Stranded Colombians plead for COVID-19 airlift out of Brazil

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SAO PAULO (AP) — Surrounded by boxes, a pile of rice packages and mattresses, José Ávila Saavedra sat on the floor with a thousand-yard stare Wednesday. For two weeks he has lived inside Sao Paulo’s international airport, his life one interminable layover.

Saavedra and more than 200 other Colombians are camping out in the airport in hopes that their plight will prod Colombian authorities in Brazil to charter a humanitarian flight home. Anything to get them back to Colombia, and far from Latin America’s coronavirus hot spot.

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“We don’t have money or anything to do in Brazil. We want to ask Colombia’s president to please help us. We’re only eating thanks to donations,” Saavedra said.

Saavedra had sold clothes in Sao Paulo, earning enough to support his wife, nephew and 2-year-old daughter. Then, Sao Paulo state officials ordered a halt to nonessential commerce as part of a lockdown to control the spread of the virus, and he lost his means to obtain and sell merchandise.

Most of the stranded Colombians lay asleep near the airport’s check-in area Wednesday, a few of them on mattresses and others atop cloth sheets or flattened cardboard boxes. Some stretched out on the bare floor.

Those who were awake said they don’t have the more than $400 for a flight to Colombia, after having lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Retail jobs and restaurant work disappeared, they said.

Between March and April, Brazil’s economy shed more than a million jobs from the formal sector, according to government data published Wednesday. Informal job losses in the two months have yet to be reported by the national statistics agency, but are expected to be similarly disastrous.

“What money we had, we used to pay rent,” Saavedra said. “Now we’re out on the street and we want to go home to be with our families.”

The Colombian Embassy in the capital, Brasilia, said in a statement that it had helped 346 Colombians get home on three commercial flights since the onset of the pandemic, but each passenger paid his or her own way. It said Colombia’s migration rules prohibit the government from paying for anyone’s flight.

“Considering the risk of being in a non-controlled environment like an airport, a transfer to a municipal hostel has been offered. However, our fellow citizens have declined,” the statement said.

The airport said in a statement that it was “monitoring the situation.”

Sao Paulo is the epicenter of the new coronavirus in Brazil, which is by far the hardest hit country in Latin America. Sao Paulo state alone has reported 89,000 cases and 6,700 deaths. By contrast, the entire country of Colombia has reported roughly one quarter the number of cases and just 776 deaths.

The Colombians in the airport are in three separate areas, where they are grouped together in clear violation of social distancing recommendations. Federal prosecutors in Sao Paulo said in a statement that their condition represents a “serious case of humanitarian vulnerability.”

Astrid Serna looked at her cellphone’s screen while watching her 3-year-old daughter from the corner of her eye. The toddler was wrapped in a blanket and lying on a mattress.

Serna said she arrived to Brazil two years ago and also made a living selling clothes informally until the pandemic pushed her into unemployment.

“The only thing we’re asking for is help from our government. We’re Colombians,” Serna said. “They need to understand that if we had money, we wouldn’t be here.” ___

Associated Press writer Marcelo de Sousa reported this story from Rio de Janeiro and AP video journalist Tatiana Pollastri reported in Sao Paulo.

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