s lowered voice “calms me,” he added. “It reminds me of my little hometown.”

The next morning, La Soledad, a middle-class neighborhood split by a normally bustling strip of greenery, was so quiet you could hear the water rushing in a nearby river. A few people in white masks waited outside the locked gates of a supermarket, friendly but nervous.

Above the store, a woman stood in the window of an apartment on the fourth floor, peering down at the near empty street.

“We’ll hug each other again,” said a large sign hanging in her window.

On the street, an enormous two-wheeled recycling cart, like a giant’s wheelbarrow, cut the quiet.

Tika-tika-tika-tika went the wheels on the asphalt. Clunk-clunk went the wagon as it hit the ground.

A small man emerged from behind the cart and introduced himself as Jorge Paez, 58, a trash collector.

The quarantine had been problematic for Mr. Paez, who gathers cardboard and other items and sells them to a recycler. On a good day he brings in $3, buys some food and sleeps in a shelter.

But when he went to sell his cardboard recently, the recycler was closed.

He had no idea how he would continue to eat.

“I am at great risk because of my age, but I have to go out to make a living,” he said. He motioned to another older man on the street, shuffling along in worn clothes.

“We are all at risk,” Mr. Paez said. “And we’re putting others at risk.”

On another empty street, a male voice spilled onto the sidewalk from behind someone’s red door. It was Iván Duque, the president, on the television, trying to soothe the country.

He was extending the quarantine to the whole nation, he said, until at least mid-April.

He urged people to wash their hands “constantly,” and for now, to stop hugging their grandparents.

“These pandemics,” he said gravely, “tend to grow exponentially.”

Later, near dark, a hacking cough rippled through an empty park.

Ack! Ack! Ack! Akchoo!

“I’m good, thanks,” said the owner of the coughs, an artisan named Julio César, 60, who normally sells soap carvings in the street. “I’ve been sleeping on the street for days,” he hollered across the road, “because I have no money and no one is buying.”

He coughed.

“But I’m OK,” he said, coughing again. “I’m going to be OK.”

The city’s silence turned out to be a fragile phenomenon.

The next day, there was broad confusion over whether the citywide quarantine was still in place, and when exactly the countrywide quarantine would begin.

Bogotá began to boom again.

There were long lines outside grocery stores and banks, and some people crowded into buses, trying to get to work.

And in the city center, at Plaza de Bolívar, home to the enormous, regal congressional building, a crowd formed, everyone packed together, some wearing masks, to express their fears about the coming days, and to demand help.

“We’re hungry,” they shouted. “We’re hungry!”


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